Reviewed by: Forging America: Ironworkers, Adventurers, and the Industrious Revolution Sara E. Wermiel (bio) Forging America: Ironworkers, Adventurers, and the Industrious Revolution. By John Bezís-Selfa. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004. Pp. xi+279. $39.95. Given the title of this book, historians of technology might expect it to teach them about ironworkers and ironmaking—how ironworkers learned their skills, what their lives were like. John Bezís-Selfa does provide some insight into such matters, but his main focus is on the relations between ironworkers and ironmasters, whom he quaintly calls "adventurers," even when writing about them in the nineteenth century. There is very little about making iron or about what life was like at worksites. Forging America lacks a specific focus. Bezís-Selfa wished to tell a story about worker resistance to bosses and industrial capitalism, but when the data failed to cooperate, he made something else out of his findings and as a result his themes are nebulous. The book is divided in two parts. The first is organized geographically and chronologically, covering ironworkers in seventeenth-century Virginia and New England; in the Chesapeake Bay region; and in Pennsylvania and New Jersey during the eighteenth century. The second part deals with ironworkers in the early national period, mainly in the South and mid-Atlantic. Bezís-Selfa stresses the widespread use of slaves and indentured servants. In the South, a majority of workers at some sites were enslaved Africans and their descendants. But slaves were part of the workforce (although never a majority) at Pennsylvania and New Jersey ironworks, too; indeed, ironmasters were among the biggest slave owners in the middle colonies. Southern ironmasters confined slaves to unskilled work, such as digging ore, cutting wood for charcoal, and hauling. In Pennsylvania, by contrast, many slaves were trained to be forgemen. That slavery was widespread and persistent at ironworks—even in Pennsylvania, where it was phased out only through gradual abolition in the nineteenth century—is information that readers will take away from this book. Bezís-Selfa wants to go further, however. He asserts that slavery "enabled the United States to become the first of the early modern colonies to industrialize" and that the United States was "the only developed nation in the world to industrialize on the backs of black slaves" (pp. 1, 7). But the presence of slaves does not prove that they were vital, or even helpful, to the development of the iron industry. What this study does provide is more evidence, if any were needed, that labor was scarce and expensive in North America before the mid-nineteenth century. Although ironmasters brought slaves, indentured servants, and convicts to work at their sites, their vital problem was recruiting and retaining skilled workers who could successfully manage the invisible chemical processes by which ore was turned into [End Page 842] iron or who knew how to work iron. Coerced labor is not well-suited to skilled occupations. Actually, it can be argued that the use of slaves retarded the development of the iron industry. Bezís-Selfa briefly considers whether slaves were less productive than free labor and acknowledges that slave labor "probably helped stymie the South's industrial revolution" (p. 167). Indeed, he presents much evidence that it did. Because some ironmasters barred free ironworkers, slaves could not learn from traveling workers, even though this was the way technical knowledge spread elsewhere. Slaves had little incentive to work hard, to be thrifty, to innovate. In other words, far from helping to bring about the Industrial Revolution, slaves in ironworks may have been a reason ironmaking developed so little before the early nineteenth century. Bezís-Selfa writes that it was not his purpose to tell about making iron, but merely to use the early iron industry "as a window through which to view and understand the industrious and industrial revolutions" (p. 6). But it is not clear why the iron industry would be a good window. Freemen at ironworks were sometimes a rowdy bunch and often not of English derivation. Enslaved workers or indentured servants were unlike the surrounding agricultural population. It seems that the world of ironmaking, rather than...

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