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Lowell History: Visitor Observations 1827-1913

Travels in South & North by Alexander Majoribanks, 1850

Travels in South and North America, 1850

Excerpt by Alexander Majoribanks

On leaving Boston I proceeded by railway to Lowell, (26 miles,) a town which has had a most rapid rise, inasmuch as its population, which in 1820 was 200, and in 1828 only 3,532, amounts now to 50,000.

It is situated at the confluence of the rivers Merrimack and Concord, and derives its name from Francis Lowell of Boston, who first introduced the manufacture of cotton into the United States.

Lowell, as well as the other cotton manufactures in the United States, at one time rivalled England in the Indian, Chinese, and Brazilian markets for the coarser kinds of cotton cloths, where a large quantity of the raw material and comparatively but little labour was required; but in the fabric of the finer sorts, and in the printing of all, they could never compete with the manufacturers of this country. They may be said, however, to rest on an artificial foundation, being kept up by the highly protective duties of from 25 to 35 per cent., which the Americans impose on foreign goods in order to foster their own manufactures, though imposed ostensibly for purposes of revenue. This has had the effect of making the whole inhabitants of a country, containing three million of square miles, and 30,000,000 of people, pay one-fourth more for their goods than they would otherwise do; a degree of folly which it is difficult to account for.

Though it may appear remarkable that the weight of cotton consumed at Lowell should be only one-third less than is used at Glasgow, and that the former already produces more than one-half the number of yards of powerloom cloth which are woven in Glasgow, yet these are all coarse and heavy, such as sheetings, shirtings, drillings, calicoes, &c., and made of low-priced cotton. The cost of transport from Europe upon goods of this class forms so large a per-centage of their whole value, as to give the American manufacturers the entire command of their own market for these articles. Glasgow chiefly produces cotton goods, into the price of which labour enters to the extent of from 50 to 60 per cent. of the whole cost; and such goods Lowell does not produce, owing to the high price of labour, and the expensive way in which manufacturing is conducted. In heavy goods, and in such as involve little labour, the Americans may still however compete successfully whenever the price of cotton is low. The high price of cotton, however, is more destructive to them than it is to us. In the year 1850 the price, of cotton rose to eightpence a pound, so that some of the mills in Lowell and elsewhere had to be shut up. By the month of July 1851 the same article had actually fallen to fivepence the pound, a fall of nearly 50 per cent. in nine months, so that the Lowell mills all started again.

Lowell, like all the manufactories of America, is indebted for its rise and progress to the protective duties imposed on foreign goods. The proper meaning of the word "protection," is, that unprofitable labor should be made remunerative, by taxing the country to make up the difference. The Americans themselves are so perfectly aware of the necessity of this, that the New York Tribune of September 1851, says, "Abolish protection here, and in six months there would scarcely be a cotton or woollen mill, or furnace, at work in the country." Were the Americans to look to Switzerland for example, they would discover that her prosperity was owing to her entire freedom of trade. She exchanges what she can best produce and spare with whatever country has the most of what she wants, and gives them at cost price, instead of augmenting them to her domestic consumers by a duty.

As for protecting duties, the Swiss people believe that if a trade cannot support itself without a protecting duty, that is sufficient proof that the trade is not suited to the capacities of the country--the proof being that the articles in question can be produced for less money elsewhere. This is taken as sufficient evidence that it is injurious to the country to continue or to protect any such trade; first, because consumers in Switzerland must lose the difference between the low price of the foreign article and the higher price of the home article; and, secondly, because the trade in articles which Switzerland can produce, is injured to a greater extent than the other is benefited, by preventing the far greater sale of its produce to the foreigners who produce the goods excluded. The produce which is capable of being sold in other countries is the most profitable to the producing country; and so far from protecting others which cannot be exported, it is the interest of a community to discontinue it. The fact that a trade wants protection is an amply sufficient reason why it should not be protected.

Dr Adam Smith in his "Wealth of Nations," written prior to the American revolution, and before manufactures were introduced into that country, says, It has been the principal cause of the rapid progress of our American colonies towards wealth and greatness, that almost their whole capitals have hitherto been employed in agriculture. Were they to stop the importation of European manufactures, and by thus giving a monopoly to such of their countrymen as could manufacture the like goods, direct any considerable part of their capital into this employment, they would obstruct instead of promoting the progress of their country towards real wealth and greatness. If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry, employed in a way in which we have some advantage.

The Americans should ponder well those words of this eminent man, and should constantly bear in mind that under a restrictive or protective system every trade is exposed to great disadvantage. A commercial country like America, though it may by protection compensate in some measure to its own manufacturers so far as regards the home trade, for the disadvantages under which they suffer, has evidently no means of doing so with its foreign trade. In neutral markets they must either meet the competition of the whole world, or abandon their foreign trade altogether. I observe that M. Thiers, one of the greatest living authors and statesmen in the world, in his eloquent speech on free trade, delivered in the Chamber of Deputies in France, in June 1851, takes the same view of American manufactures as Dr Adam Smith. He says in the course of his remarkable speech, Two great nations are now entering on a manufacturing career--America and Russia--one has a democratic and the other a despotic form of government. Both are making rapid strides. The Americans have good reasons for advocating the system of free trade. They have all they require for food and clothing. But if Washington were to return on earth, what advice would he give his fellow-countrymen? I am sure that he would advise them to remain agriculturists, as the surest means of liberty and of greatness. (Hear, hear, and sensation.)

Almost all the mills in Lowell of any great size are owned by incorporated companies, of which there are 12 or 13, who are proprietors of nearly 40 of the large mills. Besides these, there are about 50 small factories at Lowell. The large mills employ about 10,000 females and 5,000 males, who are engaged in spinning and weaving carpets, cassimeres, flannels, broad cloths, coarse sheeting, shirting, drillings, and printed calicoes, which are made of low-priced cotton, and are heavy to transport.

The mills are all propelled by water-power, but the larger ones, being all on the joint-stock system, renders it difficult for them to compete successfully with private enterprize. Even with the protective duty of 25 per cent the stock of most of these companies, as well as that of joint-stock companies in other parts, is at a discount, and none of them divide more than might have been obtained as interest on money lent on mortgage. Excepting at Lowell, Rochester, Lancaster in Pennsylvania, and some other places, most of the machinery in America is now propelled by steam, which, in some respects, is more advantageous. There are about 10,000 females and 5000 males employed at the 12 larger mills at Lowell, the females being generally from 15 to 24 years of age, and on an average do not work more than five years in the factory, when they return to their homes to be the wives of the farmers and mechanics of the country towns. The hours of attendance at the mills are 13½, one hour and a half being allowed for meals, thus making the actual working time 12 hours. What will the "Ten Hours' Bill" people of England say to this? The wages of the female operatives average from 3 to 5 dollars per week, and they pay a dollar and a quarter for their board and lodgings. The carpet weavers, who are all "young ladies," earn the most, generally about three shillings sterling a day.

There is one peculiarity which distinguishes Lowell from Manchester, Glasgow, &c., which is, that they have no permanent factory population as amongst us. The females employed are almost all the daughters of small farmers, or proprietors in the New England States, who go there to make a little money, and return home after 4 or 5 years, when they are almost certain of getting married. They have formed the singular notion that it is a more honourable employment to work in a cotton mill than go to service. Their dress, and superior appearance in every respect, form a wonderful contrast to the barefooted cotton-spinning girls of Glasgow or Paisley, as most of them go to work dressed in dark-coloured prints or ginghams coming up to the throat, with plain but beautiful bonnets or hoods, and green or blue veils. The boarding-houses in which they live belong all to the different mills in which they work, and all of them enforce the strictest rules and regulations in regard to their conduct. In fact this is absolutely necessary, as the sagacious founders of the town knew well that unless the various manufacturing establishments made a moral provision which would satisfy parents at a distance, in a country where much of the religious strictness of the early puritans prevails, young females would not be allowed to become mill-operatives at all. The managers have thus to exercise the strictness of parental rule, in order that parents may feel the conviction that their children are safe. Their exemplary behaviour indeed, in every respect, is such that out of this large body of spinning and weaving ladies in the very bloom of youth and beauty, only two cases have occurred during the last five years of illegitimate births, and the mothers of both of these were Irish, who seem to consider it inexpedient to relax entirely their exertions in the good old cause. I have heard it however insinuated that when the Lowell ladies of American extraction find themselves in what is termed a "delicate situation" they move off quietly to New York, where they are lost among the crowd, and thus the purity of the morals of the great republic is preserved. This however I believe but rarely occurs. Their exemplary conduct, in every respect, and, above all, their wonderful chastity, form a striking contrast to that of the fair sex in the Swedish capital, where, out of every five births, there are two illegitimate. Laing, in his Travels in Sweden and Norway, states that in the year 1838 there were born in Stockholm 2714 children, of whom 1577 were legitimate, and 1137 illegitimate. This indeed seems to be the most flourishing trade carried on in that wonderful city, and may be considered its staple commodity. Paris forms a sort of rival to Stockholm in this respect, as one-third of the children born there are illegitimate. By the last two registers that I have seen (those of 1848 and 1850) I observe that in 1848, out of 30,000 children born in Paris, there were 10,000 illegitimate, of whom only 1700 were acknowledged by their parents; and that in 1850 there were 19,349 legitimate births, and no less than 10,355 illegitimate. The Swedish capital, however, leaves even the French capital far behind. The Swedes, indeed, seem not only to have imbibed the doctrines of the Brahmins in India, but to have carried them into actual operation. The Brahmins inculcate the singular doctrine "that it is as sinful not to give life to what has it not, if you have an opportunity, as to take it away from those who already have it."

There are now throughout the States upwards of 1200 cotton mills, and about as many woollen manufactories, giving employment and support to a million of people, or one-third of the manufacturing population of Great Britain. But the most appalling thing for the manufacturers of this country to contemplate is, that factories are annually increasing in the Western and Southern States, and that, into the latter in particular, the labour of slaves has been successfully introduced. What will the Lowell spinning ladies and their numerous associates in the north-eastern parts of the Union say to this? These slaves ask no wages, can be supported for a mere trifle, never dream of "strikes," as in this country, and many people in America seem to think that not only the manufacturers of the Eastern States, but even those of England herself, will ultimately sink before them. It is more than probable that these slave factories will, for half a century to come, confine themselves to the making of the coarser fabrics, as at Lowell, Lancaster, Manchester, Philadelphia, &c. The protective duty of 25 or 30 per cen. which foreign goods have to pay, will, as regards them, fly off, and the free labour of the free States will then have to compete on equal terms with the slave labour of the slave States. Which, in the long run, it may be asked, is the most likely to suffer by this competition? The slave States have always hitherto been hostile to the high tariffs imposed upon the introduction of foreign goods, and some of them have even gone the length of agitating a separation from the rest of the Union on that account alone, as they naturally contend that the effect of them is to benefit the manufacturers of the northern parts of the Union, and to make the southern parts pay so much more than they would otherwise do, if allowed to import from Great Britain or elsewhere their goods free of duty. This new state of things is thus perhaps destined to make a change in their sentiments. For all the finer sorts of cotton fabrics, however, Britain will probably long maintain its superiority, and cannot, therefore, be so much affected by this new and unforeseen application of slave labour as the manufactories in the free States.

I think it may be confidently asserted that were ever a dissolution of the Union to take place, an event certainly by no means probable, the separation would be productive of more serious evil to the free than to the slave States. The latter are nearly as wealthy as the former, the value of the slaves alone being 300 millions sterling, and the vessels of the free States would still have to come to them for their cotton, tobacco, and sugars, whilst, if disjoined, they would have duties to pay, and would thus be in no position to support a competition with the British or other foreign manufactures. The slave States would then naturally obtain their supplies of manufactured goods from the cheapest markets, and would thereby consign to their own pockets the 25 per cent in the shape of customs, which they have now, indirectly no doubt, though no less assuredly, to pay to the Federal Government.

By the employment of slave labour they will also escape the pernicious effects of the "Strikes" that are constantly occurring in this country, and have proved a great social evil, from which the operatives themselves are the greatest sufferers. Strikes for wages have never yet led to any good, for though employers may be induced to listen to reason, they will never be found yielding to coercion.

In order to shew the wonderful extent of the commerce at present existing between Great Britain and the United States we shall give a few statistics. The American tonnage entering American ports during the year ending 30th June 1850, was 2,573,000 tons, and the foreign tonnage, 1,775,000 tons, of which the British tonnage reached the enormous proportion of 1,450,000 tons, or four-fifths of all the tonnage of the world, entering United States' ports. Turning to the trade, the exports from the United States in 1850 amounted to 151 million dollars, and the imports to 178 million dollars. Of those imports there were from the British empire eighty-five million dollars, or about seventeen million sterling, being nearly one-half of the whole imports into the American ports from all parts of the world. Of the above exports from America in 1850, the proportion to the British empire amounted to eighty-eight million dollars. These combined exports and imports between Great Britain and the United States gave, in 1850, upwards of thirty-two millions sterling, in 1851, forty-one millions, and in 1852 nearly fifty millions sterling. In the article of cotton alone, which the Americans grow for us, and which we manufacture, the total exports of the manufactured article from Great Britain amounted, in 1850, to L.28,252,000, and the total amount of British cotton manufactures for the same year to L.52,000,000, sterling. Of the proportion exported a large quantity finds it way back to the United States, which furnished us with the raw material, so that the trade in this article between Great Britain and the United States may be regarded as the principal item in the commerce of the two countries.

But while those vast results in the mutual increase of the commerce of Great Britain and the United States have flowed from the free-trade policy of 1846, it must be kept in view, that the Americans have not proceeded pari passu with Great Britain in the unfettering of commerce. During that year, Great Britain abolished protective duties, but the United States still retain the same in a modified form. In the cotton manufacture, for example, there is still a duty of twenty-five cents the square yard, which our exports must bear ere they can enter into competition with the untaxed American article. But such is the  
superiority and skill of our manufacturers, that they can produce an article, which, notwithstanding, the extra cost it bears in import and export between the two shores, and lastly, the excess of the duty, still can be sold with a profit in the American markets. There is still an average duty of thirty per cent on our manufactures, which presses hard on those which have to encounter the greater competition with the American home manufacture. The Hon. R.J. Walker, late Secretary to the United States' Treasury, in the speech which he delivered in 1851 at Liverpool, admits this inequality, and avows that in due time he will be in favour of a farther reduction. But in the meantime, he gives us a friendly hint that we are not guiltless of high duties, seeing we levy a tax of 1200 per cent. on tobacco. Now this duty may be too high, in as far as it offers such an inordinate premium to the smuggler as seriously to curtail its produce. If it could be shewn that a diminished duty, by lessening the chances of the illicit trade and increasing the consumption of the article, would produce a greater revenue from tobacco, then a case for reduction is completely made out. The British Government only look to tobacco for the sake of revenue, it being a luxury, and, therefore, its taxation inferring a legitimate hardship to none. Mr Walker, therefore, fails in deducing any analogy between the principle of the British tobacco-tax and that of the American tax on foreign manufactures, which acts as a protection to the American manufactures. If we grew tobacco within the British Isles, and made it either free as corn or any other agricultural produce, or subjected it to an Excise still greatly under the Customs on the foreign article, then Mr Walker might retaliate, and set our tobacco duty against the protective duties of his own country.

It is a curious illustration of the operations of commerce that about a third of the enormous amount above stated is made up of cotton, which the Americans sell us raw, and which we re-sell them manufactured. The interest which we thus possess in the course of American events and the struggles of American parties, is plain enough--it is a greater material interest, at least directly, than we possess in the affairs of India, or those of all our colonies. Nor does it much deduct from the value of that interest that the States levy heavy duties on most of our articles, while in India and the colonies the Customs are light;--the fact remains that the States take all these goods, and that we are paid just the same for them as we are paid for the goods sold to any duty-free colony. But it is true and important that our dealings with one another might be much larger than they are, did the Americans follow out the policy on which they entered in 1846. There are two reasons for hoping that they will take that course. The change towards Free-trade has been eminently successful--they have sold more and have bought more, and have doubled the Customs' revenue. And the tone taken by men in the position of Mr Walker shows that there are not wanting American statesmen who perceive the right course, and are prepared to urge an advance.

There is another reason still why we may hope that the Americans will progress towards Free trade--the example and success of Britain. If the trade between the countries has been greatly increased by the reform of the American tariff in 1846, it has owed as much to the repeal of the British corn and provision laws in the same year. It is not unreasonable to complain that Mr Walker's speech fails to bring out this point. He not only avoids the fact that Britain has far preceded America in freedom of trade, but points to the amount of our Customs' duties as showing that we are lagging behind. This is confounding two things that differ--duties for revenue, and duties for protection--and the instance which he takes, tobacco, forms as complete an illustration as we could desire of the difference between British and American Customs' duties. Mr Walker complains, as I said before, that a duty of 1200 per cent. is levied on tobacco, an article of American produce. If that duty is so excessive as to render smuggling profitable, then it ought to be reduced; but it has no connection with Free trade. Its object and effects have relation purely to revenue. We must tax something, and tobacco, a questionable luxury, seems a fitter subject than windows, or soap, or many other things. We pay it all ourselves, and its only effect on Americans is, that we consume a little less of their tobacco than we otherwise might. If we pay a tax on American tobacco, we pay one also on British spirits, and on many other articles of less questionable utility; while the Americans raise almost all their revenue by Customs, without the aid of excise, stamps, or assessed taxes.

Out of 53 millions of dollars raised in the United States, as the whole of the present annual revenue pertaining to the Federal Government, not less than 50 millions are raised by customs' or import duties; the other 3 millions being raised by land sales, &c. But the American Customs' duties, besides being proportionally much larger than the British, are founded in great part on quite a different principle. The tax on American tobacco is so purely a tax for revenue, and not for the purpose of burdening American producers in their competition with British, that tobacco is not even allowed to be grown in Britain; and in a similar way other articles looming largely in our Customs' returns are only imposts equivalent to the excise levied on the same article when of home production. Take as a contrast the American duties on the import of cotton manufactures, which range from 25 to 35 per cent., while the home manufactures are free from all contributions to the State. The chief effect of that tax is to place British manufactures at a disadvantage compared with the American manufactures; and that it happens also to produce a revenue is only ascribable to British manufactures being 25 per cent better or cheaper than American, although the cotton of British manufactures has had to be taken twice across the Atlantic, while the Americans manufacture at the place of growth.