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The impact of the Industrial Revolution

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Published: Tue, 16 May 2017

This investigation examines the effects of the Industrial Revolution from years 1780 to 1840 on the laissez-faire attitude of the British government. This investigation focuses on how the Industrial Revolution benefited from the existence of the laissez-faire attitude in Great Britain during the late 18th century and then contributed to its demise by the mid-19th century. This investigation highlights why the “hands-off” approach and the lack of government involvement and oversight in economic development helped the explosive growth of industry. It only focuses on Great Britain, which is considered the Industrial Revolution’s birthplace, not other European countries nor the United States.

The researcher will use various printed texts and internet sources as evidence to address this investigation. In this investigation, two sources are evaluated. The Silent Revolution: The Industrial Revolution in England as a Source of Cultural Change written by John Walter Osborne and The First Industrial Revolution written by Phyllis M. Deane are two sources assessed with their origins, purposes, values, and limitations.

B. Summary of Evidence

From medieval times there had been strict regulation in Britain on wages, employment, training (apprenticeship), industrial location, prices, and commerce. By the mid-17th century, these regulations were difficult for the government to enforce due to new industries and expanded trade. [1] Therefore, the restrictions were ineffective and suspended. “For more than a hundred years before the Industrial Revolution, the State was in retreat from the economic field.” [2] There was the fact that a large number of restrictions on economic activity and on the free-flow of trade were reduced or removed. [3] 

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, governments were primarily structured to keep peace at home and to defend the country against foreign enemies. The function of government was administration, not legislation. [4] The central government administration in Britain was small compared to modern standards. “As late as 1833 the Home Office employed only 30 persons and the Board and Trade, 20. So limited were its activities that the central government consisted mainly of customs officials and excise men… And nothing was as yet done on a national level concerning health, education, or poor relief.” [5] 

Adam Smith, a Scottish economist in the mid-late 1700s, strongly opposed any government interference in business affairs. He and his followers heavily influenced the adaptation of laissez-faire government and used the “doctrine of the invisible hand” to justify free trade. Trade restrictions, minimum wage laws, and product regulation were all viewed as detrimental to a nation’s economic health. [6] “The philosophy of laissez-faire, the view that the business of government was to leave things alone, and adopted whole-heartedly the view that the unrestricted operation of private enterprise was the most effective way of securing the maximum rate of economic growth.” [7] 

The triumph of laissez-faire in the 19th century is the retreat from protectionism and the adoption of a free trade policy. [8] Due to limited government regulation and intervention, innovation was accelerated. In England, factory owners had access to the natural resources necessary for the mass production of goods and a willing workforce. Employers were able to offer low wages for long hours because of the sizable poor population. [9] 

In the 1830s and 1840s, and still more in the 1850s, the State was steadily taking responsibility for wider and wider control of private enterprise in the interest of society as a whole. [10] Even though the laissez-faire attitude of the British government which took hold in the mid-18th century spurred the growth of the industrial revolution, it was the revolution itself which brought the laissez-faire movement to an end. The industrial revolution changed every aspect of society in Britain. Migration from small rural villages to urban cities took place. Living conditions were poor for the working class and their newly concentrated population increased awareness of their struggles. Prior to this urbanization of the population, society was not focused on the health and welfare of the general population. Around this time, the appeal of ethics and moral philosophy began to take hold. [11] With this new focus, pressure was put on the government to address the issues of the poor. This caused the government to get involved and no longer allowed for a hands-off policy. The decline of laissez-faire attitudes, corruption in government, growth of political parties, public opinion, and increased efficiency of legislative activity were in varying degrees caused by industrialism.

C. Evaluation of Sources

The First Industrial Revolution written by Phyllis Deane published in 1980 provides useful insight for the historian into the role of the British government during the British Industrial Revolution. Phyllis Deane is a professor of economic history at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Newnham College who references many other historians in her work. The source’s purpose is to describe how the British government functioned throughout the Industrial Revolution and how it took on the philosophy of laissez-faire. This book’s values are that it allows for a thorough understanding of how the British government removed many restrictions on economic activity to go along with its laissez-faire attitude. It also references Adam Smith and the beginning of the laissez-faire ideology stating how the business of government is to leave things alone. However, a limitation to this source is that the author’s references are limited to writings from the twentieth century and do not include works from the Industrial Revolution time period.

The Silent Revolution: The Industrial Revolution in England as a Source of Cultural Change written by John Walter Osborne, published in 1970, is another beneficial source for the historian. John W. Osborne is a history professor at Rutgers University who specializes in modern Europe and nineteenth century Britain. This source’s purpose is to depict changes in Britain from before and after the Industrial Revolution. It also parades how the laissez-faire philosophy took on by the government influenced this change. A value of this source is that it gives the perspective of a historian who contrasts Britain before and after the Industrial Revolution and provides specific details of what the British government believed at the time. A limitation to this source is that the author is interested in a broad range of social impacts and is not entirely focused on the impact that the Industrial Revolution had on government.

D. Analysis

Prior to Britain’s industrial revolution (1760 to 1830) government and society overall had very different characteristics. Britain had been a primarily agricultural economy with the textile industry being mainly small, independent businesses. With the Industrial Revolution, communities transitioned from rural to urban. There was great upheaval caused by this change. While the Industrial Revolution brought positive changes, the benefits were usually seen by the upper class who took advantage of the new means of industry. In contrast with the positive changes, many individuals found themselves disadvantaged by the loss of their livelihoods at their traditional crafts. The population growth, overcrowding, and squalid living circumstances in cities where the jobs could be found were only compounded by the lack of compassion for the lower class. [12] 

It is well documented that a laissez-faire attitude existed in the British government at the end of eighteenth century. With the explosive growth of industry, government oversight was not possible. The government did not have the resources to regulate private commerce. At this time, there was also resistance to government involvement since government involvement was perceived as a hindrance and would have impaired prosperous growth. The idea of government being responsible for the welfare of its citizens did not exist at that time and helping people living in poverty was not seen as responsibility of the government.

The laissez-faire attitude promoted by leaders and economists, such as Adam Smith, kept government out of private industry during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Without government intervention, private corporations were able to set their own standards. The driving incentive for these industries was profit. Due to the absence of guidelines, working conditions were poor and minimum wages were usually nonexistent.

The rapid changes occurring during the Industrial Revolution greatly influenced all aspects of British life including the view of the role of government. It brought about new concepts on how society should behave. It is due to these changing perceptions that by the 1820s parliament passed a large volume of economic and social legislation. [13] It is based on this evidence that the Industrial Revolution brought to an end the British government’s laissez-faire attitude.

Government began to intervene in the behavior of private enterprise at the local level in the urban areas where social problems were the most extreme. It was particularly true when government stepped in to address problems of sanitation and town improvement and was particularly necessary when regulating land lords and builders who did not have the interests of the overall community in mind. [14] 

In addition to government intervention due to health issues, the government was beginning to be pressured by the growing voice of the working class who were petitioning for safer and fairer working conditions. The growth of public opinion was brought about by technical improvements of the steam powered newspaper presses which increased circulation. [15] This raised the awareness of poor living conditions and unfair practices in the workplace.

The sources utilized in this investigation were written by researchers who employed a wide variety of material when developing their publications. The materials ranged from earlier twentieth century analyses of the Industrial Revolution and back to writings from the time period of the Industrial Revolution. It is through their in-depth analysis and interpretation that the researcher can gain an understanding of the impact of the Industrial Revolution.

E. Conclusion

At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution a laissez-faire attitude existed. The changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution shifted the behavior of the British political system away from their “hands-off” philosophy. While the Industrial Revolution brought about great innovation, it made more acute the issues of poverty and poor working conditions. The Industrial Revolution influenced changes to the role of the government and was responsible for the social and economic legislation passed in the first half of the nineteenth century. Instead of allowing industry to run without oversight and pursue profit at the expense of society, regulations were enacted which resulted in improved living conditions for the working class. This change to government after Britain’s Industrial Revolution is the basis for modern-day government.

F. List of Sources

“Adam Smith’s Laissez-Faire Policies.” The Victorian Web: An Overview. Accessed November 29, 2011.

Ashton, T. S. The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830. London: Oxford University Press, 1948.

“British Industrial Revolution.” Clemson University. Accessed November 29, 2011.

Deane, Phyllis M. “The Role of Government.” In The First Industrial Revolution, 219-37. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Miller, James. The 1800s. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2001.

Osborne, John W. “The New Politics: The Growth of Legislation.” In The Silent Revolution: the Industrial Revolution in England as a Source of Cultural Change, 85-105. Scribner, 1970.

Word Count: 1945

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