I. Economic and Industrial Revolution
A. Agriculture and Land Policy
As Americans moved westward, they encountered fewer forests and eventually reached
the Midwest's comparatively treeless prairie, where they could spend less time clearing
the land and more time cultivating it, significantly boosting agricultural productivity.
Labor-saving improvements in farm implements, such as John Deere's steel “singing
plow,” also increased agricultural productivity.
Improvements in wheat harvesting, such as Cyrus McCormick's mechanical reaper, also
multiplied farmers' productivity; as a result corn and wheat harvests doubled between
1840 and 1860.
In the end, the agricultural productivity that fueled the nation's economy was an
outgrowth of federal land policy, which made land available to millions of ordinary
Government land policy also enriched wily speculators who found ways to claim large
tracts of desirable land and sell them at a generous markup.
B. Manufacturing and Mechanization
The advent of mechanization allowed manufacturers to produce more with less labor,
significantly decreasing and helped to buoy the nation's land-rich, labor-poor economy.
The practice of manufacturing and then assembling interchangeable parts, known as the
“American system,” spread from gun-making to other industries; standardized parts
allowed manufacturers to employ unskilled workers who were cheaper and more readily
available than skilled craftsmen.
Manufacturing and agriculture meshed into a dynamic national economy; New England
focused on manufacturing primarily for the domestic market, and the Southern and
Western states produced commodities such as wheat, port, whiskey, tobacco, and cotton.
C. Railroads: Breaking the Bonds of Nature
By 1850, trains steamed along nine thousand miles of track, almost two-thirds of it in
New England and the Middle Atlantic states; by 1860 they made the United States the
world's second greatest industrial power.
In addition to speeding transportation, railroads propelled the growth of the iron and coal
industries, both vital to railroad construction and operation.
The growing railroad industry also stimulated the fledgling telegraph industry and by
1861 fifty thousand miles of wire stretched alongside railroad tracks.
Almost all railroads were built and owned by private corporations rather than by the
government; undergirding these private investments was massive government aid,
especially federal land grants.
The railroad boom of the 1850s signaled the growing industrial might of the American
economy; in the 1840s and 1850s, the railroads linked farms and cities for an expanding
population that was moving westward.