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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 820

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This is the grave of Cyrus McCormick.

Born in 1809 in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, he grew up a tinkerer. His father was an inventor of agricultural machines. The father had long thought about the idea of a mechanical reaper. So in the early 1830s, he and his son developed it together, aided of course by slave labor. The first patent for the reaper came in 1834 to Cyrus. Jr. It was a pretty shaky machine, unable to handle unstable ground, which didn’t make it very useful. However, improvements would change that. The Panic of 1837 undercut the finances of the family but they held on. By 1840, farmers remained extremely skeptical of the machine. He had all of one customer that year and zero the following. But continued improvements and a good recommendation from that single 1840 customer led to a slow growth in sales. By 1844, he sold 50 reapers. Still, it wasn’t much.

However, by the mid-1840s, with the genocidal American project forcing Native peoples out of the Midwest, the open and gently rolling lands of states such as Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota offered new opportunities for the mechanical reaper, which would be easier to use in that landscape. An improved reaper received a second patent in 1845. But poor factory work from contractors undermined his reputation.

Finally, in 1847, after his father died, McCormick and his brother moved to Chicago to open up a big factory where they could control for quality. Chicago was a risky bet at this time. It was still a small town. St. Louis and Cincinnati were western cities with a more established history and industry. But Chicago had one thing they did not: the Great Lakes and the cheap transportation it would provide. That was a good bet as Chicago did become the dominant city of the Midwest after the Civil War, sending its competitors down to second rate city status. The machine sold well out there too–the flat ground was perfect for the reapers and soon every farmer wanted one, though they weren’t cheap. There were all sorts of patent problems and lawsuits and countersuits. After all, McCormick wasn’t the only one with the idea of a mechanical reaper and not the only one making them. But his machines became the most prominent, especially after the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, where his reaper was very successful and he was admitted to the Legion of Honor.

Still, the patent suits consumed his time and he was involved in a case famous because it nearly included Abraham Lincoln. Both sides had hired top-end lawyers. McCormick hired Reverdy Johnson, who had been Attorney General under Taylor and Fillmore, and his opponent, John Manny, hired Edwin Stanton among others. Stanton thought Lincoln was an utter yokel when another lawyer brought him onto the team, Stanton said he wanted nothing to do with “that damned long armed ape.” But the case was moved to Cincinnati and Lincoln ended up not participating. McCormick actually lost the case. But his superior factory ended up winning the day in the end. By 1857, he was producing 23,000 reapers a year, a number growing exponentially.

Speaking of the Civil War, McCormick had pretty terrible politics. He was a lifelong Democrat and hated Lincoln and the Republicans. You can take the slaveholder out of Virginia, but you can’t take the slaveholding beliefs out of the slaver. He believed the South would win the war, even as a big part of the reason they did not is that his own machines were producing the food that kept Union troops so much better fed than the traitors. He published a bunch of editorials in Chicago newspapers at the beginning of the war, but they proved so unpopular in that Republican stronghold that he and his wife just traveled in Europe for most of the war to avoid criticism. He certainly had the money to do so; despite losing so many patent cases, by the time he died, his assets were $11 million, which is over $300 million today. McCormick returned to Illinois in 1864 and ran for Congress as a Peace Democrat, which means he was to the right of George McClellan, who rejected the idea of separate nations for as awful as he was on most issues. McCormick was trounced in the general election. After the war, he was a big proponent of annexing the Dominican Republic, a terrible imperialist move also strongly supported by Ulysses S. Grant during his presidency. He also became the typical rich guy philanthropist later in life, giving a bunch of money to fund Presbyterian colleges and helping to funding the beginning of the YMCA.

On unions and labor, McCormick was your typical terrible capitalist. The horrific labor conditions of the McCormick Harvester factory would come to light after the founder’s death, when it was the biggest holdout to providing the 8-hour day during the Knights of Labor movement in 1886, leading to a massacre of workers outside the factory that precipitated the Haymarket bombing. But let’s be clear, it was McCormick who set the factory down this course.

In 1858, McCormick married his 23 year old secretary. As his health declined in the 1870s, she started playing a greater role in the business, convincing him to rebuild after the Great Chicago Fire burned the factory down. By 1879, he didn’t have much to do with the company anymore and his brother changed the name to McCormick Harvesting Machine Company to reflect the fact that it had always been a family enterprise. He had a massive stroke in 1881 and while he held on until 1884, he was an invalid after that. He was 75 upon his death.

Cyrus McCormick is buried in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois.

If you would like this series to visit other agricultural innovators, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Deere is in Moline, Illinois and Joseph Dart, who helped create the grain elevator, is in Buffalo. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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