I’ve been on a bit of a history kick lately. They say you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been, right? There are arguably a lot of crazy twists and turns going on in our country right now. And sometimes when that’s the case, it can be good to take a look back at where we’ve been and how far we’ve come since then.
Industrial revolutions don’t happen every day, but it’s been said that we are staring down a fourth one — a 21st century technological revolution, of sorts — as network-aware devices become a substantial part of many businesses 20 years into the 21st century.
The first industrial revolution took place from roughly 1760 to 1840. It was a formative time for the United States, during which we saw many historical events that changed America.
With so much changing for American businesses, it’s only natural to think that significant changes in the political atmosphere would coincide. So, what were the political effects of the Industrial Revolution?
Urbanization and the Emergence of the Developed World
As late as the 1730s, most of Europe and America was an agrarian society. People relied on farming the land to make money, which they used to buy the things they needed. However, with the introduction of the spinning loom, steam engine and other early machines, people were increasingly able to do more with less.
This led to increased development. A machine could now accomplish the work of several farmhands, so displaced workers went looking for work in the city. The jobs they found were available at newly built factories, aiding in the advancement of industrial technology.
This process, called urbanization, led to the rapid development of dense cities in places like New York, Philadelphia and London. Soon, these developed parts of the world began to look quite different from places like Africa, which had not yet received the help of mechanized labor.
Rich from the rewards of industrialization, developed nations began investing in operations to pull resources from underdeveloped parts of the world. It was the beginning of what would become neo-colonialism, and while we now know the importance of international relations, interactions with these countries were straightforward and exploitative.
The Role of Women
What were the political effects of the Industrial Revolution? We can’t properly answer that without addressing the way women’s roles changed drastically during this time. Rather than staying at home and caring for children, women began getting jobs in the burgeoning cities.
Women became nurses, teachers, sales associates and secretaries. They developed a stronger sense of self-importance, and with the rise of the Women’s Suffrage movement, they began to protest for the constitutional right to vote.
It was not — and still is not — a perfect transition. Women continued to be underpaid compared to their male counterparts, and could not take on all jobs. Even so, the rise of women during this time remains a critical turning point in the American story, and also for women’s rights around the globe and the push toward true gender equality.
When you consider some of the most dramatic changes brought about during the Industrial Revolution, it is impossible to discount the impact of interchangeable parts.
Today, when the fan belt in your car breaks, you can get online at Pep Boys, AutoZone or any other significant parts distributor and find an exact replacement. However, in the 18th century, if a gear from your loom broke, you had to visit a smith and have a new one custom-made. That meant many unproductive days. That all changed with the introduction of interchangeable parts.
The idea of a uniform part that could be reused across a model line was a first, and it was a hit, particularly in the weapons industry. This single change had a huge ripple effect. Assembly-line workers replaced craftsmen who built weapons and machines of all sorts.
Former farm hands who moved into the city banded together to form labor unions, with the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers (shoemakers) earning the title of the first sustained trade union organization in 1794. Labor unions would go on to be a dominant force in American business until the 1980s.
So how did the Industrial Revolution affect politics? In the history of the two-party system, alignment with the blue-collar worker has been the goal of both Republican and Democratic icons. With so many votes on the line, the unions made it essential for politicians to consider workers in their policies.
As you can see, the Industrial Revolution wasn’t just a time of change in industry — it was also part of the historical events that changed the world. In the years that followed, humankind would endure two great wars that reshaped the world entirely — but the lasting effects of the first industrial revolution show through. They are still with us today. Only time will tell what the lasting effects of the current technological revolution will be.
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