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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 193

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This is the grave of Francis Cabot Lowell (among others).

Born in Newburyport, Massachusetts in 1775, Lowell graduated from Phillips Academy in 1786 and from Harvard in 1793, in an era where such early graduations were not yet uncommon. He spent a year traveling in Spain and France after his graduation before returning to Massachusetts. There, he became a prosperous merchant of the Early Republic. He was heavily involved in the burgeoning global trade out of Massachusetts, particularly with China and India, importing high-end tea, silks, and textiles. With his business partners, he opened India Wharf in Boston, the premier center for the Asian trade. Always looking to branch out, he also got involved in the rum trade, starting his own distillery with imported Caribbean sugar. Of course, that wasn’t all he was trafficking in with the Caribbean and a lot of his fortune came in the slave trade. That was hardly uncommon, but most of the main sites mentioning Lowell, including Wikipedia, don’t mention this at all. I had to go to the scholarly literature for it, a sign of just how poorly people understand the centrality of slavery to building northern capitalism, even if slavery no longer existed in states such as Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Devastated by Jefferson’s Embargo, which I maintain is the most avoidably terrible foreign policy decision in American history, Lowell became convinced that the United States needed to be self-sustaining in its industries to be secure. He traveled to Britain in 1810 with his family, partly for his health, but also to explore British textile factories that he wanted to import to the U.S. This process had already begun with people such as Samuel Slater in Rhode Island. The Industrial Revolution was spreading up through Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut, and Lowell wanted his piece. He had a great memory and memorized the process without writing anything down, critical as the British were trying to keep their secrets under wrap. This was massive industrial espionage, but given that it was the British, who cares.

In 1814, he and his investing partners established the Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham, Massachusetts. This was the first American factory that could also finish products. Thus they could take raw cotton and spin out finished apparel. They invented a new power loom that they made a ton of money on and then started selling stock in their operation, one of the very first, if not the first, public stock offering. Lowell did not like what he saw in British mill towns though, with the extreme degradation of labor. So he instead targeted young women to live under supervision in reasonable living conditions. These were the first “Mill Girls” that would later become synonymous with the town named for this early capitalist.

However, Lowell died in 1817, only 42 years old, of pneumonia. The new town he and his partners dreamed up was named after him and you can visit it today, site of not only America’s pioneering industrial production, but also the interesting experiment in treating workers not like animals, which did not last because a) the workers were still treated badly, b) those workers were “respectable” enough that they had access to the political system, and c) competitors undercut them with Irish workers desperate and poor enough to accept anything offered.

Unfortunately, Lowell did not live long enough to see the greatest honor of all time, his induction into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 2013.

Francis Cabot Lowell is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery, Boston, Massachusetts.

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