The antebellum era was a time not only of profound political change but also of great technological and economic innovation. The Industrial Revolution, which began in Europe in the 1700s, had produced new inventions and methods of production. American inventors transformed the U.S. economy with new innovations of their own. This rapid development of manufacturing and improved farming had such a profound effect on American society that historians often refer to it as the Market Revolution.
The first major innovation in the Market Revolution was Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793. For most of the 1700s, Americans had lacked cotton, despite the fact that they had waterways for transport and the ability to construct textile factories. Southern planters had tried to grow cotton, but they had abandoned it for rice and tobacco because cotton had proved too labor-intensive: it took one slave an entire day to separate just one pound of cottonseeds from the fibers.
The cotton gin revolutionized cotton harvesting by separating the cottonseeds and fibers automatically—it allowed one slave to produce fifty pounds of cotton in one day. Within several years of the cotton gin’s invention, cotton had become a major crop in the South, and factories in the North were producing cotton cloth.
The cotton gin had profound, wide-reaching effects on American history and society. Southern planters abandoned almost all other crops in favor of the newly profitable cotton. In addition, planters required enormous increases in slave labor to plant enough cotton to take advantage of their new production capacity. As a result, thousands more slaves from Africa and the West Indies were purchased before the slave trade was banned in 1808. The size of individual plantations increased, from relatively small plots to huge farms with as many as several hundred slaves each.
The cotton industry in turn spurred enterprising northerners to build factories: southern farmers supplied the cotton, northern factories spun it into cloth, and the finished cloth was then either used at home or shipped abroad. The development of factories produced a larger, richer merchant class and helped create the wage worker, who was paid by the hour to tend to the machinery or cloth in the factory.
Several years later, Whitney also perfected a system of producing muskets with interchangeable parts. Prior to Whitney’s invention, most muskets—and all other goods—had been handmade with parts especially designed for each particular musket. The trigger of one musket, for example, could not be used to replace a broken trigger on another musket. With interchangeable parts, however, all triggers fit the same model of musket, as did all ramrods, all flash pans, all hammers, and all bullets. Manufacturers in many different industries soon took advantage of Whitney’s invention to make a variety of goods with interchangeable parts.
Many new products revolutionized agriculture in the West. John Deere, for example, invented a horse-pulled steel plow to replace the difficult oxen-driven wooden plows that farmers had used for centuries. The steel plow allowed farmers to till soil faster and more cheaply without having to make repairs as often.
In the 1830s, Cyrus McCormick invented a mechanical mower-reaper that quintupled the efficiency of wheat farming. Prior to the mower-reaper, wheat farming had been too difficult, so farmers had instead produced corn, which was less profitable. As in the South after the cotton gin, farmers in the West raked in huge profits as they acquired more lands to plant more and more wheat. More important, farmers for the first time began producing more wheat than the West could consume. Rather than let it go to waste, they began to transport crop surpluses to sell in the manufacturing Northeast.
Over time, regional specialization emerged: the West farmed to feed the Northeast, the South grew cotton to ship to the Northeast, and the Northeast produced manufactured goods to sell in the West and South. The roads, canals, and other internal improvements made under Henry Clay’s American System made this nationwide trade possible.
The steamboat, invented by Robert Fulton in 1807, permitted fast two-way traffic on the nation’s new waterways. Within a couple of decades, steamboats were in use on all of the major rivers, canals, and eventually on the high seas. The steamboat completely changed shipping: for the first time in history, mariners didn’t have to rely on winds and currents, so they could travel directly to any port at any time. Planters in Missouri, Mississippi, and Louisiana, for example, could easily and cheaply ship cotton, rice, and sugar upriver on the Mississippi rather than send it around Florida and up the Eastern seaboard, as they had previously done.
The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, was only the first of several canals in the North that linked western farmers with eastern manufacturers. Other major canals were built in Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Few canals were built in the South: the South produced enough food to feed itself, and it relied on Atlantic shipping to send cotton to the North and to receive manufactured goods.
This relative isolation of the South prevented the South from modernizing and improving its standard of living to the degree that the North and West did. Although the standard of living improved in all three regions, the South lagged behind. Northern manufacturers shipped most of their finished products to the West, while the West grew rich on Northern grain purchases. Better transportation in the North—canals, roads, and especially railroads—would be a major factor in the war as well.
Railroads also allowed people and goods to move faster and more cheaply. At first, railroads were confined mostly to the Eastern seaboard (from Virginia to Boston) and in the West (from Chicago to Pittsburgh). In the 1850s, though, Americans laid tens of thousands of miles of track, mostly in the North.
Long-distance communication was revolutionized by Samuel F. B. Morse’s invention of the telegraph in 1835 (as well as the Morse code system that bears his name). The first transatlantic cable was laid in 1858, enabling rapid communication between the United States and Europe.