63: George Rogers Taylor’s The Transportation Revolution

In The Transportation Revolution, 1815-1860, George Rogers Taylor argues that transportation played a key role in the shift from a “colonially oriented economy” to a “national economy” by 1860 by facilitating the shift from an “extractive-commercial” economy to an industrial one.  Because the US is so vast, revolutions in transportation and communication were the only way to connect the country enough to facilitate the massive growth in the later decades of the 19th century.

This book was published in 1951, and it provides a clear, readable survey of the development of the various transportation networks in the US.  Taylor builds his history out of histories of the various transportation modes, economic data from government sources, photos from Culver and other readily accessible archives, and detailed tables that piece together the costs associated with building roads, canals, steamboats, and railroads, with an eye toward the rather substantial federal subsidies that went into transportation in the 19th century.  He also integrates economic history, labor history, and discussions of industrialization and urbanization, so that transportation development occurs within its larger social, geographic, and economic contexts.

Taylor’s layered, chronological narrative clearly periodizes the transportation revolution.  It traces mercantile capitalism, the mostly privately-funded early road-building initiatives; the more expensive state-funded canals; the relatively low-capital but highly-regulated steamboat industry; the increasing corruption of railroads; and the rather fascinating story of the development of the merchant marine from small ships to clippers to packets and steamers.  Throughout his narrative, Taylor “follows the money,” and as he moves slowly through increasingly capital-intensive transportation modes he is careful both to tabulate relative costs (of shipping by one mode versus another, or of building one mode versus another) to show the increased cooperation between business and state that went into building them and to rationalize shifts in consumer choice.  He then links transportation to different components of an emergent industrial capitalism, particularly proletarianization, which he links to the new mass markets for standardized goods made accessible by improvements in transportation.  He also shows how decreased over-land shipping costs and the growing network of Western markets shifted the focus in east cost cities from the wharves to the tracks in this time period, as well as how low costs and high speeds facilitated regional specializations.

Most importantly for American Studies – he shows how this new transportation network ultimately knit together a new nation, united geographically under a new industrial capitalism and an emergent mass market. While this book probably needs to be more critical of this process (if only to inquire what happened to the displaced Native Americans and the slaves and immigrants who built the railroads, for instance, or to investigate the environmental impact of the transportation revolution), it still provides an interesting history of technology, geography, and economics of the development of transportation in the early 19th century.

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