Manufacturing Independence: Industrial Innovation in the American Revolution


December 1, 2016
by Eric Sterner Also by this Author


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Book review: Manufacturing Independence: Industrial Innovation in the American Revolution by Robert F. Smith (Westholme Publishing, August 2016)


In his 1961 Farewell Address, President Eisenhower famously warned his fellow citizens to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.”  While his warning endured, he also repeated a myth about the American war economy.  When once “the United States had no armaments industry,” and “American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well,” modern circumstances compelled Americans “to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.”  In truth, arming Americans for war was never as simple as beating plowshares into swords, or turning civilian manufacturing activities towards warmaking.  Nowhere is this more apparent, and less studied, than the American Revolution.  In Manufacturing Independence: Industrial Innovation in the American Revolution, Robert Smith set outs to address this shortfall and correct the myth, succeeding admirably.

When the colonies and Great Britain went to war in 1775, the colonial economy was largely based on agriculture.  Small craftsman and artisans dominated manufacturing. The colonies had always relied on imports from Great Britain for war materiel.  Small arms, artillery, accoutrements, and ammunition in any meaningful amounts were made overseas, and often stored under the auspices of the British Army or colonial governments loyal to the crown.  Thus, as events spiraled in 1774 and 1775, patriots and colonial governments raced to secure arsenals, cannon from pre-war forts, and gunpowder, producing events like Virginia Governor Lord Dunmore’s raid on the arsenal at Williamsburg, Governor Gage’s march into Concord, and even Ethan Allen’s triumph at Fort Ticonderoga.  Nevertheless, control of pre-war stocks would not be enough to fight a revolution.  Smith explains that the colonies quickly turned to three different approaches to meet their war needs: confiscation, foreign importation, and domestic purchase.  Each had its limitations.

Confiscation presented rebellious governments with an obvious dilemma: a revolution in the name of securing liberty clearly conflicted with the confiscation of private property.  Moreover, it could be done just once with any expectation of success.  Loyalist property and that belonging to the crown were, of course, the first to go, but the rebellious colonies even turned to confiscating arms from their patriotic citizens.  Weapons themselves were often of inferior quality and differed significantly in caliber and state of repair.  Occasionally, the patriots would succeed in capturing significant stores from the British, but confiscations failed to meet needs identified by the army and Continental Congress.

Similarly, importation proved inadequate.  The Continental Congress recommended that each colony offer bounties to merchants and traders willing and able to bring weapons in from overseas.  Those required shipment from overseas, which first had to sneak past the Royal Navy. Congressional imports totaled just 2000 muskets with powder and flints in 1776.  Nor were successful imports always useful.  Smith opens the book with a 1777 scene off Fort Point, New York, in which the French vessel Amphitrite delivered the first significant shipment of weapons from America’s new ally.  In her hold, she carried 12,000 muskets, accoutrements for maintaining and using them, gunpowder, and other goods useful for an army.  A Congressional agent quickly determined that most of the muskets were unfit for service.  They were likely trade guns, meant for interaction with Native Americans or Africans.

Domestic manufacture and purchase fared little better.  Confiscations had already reduced the available supply of weapons and domestic manufacturers simply could not keep up with the war’s demand. Congress relied on state governments, which adopted a variety of mechanisms to supply armaments.  These generally failed.  Pennsylvania, for example, produced just 363 muskets in response to a large purchase order in 1775.  In 1776, New Jersey borrowed money from Congress and ended up purchasing weapons from Pennsylvania, which drove up prices and undermined that state’s ability to meet its own needs.  Smith estimates that there were just 350 craftsmen capable of manufacturing firearms in all thirteen colonies.  State efforts to start their own production facilities generally proved unrewarding experiments that the states eventually abandoned.  Simply, the manufacturing base was too small; there would be no meaningful beating of plowshares into swords.

Throughout 1775-1776, Washington pleaded with the states and Congress to develop some means of reliably and consistently providing the army with sufficient standardized military stores and a means of maintaining them.  He and his chief of artillery, Henry Knox, suggested a centralized system capable of managing the entire process from beginning to end.  By December 1776, Congress responded with a series of reforms and created the Department of the Commissary General of Military Stores (DCGMS). The Commissary evolved over time, but was ultimately responsible for overseeing and coordinating military stores production and procurement. It had three major functions.  First, it would coordinate the activities of three public arsenals at Springfield, Massachusetts, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia.  In addition to some manufacturing, the arsenals were tasked with repairing and maintaining the arms and stores already in the country’s possession.  Second, it would oversee private entities and govern the development, testing, and acceptance of war materiel produced outside the government system.  Third, it was responsible for material support to private producers.  This might include cash, loans, raw materials, and transportation.  This role became more important as the war’s progress made it increasingly difficult to obtain the materials needed to sustain production.

Smith relies heavily on the papers of the DCGMS kept by the first commissary general, Benjamin Flower, and those of his successor, Samuel Hodgdon.  (He points out, and corrects for, the bias of relying on the DCGMS papers).  Smith identifies a particular dilemma for the department: it was primed to satisfy no one, and thus disappointed everyone.  The army, of course, always wanted more of everything to reflect its growth aspirations.  The Continental Congress, on the other hand, sought parsimony, had a poor understanding about the functioning of America’s wartime economy, and suffered from unrealistic expectations about what the DCGMS could accomplish in the circumstances.  The DCGMS also suffered from numerous problems: competing chains of command, an evolving and unclear mandate, poor management, and inadequate resources, among them.   But, it largely met the army’s immediate needs, particularly later in the war.

That story alone makes Manufacturing Independence a worthwhile read, but the book goes further.  In performing its wartime tasks, Smith also argues that the DCGMS laid the groundwork for transitioning the American manufacturing economy from small artisans and craftwork to modern eighteenth century manufacturing practices.  It introduced mass production and integrated supply chains, spread innovative practices among manufacturing centers, demonstrated new ways of organizing manufacturing facilities, and created new labor practices.  Bluntly, it helped usher in the American industrial revolution.  Most important, perhaps, it linked a strong manufacturing economy to American ideas about securing the new country.

Weapons development and procurement is not normally a subject that makes for fascinating reading.  Manufacturing Independence is no exception.  Of necessity, Smith deals in the brutally dry details of organizational charts, personnel changes, and production numbers.  Yet, his writing flows smoothly and he has a good eye for the personalities and characters that populated Revolutionary America. Anyone with a deeper interest in the American Revolution, defense production, or American manufacturing will find it a rewarding and pleasant read.

One thought on “Manufacturing Independence: Industrial Innovation in the American Revolution

  • Eric, I thoroughly enjoyed reading both the book and your review. As you point out, Smith provides copious statistics and details on production processes. However less harshly than you, the detailed descriptions of the armories and their production processes are highly relevant to all those interested in the Revolution. Further, readers encounter many issues that continue to vex society today including outsourcing military production, balancing the needs of supply during peace time and numerous quality control issues.

    My main criticism is that Smith only describes supply and does not adddress balancing of supply and demand. It would have been interesting to read where lack of arms or ammunition impacted battlefield results or where superior arms contributed to a patriot victory.

    Also Smith could have taken sides on whether Henry Knox’s participation in arms and ammunition production helped or hindered the process. Clearly, Smith recognizes Benjamin Lincoln’s leadership as War Secretary consistent with recent re-examinations of his Revolutionary contributions.

    All in all, readers will find this book provides a different and very interesting view on arms and ammunition production during the Revolutionary period.

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