By Chaim M. Rosenberg
Despite the Declaration of Independence, the United States continued for many years to rely on manufactured goods from abroad. As a young merchant based in Boston, Francis Cabot Lowell imported silks from China, cotton textiles from India, and wines, sherry and brandy from Europe. Lowell and his associates built the imposing India Wharf and its warehouses to handle the expanding trade with the Orient. The French Revolution followed by wars at sea and on the Continent, as well as the Embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812 greatly disrupted international trade, making the United States hostage to conflicts abroad. Analyzing these events, Francis Cabot Lowell concluded that the United States needed to free itself of its dependence on foreign goods by becoming a manufacturing nation, using American entrepreneurship and finance, the power of its fast-flowing rivers, its own raw materials and the skills of its workforce.
During a trip to Great Britain from 1810 to 1812, Francis Cabot Lowell saw first-hand the tremendous changes brought about by the ingenious water-powered spinning and weaving machines. He resolved to bring the industrial revolution to America, starting with the manufacture of textiles using cotton grown in the American South. On his return to Boston he raised the capital, erected a dam, built a factory and designed the machinery to suit the conditions at home. By 1814 the Boston Manufacturing Company on the Charles River at Waltham started to turn out cotton fabrics as good and as cheap as imports. The Boston Manufacturing Company was efficient enough to withstand the dumping of British textiles on the American market at the end of the War of 1812.
Francis Cabot Lowell died in 1817 at age forty-two and did not live long enough to see his dream fulfilled. His associates expanded the manufacture of textiles to the powerful Merrimac River. The great industrial town of Lowell (named in honor of Francis Cabot Lowell) was based on the Waltham model. Lowell's factory system for cotton textiles was applied to shoes, metalware and all manner of manufactured goods. Within forty years New England moved from trade to domestic manufacture. By the close of the nineteenth century, the factory system had spread to the South and the West and America had become the manufacturing colossus of the world. Offering higher salaries, these efficient factories attracted millions of immigrants seeking a better life in America.
America began to shed its factories after World War II as its lead in textiles and footwear was rapidly eroded by low-wage factories abroad. By the close of the 20th century these once great American industries were moribund. The decay of America's industrial base has extended to automobiles, refrigerators, radios, television sets and even electronics. We have become a vast service economy and are again depended on China and other countries to make our clothes, shoes and other consumer goods. This transformation has resulted in a vast trade imbalance and massive borrowing, again undermining American self-reliance and security.
Francis Cabot Lowell showed two centuries ago that determination, innovation, a brilliant business plan and a dollop of luck could overcome opposition and transform the American economy from trade to domestic manufacture, from dependence to self-reliance. It is time again to follow Lowell's example to invent the machinery and employ new sources of power to manufacture goods at home, cheap in price and excellent in quality, and to restore America to industrial independence.
Chaim M. Rosenberg is author of The Life and Times of Francis Cabot Lowell, 1775-1817.