The Effects of Industrialization on American Democracy

In part two of our miniseries on The Edge of Anarchy, author Jack Kelly discusses the ways the Industrial Revolution changed American technology and manufacturing forever. 

Jack Kelly
4-minute read
Episode #66

America had been founded on the idea of independence—not just independence from Britain but the independence of citizens who were their own masters. The discipline demanded by the industrial system grated on American sensibilities. As one observer said, “liberty produces wealth, and wealth destroys liberty.”

Reformers in America were alarmed that the chattel slavery of the cotton fields was being replaced by the wage slavery of factories. The word “boss” came in during this period because “master” was associated with the whip. But the boss was the master, and when he said jump, employees had to jump. There was no discussion, no vote. If you didn’t like it, you were free to quit. But with a family to support, that freedom was an illusion. Democracy and independence only applied to the hours when a person was not at work. On the job, dictatorship and dependence were the rule.

The boss was the master, and when he said jump, employees had to jump.

Walt Whitman, America’s preeminent poet of the time, thought that exceptional wealth was “a sort of anti-democratic disease.” And it was true that democracy was being strained by the growing inequality of both wealth and income. The rich increasingly lived in secluded, clean suburbs, sent their children to private schools, and answered to nobody. They saw themselves as a “class” of people, superior to those who toiled for a living. Class was an alien concept in America, one that seemed to conflict with the nation’s ideals.  

But industrialization did create a working class. And before the century was over, working people would vividly express their repugnance at having to give up their independence, their freedom of action, and their dignity.