Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Review - "Industrial Development and Manufacturing in the Antebellum Gulf South: A Reevaluation" by Michael Frawley

[Industrial Development and Manufacturing in the Antebellum Gulf South: A Reevaluation by Michael S. Frawley (Louisiana State University Press, 2019). Cloth, maps, tables, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xiii,129/208. ISBN:978-0-8071-7068-7. $45]

According to both contemporary northern critics and the works of later scholars, the antebellum American South's agrarian export economy based on slave labor was incompatible with modernizing industrial development. Even many southerners at the time publicly extolled this view, some seeing it as a point of pride. Popular and scholarly traditions together hold that the antebellum South was lacking in every important prerequisite for industrial establishment and growth, namely the availability of locally-sourced raw materials, excess labor for skilled and unskilled factory work, sufficient capital investment, adequate transportation networks, and markets (local or regional) for native-produced goods. A fascinating and highly illuminating study, Michael Frawley's Industrial Development and Manufacturing in the Antebellum Gulf South: A Reevaluation examines all of these alleged hindrances to modernization in turn and arrives at a series of very different conclusions.

Ideally, the parameters of Frawley's study would have encompassed the entire slaveholding South, but he quite understandably limits his inquiry to a more manageable slate of states, specifically Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama. Given that those cotton-producing Gulf states were all in some ways still frontier-like in 1860 (and thus presumably among the least industrialized parts of the entire southern section), their selection as states representative of the agrarian South and the enduring economic mythology that surrounds the region makes a great deal of sense.

Though most were small in scale, the sheer number of Gulf State industrial businesses operating in 1860 will likely surprise most readers. They also have very apparently been vastly undercounted in the scholarship. Through meticulous examination of credit recording firms, local newspapers, and other sources, Frawley was able to uncover an enormous number of industrial establishments absent from the 1860 census. Oddly, while it is perhaps understandable that many sole proprietorships and partnerships located in far flung places were missed by census marshals, the truth was that entire counties were frequently skipped and even city-based industrial concerns were not fully tabulated (in Mobile alone, the author found 19 such enterprises absent from the census). Frawley's three-state sample strikingly shows that census officials actually missed the largest manufacturing firms nearly one-third of the time, a failure rate than exceeded even that for the individually-owned businesses that one might assume to have been most difficult to track (of those, roughly one in five were missed). Explanations as to how so many establishments in plain sight were so routinely overlooked by the census is unknown, but the author's suggestion that "incompetence" and "laziness" were likely culprits along with a lack of funding seems as good a guess as any.

Getting back to his book's addressing of the list of factors historically alleged to have stunted southern industry, Frawley counters the prevailing view of the South as lacking in those locally-sourced natural resources necessary to jump start an industrial economy. Among others discussed in the book, a particularly fine example lies in the coal belt counties of Alabama's northern half, which were extracting the combustible rock since 1830. Those counties also corresponded to ore deposits and other minerals that fueled the state's growing iron industry. Though the industry was still in its relatively infancy, and it would be the postwar period before deep underground mines went into widespread operation, enough coal was taken out of the ground above and beyond local needs to export to other regions.

Of course, the South's workforce percentage employed in industry in 1860 was dwarfed by the North's, but Frawley found little evidence to show that worker availability or willingness to toil in factory environments were limiting factors. Even so, just because the South's working population outside of agriculture was adequate for industrial growth does not mean their workers were good at their jobs. However, on that point as well, the book finds that southern workers compared favorably with their northern counterparts. Using one traditional measure of productivity (output per worker), Frawley's calculated Gulf South figures were in line with the national average (just slightly lower), demonstrating that southern whites were willing and entirely able to perform industrial work of all kinds.

Another leading myth of the agrarian South maintained that the region's industry, such as it was, was a product of northern and foreign-born entrepreneurship. Frawley's fairly large sample drawn from Dun credit reports comes to the opposite conclusion, with a solid majority of incorporated Gulf South firms created and run by southern-born owners. Even more myth-challenging is the fact that an even greater majority of heavy industry companies were the product of southern-born entrepreneurship. That many owners of these industrial firms listed themselves as planters in the census also to a degree contradicts traditional assertions by scholars that planters as a rule were risk-averse investors, putting profits back into known entities such as land and slaves and being generally unwilling to transfer excess capital into industrial pursuits.

Though Texas's only recent statehood placed it understandably behind Mississippi and Alabama when it came to railroad construction by 1860, the Gulf South's river and rail networks also proved more than adequate for industrial development. According to Frawley's research, the traditional conclusion that southern transportation was designed and used with exports in mind greatly underestimates the two-way traffic that existed as well as the size of industrial markets that grew along both major artery types. By the Civil War, the scale of industry was already branching beyond local needs to regional market integration, especially in Alabama and Mississippi. The Gulf South of Frawley's study had a far more diversified economy than biased northern critics, and even many southerners themselves, credited it with having. In the end Frawley paints a convincing picture of a Southern culture much more comfortable with industrial integration than scholars of the period have traditionally maintained.

For those wishing to delve deeper into the research behind the study, Frawley's appendix section provides additional sources and methods discussion. In addition to the 1860 census, Frawley examined local newspapers, journals, histories, and directories along with Dun credit reports. Readers can go to the author's own website (www.drmichaelfrawley.com) to see the complete data set. The deeply flawed manufacturing information that emerges from the 1860 census data set should prompt readers and researchers to consider the probability that other aspects of census data might be similarly incomplete. After reading this book, one is led to suspect that a more general reassessment of the value of the 1860 census as a research tool for antebellum and Civil War studies might be in order.

After reading this book, one can easily imagine fruitful extensions of Frawley's pioneering work. Applying the author's research methodology to other parts of the South and border slave states would undoubtedly prove both intrinsically and comparatively useful. In terms of trend analysis, a more systematic comparison of 1850 manufacturing data to 1860 data might further strengthen many of the book's arguments. Though specialized studies already exist in the literature that have effectively countered the notion that slave labor itself was incompatible with heavy industry, it would still be interesting to find out how many of the industrial firms cited in Frawley's sample employed slave labor on some level. Unfortunately, according to the author, that kind of data apparently does not exist to the extent necessary to draw broad conclusions.

No one, including the author, will argue that the industrial capacity of the American South of 1860 had any hope of directly competing with the North's in the coming Civil War, but that's arguably an unfair basis of comparison. Just on manufacturing rankings that use the already demonstrably flawed census data, the states that comprised the Confederacy were already fifth in the world in cotton product manufacturing and eighth in iron production. Thus, though still in its infancy in terms of scale relative to the North, southern industry was already flourishing and regionally integrated by the end of the decade preceding the Civil War. Though much in the way of finished manufactured goods and armaments passed through the blockade, it says something about the South's native manufacturing base that it was able to help the Confederacy stave off the full might of the United States for four full years of industrialized warfare before being ultimately exhausted and overwhelmed. Though still small-scale in absolute terms, Gulf South industry is amply demonstrated through Michael Frawley's formidable corrective to be much more widespread and modern than traditionally supposed. Industrial Development and Manufacturing in the Antebellum Gulf South builds a powerful case that the industrial renaissance commonly presumed to have been a product of the postwar New South actually began much earlier during the 1850s.

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