The Invention of America

This Fourth of July I want to revisit an article I wrote nineteen years ago on the significance of technological development on the gaining of American Independence. This was originally published in the Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter, Volume 22, Number 3, Fall 2001.

“But the question, who commenced the Revolution? is as difficult as that of the first inventors of a thousand good things…Who invented the steamboat? Was it Gerbert, the Marquis of Worcester, Newcomen, Savary, Papin, Fitch, Fulton…the fact is, that one new idea leads to another, that to a third, and so on through a course of time until some one, with whom no one of these ideas was original, combines all together, and produces what is justly called a new invention.”

Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, 3 March 1818

It might be surprising to some to read Thomas Jefferson, the foremost proponent of republican virtue through agriculture, comparing the process of the American Revolution with the technological invention of the steam engine. While it often plays a supporting role to the political and social movements of the 18th century which influenced America’s revolutionary movement, the affect of technology’s development deserves closer study in the day to day interpretation of the process of becoming Americans. At least one historian has argued that the single most important point when considering the history of early American technology is that its development occurred simultaneously with the American Revolution. Historic trades in museums have, for a long time, spoken to the influence of technology on the events that shaped the lives of 18th century Americans during the revolutionary period. Perhaps trade shops represent the most efficacious locations for the telling of the story of technology’s force, but that does not mean it should be excluded from discussion at other historic sites as well. Before one can determine the true impact of technological innovation and proliferation on the American Revolution, one must first understand how 18th century individuals understood the technology of their day.

The language that defined 18th century technology included such phrases as mechanic arts, manufactures, useful knowledge, industry and a variety of other similar terms. Occasionally one would have even heard the term engineer applied to an individual skilled in industrial arts. The pursuit of knowledge, be it mechanical (industry) or theoretical (science), tended to be considered the same useful knowledge. Today, of course, the term technology is used to describe the “tools, skills, and knowledge needed to make and do things.” It is important to note that this definition takes into account knowledge and individuals skilled enough to put that knowledge to work. This knowledge, or process, brings us once again to Thomas Jefferson’s comparison of the fomenting of the American Revolution to the technological process of invention. The celebrated architect Benjamin Latrobe, upon being referred to as an engineer, lamented that he was being deemed the same as “an overseer of men who dig.” Latrobe’s negative viewpoint of the value of the engineer notwithstanding, the importance of technology (or mechanical arts, etc.) was well appreciated among the Founding Fathers. A brief examination of the events leading up to and following the American Revolution demonstrates this clearly.

During the time period in which the American Revolution transpired (1763-1787) some of the most groundbreaking technological innovations of all time occurred. A sampling of these advances includes the mechanization of the textile industry, canal building in Britain, steam engine development and radical developments in the iron industry. The political leaders of Britain’s American colonies keenly observed these technological developments and their implications for economic prosperity and independence. Benjamin Franklin, in 1743, initiated the American Philosophical Society with his Proposal for Promoting Useful Knowledge that argued for, among other things, the development of technology to drain land and dispense water. Thirty years later the American colonies, in their effort to express their displeasure at British taxation, formed non-importation and non-consumption agreements. The obvious result of these agreements was the limiting of importations of British luxury goods, but there was another important intended consequence. In order for the American colonies to unburden themselves from their unhealthy (and perceived un-republican) addiction to British goods, they would need to encourage the development of technology and industry in the colonies themselves. This encouragement was given by organizations like the Boston Society for Encouraging Industry and Employing the Poor, the New York Society for the Promotion of Arts, Agriculture, and Oeconomy, the United Company of Philadelphia for Promoting American Manufactures and the Williamsburg Manufactory. The United Company of Philadelphia, presided over by Dr. Benjamin Rush, employed over five hundred people in the production of various textile commodities. It was not only private organizations that encouraged the development of pre-revolutionary America’s industrial base, colonial legislatures also provided a variety of stimuli to American production, including bounties and tax exemptions. Inhabitants of Lancaster, Pennsylvania answered the call for domestic production and created nearly 30000 yards of linen during 1770. Benjamin Rush, in a paper presented to his United Company in 1775, argued that the encouragement of American manufactures and new technology were crucial to an independent America.

This call for the increased proliferation of technology was one heard in Virginia as well. Virginia’s patriot organizers publicly called for the encouragement of manufactures in Virginia as early as 1769. Following the dissolution of the House of Burgesses in May of that year, leading patriots met to draft their protests in the form of a non-importation agreement. This accord urged Virginians to “promote and encourage Industry” as well as discouraged the colonists from their obsession for British “Luxury and Extravagance.” The former Burgesses also called on a halt to the killing of sheep, whose valuable coat would be needed for the production of native woolens. On the heels of this agreement, Virginia’s patriot propagandists quickly began to publicly encourage the proliferation of American industry in the Virginia Gazette. Calls for the encouragement of industry were heard in later versions of the agreements and when the Convention of 1774 met, they determined to cultivate “a proper Basis for Manufacturers of all Sorts, which we will endeavor to encourage throughout this Colony to the utmost of our Abilities.” The propagation of new technology, and the people skilled in it, was deemed essential by these Virginians in order to curb Virginia’s reliance on British manufactures. Virginians were not alone in their understanding of the importance of domestic manufacturing. Alexander Hamilton wrote in 1774 “if…manufactures should once be established among us…they will pave the way…to the future grandeur and glory of America, and…render it still securer against the encroachments of tyranny.”

The Second Virginia Convention of 1775 continued to demonstrate the importance of technology to the patriot leadership. March of 1775 saw the convention appointing a committee to “prepare a Plan for the Encouragement of Arts & Manufactures in this Colony.” Among the prominent men appointed to this committee were Edmund Pendleton, Patrick Henry and George Washington. The plan developed by the committee included the encouragement of textile manufactures, gunpowder and nail making. The committee’s members also resolved that Virginia should promote the production of steel, paper and glass. The Convention’s attendees recognized that none of these lofty resolves could be implemented without technology, in the form of tools, practitioners and process.

Once the actual shooting war with Britain erupted, the discussion of the need for American technological advancement and manufacturing ceased being academic; it became essential. The Continental Congress rushed through legislation, penned by John Adams, impressing on every colony the importance of establishing organizations for the improvement of American manufactures. While some non-British goods were imported to America during the war, British blockades made it difficult for those imports to supply the new nation on their own. While the new nation needed domestic production of virtually every item, textiles were of vital importance to the military and civilian populations alike. Domestic textile production increased dramatically, in spite of the fact that most of it occurred in the homes of individuals rather than in large textile mills. One Maryland gentleman announced that he had established sixteen looms in a single home, ready to meet the needs of his state. Williamsburg, Virginia established a “Manufacturing Society” which focused on the production of textiles, and advertised often in the Virginia Gazette during the war years for apprentices and material. The Virginia Convention, in May 1776, also resolved to provide subsidies for private ironworks and create a public iron foundry. During the course of the war itself, production in America increased dramatically as the nation turned from the production of raw materials (pig and bar iron) to finished products like cannons, ammunition and firearms. At the height of the war, George Washington believed that the “coup de grace to the British hope of subjugating the continent” could only occur if the United States could effectively encourage domestic manufactures.

Inevitably, conflict leads to strides in the arena of technology and the American Revolution was no different. The Revolution provided for the experimentation of Americans with new forms of technology previously unheard of. Technological innovators like David Rittenhouse and David Bushnell developed a means of rifling cannons, telescopic sights, enclosed ammunition compartments in firearms and experimented with the use of offensive submersibles. The war also encouraged a fourteen-year-old Massachusetts boy to start his own nail making business in a shed on his parent’s farm. His name: Eli Whitney.

The turbulent years preceding the Revolution found colonists critically examining their political, social and economic relationship to Great Britain. This relationship was firmly rooted in an economic system which prevented the encouragement of technological development and proliferation in the colonies. In order for the American colonies to truly separate themselves from Great Britain, they first had to be in a position to provide those manufactures and technology for themselves. The Founding Fathers recognized this early and attempted to remedy the situation by encouraging technological development. America’s gaining of independence created further debate about the role of technology and manufacturing in the future of the new nation. Disagreements between Republicans and Federalists are beyond the scope of this brief essay, but suffice it to say that technology continued to concern America’s leadership as the new nation emerged. No better evidence of this can be found than President George Washington’s First Annual Address to Congress in January 1790:

“…The advancement of Agriculture, Commerce and Manufactures by all proper means, will not I trust need recommendation. But I cannot forbear intimating to you the expediency of giving effectual encouragement as well to the introduction of new and useful inventions from abroad, as to the exertions of skill and genius in producing them at home…”

Once again we return to Mr. Jefferson’s question: Who commenced the Revolution ? It would appear that the list of names should include the likes of Eli Whitney, David Rittenhouse, David Bushnell and the countless thousands of nameless tradespeople who assisted in the creation of a technologically independent America.

© Noel B. Poirier, 2020.


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