An Economic Critique of the Early Critics of the Industrial Revolution Giorgio Secondi Phillips Exeter Academy Exeter, NH 2010 NEH Seminar for School Teachers Historical Interpretations of the Industrial Revolution in Britain I. Introduction Contemporary historians see the Industrial Revolution in Britain as a gradual process of economic and social change rather than as an explosive event that catapulted the country into the modern era. 1 Nonetheless, the period conventionally identified with the British Industrial Revolution—1780-1830 or, more broadly, 1750-1850—continues to be recognized by historians as central. As Pat Hudson and Maxine Berg have written, it was clear to contemporary observers such as Patrick Colquhoun, Robert Owen, or Peter Gaskell, that dramatic changes were taking place under their eyes. 2 Indeed, the second half of the eighteenth century is the time when more and more of Britain’s intellectuals began to write about the economic and social changes they were observing, attempting to understand, explain, and assess what was increasingly looking like an unstoppable series of momentous events in the country’s history. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations , published in London in 1776, was one of the most influential and widely read accounts of the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and Smith’s assessment was largely enthusiastic. According to Smith, the expanding British economy, which to many contemporaries appeared as a chaotic brawl driven by greed and self-interest, was really the manifestation of a marvelous system where the pursuit of self-interest led to the best outcome for society. Specialization and 1 See, e.g., Kenneth Morgan, The Birth of Industrial Britain: Social Change, 1750-1850 (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2004), 3; E.A. Wrigley, Continuity Change & Change: The Character of the Industrial Revolution in England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 8-9; Eric Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution (New York: The New Press, 1968), 13. 2 Pat Hudson and Maxine Berg, “Rehabilitating the Industrial Revolution,” The Economic History Review 45, no. 1 (February 1992): 26.
division of labor allowed for efficiency gains that raised standards of living for the average Briton. 3 This paper is about intellectuals who, unlike Smith, saw the Industrial Revolution as a turn for the worse. They perceived it as a threat to a long-established order, lamented its negative effects while dismissing the positive ones as temporary at best, and predicted an eventual return to a more traditional economic system. I will focus especially on the work of two commentators who were well known and widely read during their lifetimes: Robert Southey (1774-1843) and Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). Both, in explaining how and why the Industrial Revolution was unraveling British society, analyzed and interpreted the changes in the economy, revealing their beliefs about how an economy works. Such beliefs betray a limited understanding of the economics behind the changes that Britain was experiencing. The goal of this paper is not to