Nathan Appleton (October 6, 1779-July 14, 1861) was a merchant, manufacturer, financier, politician and philanthropist, best known as a pioneer in establishing textile manufacturing in New England. Repelled by the human suffering and social disruption that accompanied the rise of the factory system in Britain, he sought to develop an American alternative that would rival the success of British manufacturing while avoiding its demoralizing effects. Though ultimately unable to protect the United States from exploitative forms of capitalism, he did his best to combine economic development with social responsibility. His concerns were reflected in the “Waltham-Lowell system” which dominated the American textile industry during its first generation.
Nathan Appleton was born to a farm family in New Ipswich, New Hampshire. His father, a leading citizen of the small community, was known as Deacon Appleton in recognition of over thirty years of service to the Congregational church. “I was brought up in the strictest form of Calvinistic Congregationalism,” Nathan later recalled, “but since arriving at an age capable of examining the subject, and after careful study of it, I have renounced what appear to me unworthy views of the Deity, for a system which appears to me more worthy of Him, and less abhorrent to human reason.”
By the time of Nathan Appleton’s birth, the population of New England was beginning to outstrip the supply of available land. Only one of Isaac and Mary Appleton’s ten children became a farmer. Nathan’s brother Samuel began his career as a peddler, selling such items as rum, snuff, coffee, needles and pins in the countryside around New Ipswich. When he opened a store in Boston In 1794, he asked fifteen-year-old Nathan to join him as his apprentice and clerk. By age nineteen, Nathan was running the store. Samuel stayed in England to purchase merchandise, seek out new markets, and arrange credit. No longer were the Appletons humble shopkeepers. When he came of age in 1800, Nathan became a partner in the firm of S. & N. Appleton, merchants.
On a trip to England in 1801, Appleton was appalled by conditions in the manufacturing towns. In his journal he contrasted the “degraded situation” of the Manchester factory operatives with “Happy America! where the poorest of your sons knows that by industry & economy he can acquire property & respectability.”
In 1806 Nathan married Maria Theresa Gold. In 1810 Maria, who had suffered from tuberculosis since her teens, was advised by her doctors to travel. Samuel took Nathan’s place in Boston while Nathan and Maria spent a year in Britain. Travel seems to have had the desired effect; Maria bore four children between 1812 and 1817.
In Edinburgh Nathan encountered his distant cousin, Francis Cabot Lowell, who was investigating textile manufacturing with a view to establishing it in the United States. Lowell and Appleton saw planned manufacturing communities in Scotland, including Robert Owen’s utopian experiment at New Lanark. They returned to the United States hopeful that manufacturing could be established in New England without creating an American Manchester.
The Waltham-Lowell system that emerged was largely the product of Lowell’s technical ingenuity, Appleton’s business expertise, and a social vision which they shared. By 1813 Lowell had constructed a prototype power loom, the first in America; obtained a corporate charter; and located a mill site on the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts. Appleton invested $5000, an amount he was willing to lose if things went badly, in order “to see the experiment fairly tried.” He brought to the new venture the principles he had identified as crucial to commercial success: sufficient capital, accurate accounting, attention to detail, and a reputation for integrity.
The power loom made it possible to perform the entire process of textile production, from raw cotton to finished cloth, in one integrated operation. Instead of relying on child labor, Lowell and Appleton recruited young women from the farm families of northern New England. Most worked for only a few months or years prior to marriage. The company provided boardinghouses, schools, churches, stores, and banks; required the workers to attend church (of any denomination); and dismissed anyone whose behavior did not reflect, as Appleton put it, “the moral purity which has ever been a characteristic of our beloved New England.” More than any of his associates, Appleton was concerned with the moral and social effects of manufacturing. He hoped that paternalistic management, combined with wages well above subsistence level, would prevent the development of a propertyless and degraded working class.
Appleton’s belief that people of good will could create non-exploitative economic institutions reflected his optimistic view of human nature and his faith in a generous God who showered bounty on his creatures. “It is true that we cannot fathom the ultimate purpose of God,” he wrote, “but it does seem unnecessary to conjure up the horrors with which He has been surrounded. There would seem to be sufficient evidence around us of the benevolence and kindness with which He has provided for us in this life, to leave us to repose in confidence on His provision for the future.” He considered the creation of humanity, endowed with “mind, the intellect, thought,” to be the “crowning act” of a benevolent deity. He found a congenial religious home in the Federal Street church during the pastorates of William Ellery Channing and Ezra Stiles Gannett. “The Unitarian party,” he wrote, “embraces the most intelligent and high-minded portion of this community.” He thought Unitarianism “the best and only security” against both “the spirit of infidelity” prevalent in Europe and the irrational religious enthusiasm which he saw in America.
The success of the Waltham experiment encouraged Appleton and his associates to build more mills and produce a wider variety of fabrics. Visiting the village of East Chelmsford on the Merrimack River in 1821, Appleton envisioned an industrial city with a population of 20,000, to be named for Francis Cabot Lowell, who had recently died. By 1845, Lowell was the second largest city in Massachusetts, with nine textile mills and a population of 30,000. Similar clusters of mills were later established in Chicopee and Lawrence, Massachusetts, and in Manchester, New Hampshire.
The manufacturing system established, Appleton turned his attention to marketing and distributing fabrics on a scale previously unknown. He developed an early form of market research to help him predict what products were likely to do well. This enabled him to give marketing advice to the owners of other mills, which he was willing to do because they were not really his rivals. Ownership of all of the Waltham-Lowell mills was concentrated in the hands of a few families, united by bonds of marriage and friendship, who have come to be known as “the Boston Associates.” The term was coined in the 1930s by historian Vera Shlakman, who first called attention to the significance of the interlocking directorates by which the Associates controlled a vast network of related manufacturing companies and financial institutions. As they provided houses, schools, and churches for their employees, so they provided the machines and machine parts, sales agencies, banks, insurance companies, and railroads needed by their mills. By maximizing economies of scale and minimizing competition within the group, the Associates achieved decisive advantages against outsiders.
Technical superiority and market dominance allowed the Associates to sell more and more cloth for lower and lower prices, treat their workers well, and still accumulate great wealth. Nathan Appleton, who had arrived in Boston with his possessions tied up in the proverbial “pocket-handkerchief,” died as one of the ten richest men in Boston. Having embarked upon “a great novel experiment in politics and civilization” intended to “spread the comforts, and even elegancies of life, through the whole mass of our population,” he was somewhat uncomfortable with the extent to which he had profited by it. He earnestly assured his first biographer that “accident, and not effort, has made me a rich man.” He did not want to be remembered as “peculiarly devoted to money-making.”
Ambivalence toward wealth led the Associates to engage in philanthropy on a large scale. The complicated tangle of altruism and self-interest that motivated their charitable giving is exemplified by the Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company, of which Appleton was president for the last twelve years of his life. The MHLI was a for-profit insurance company, required by its charter to donate a quarter of its profits to Massachusetts General Hospital. Its directors, members of the Boston Associates, were responsible for investing its assets-in their own textile mills. The company also served as a source of low-cost loans to themselves and their businesses. Today this looks like conflict of interest, but to Appleton, it was a proof of his good faith that he never risked the company’s funds where he would not risk his own.
Politics, like philanthropy, was a way for the Associates to contribute to, and to exert influence upon, their community. After serving six terms in the Massachusetts legislature, Appleton was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1830. His term coincided with the debate over two major economic issues, the tariff and the renewal of the charter of the Bank of the United States. In his most important speech, he vigorously opposed the idea that protection of northern industry amounted to an oppressive tax on the South. He acknowledged that American industry had outgrown the need for a high protective tariff, but insisted that some level of protection was necessary to keep American workers’ wages above subsistence level.
After one term in Congress, Appleton declined to run for re-election, stating that “political life was not much to my taste.” He was also needed at home. His wife had died of tuberculosis while he was in Washington. Two years later, his twenty-year-old son Charles died of the disease, and he was concerned about the “delicate health” of his daughter Fanny. As travel was the usual prescription in such cases, he departed in late 1835 for a two-year trip through Europe with his three surviving children.
In 1839 Nathan Appleton married Harriet Coffin Sumner, 25 years younger than himself, and a cousin of the abolitionist and reformer Charles Sumner. Like many American families, the Appletons were divided over the issue of slavery. Nathan Appleton believed it would gradually be abandoned as outmoded and inefficient. He could not understand the appeal of abolitionism for the younger members of his own Whig party, as well as for his daughter Fanny and her husband, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. After Sumner’s 1848 speech denouncing the “unhallowed union” between “the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom,” people like Nathan Appleton were branded as “cotton” as opposed to “conscience” Whigs. Appleton considered this unfair, as his opposition to immediate emancipation was based on genuine outrage at what he considered the dangerous and fanatical opinions of the more militant abolitionists. The abolitionist movement, he wrote, “has produced nothing but evil. It has banded the South into a solid phalanx . . . [and thus] increased the severity of the slave laws. It has postponed the period of emancipation in the more northern slave states, which were fast ripening for that event.” In 1860 he still hoped war could be avoided by appeals to reason and self-interest.
During the 1850s, Appleton’s optimism was challenged by the growing political crisis and by an economic depression which revealed previously unsuspected weaknesses in the American textile industry. The market was becoming saturated, the original mill owners were retiring or dying, and the new directors did not always adhere to the system established in the first generation. Appleton criticized them for paying high dividends instead of reinvesting in the mills. He continued to argue the merits of high pay and humane treatment for workers, not realizing how much conditions had deteriorated even his own mills. He did not understand why the new work force of permanent mill hands lacked the zeal for self-improvement of the early “factory girls.”
The final years of Appleton’s life were marked by disappointment, and the final months by tragedy. First came the outbreak the civil war he had long dreaded and fervently opposed. Then in July, 1861, his favorite child, Fanny Appleton Longfellow, died a terrible death when her clothing caught fire. Nathan Appleton died the day after Fanny’s funeral, and was buried beside her in Mount Auburn Cemetery.
Appleton’s papers, including letters, journals, business papers, scrapbooks, manuscripts, and an autobiography (unpublished, though excerpts are included in Winthrop’s Memoir) are in the Nathan Appleton Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS). Family correspondence is in the Curtis-Stevenson family papers (family of daughter Harriot’s husband), also at the MHS. Papers related to the Lowell mills are at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Letters to Appleton from William Ellery Channing are at the Concord, Massachusetts Public Library; and in W. H. Channing, Life of William Ellery Channing (1890). Letters between Appleton and Charles Sumner are in the Boston Public Library.
The published writings of Nathan Appleton on business and economics include An examination of the banking system of Massachusetts: in reference to the renewal of the bank charters (1831), Remarks on Currency and Banking; having reference to the present derangement of the circulating medium in the United States (1841), Labor, its relations in Europe and the United States compared (1844), What is a Revenue Standard? (1846), and Bank bills or paper currency, and the banking system of Massachusetts (1856). Labor is broader in scope than the name implies. It is Appleton’s definitive statement on political economy. He wrote two pamphlets, Correspondence between Nathan Appleton and John G. Palfrey; intended as a supplement to Mr. Palfrey’s pamphlet on the slave power (1846) and Letter to . . . Wm. C. Rives of Virginia, on slavery and the Union (1860), justifying his moderate antislavery stance and, on the eve of the Civil War, arguing that “the idea that there is an irrepressible conflict between the free states and the slave states, is simply absurd and untrue.” He wrote several historical works: Correspondence between Nathan Appleton and John A. Lowell in relation to the early history of the city of Lowell (1848), Memoir of the Hon. Abbott Lawrence (1856), and Introduction of the Power Loom; and Origin of Lowell (1858). The doctrines of Original Sin and the Trinity: discussed in a correspondence between a clergyman of the Episcopal Church, in England and a layman of Boston, U.S. (1859) is a statement of Appleton’s Unitarian faith.
Robert C. Winthrop, Memoir of the Hon. Nathan Appleton, LL.D. (1861), combines excerpts from Appleton’s unpublished autobiography with commentary by a friend and political ally. The nearest thing to a biography of Appleton is Frances W. Gregory, Nathan Appleton: Merchant and Entrepreneur 1799-1861 (1975). This was written by a business historian, with emphasis on Appleton’s business career. Of particular interest is the 30-page annotated bibliography. Gregory paid no attention to religion and little to Appleton’s personal life. She intended to write a second volume covering Appleton’s political career, but never completed it. Her notes and drafts are in the Gregory-Skinner-Howe-Wheeler family papers at the MHS.
Daniel Walker Howe, Political Culture of the American Whigs (1979), is a composite portrait of the Whigs via a series of brief biographies; Appleton, along with Henry C. Carey, exemplifies “the entrepreneurial ethos.” Howe, a Unitarian Universalist and author of The Unitarian Conscience, discusses Appleton’s religious beliefs. Robert F. Dalzell, Enterprising Elite: the Boston Associates and the world they made (1987) is an analysis of the world view of the Boston Associates, based on detailed study of their personal and corporate practices. The chapters on their philanthropic and political activities are especially helpful. Vera Shlakman, Economic History of a Factory Town, Smith College Studies in History 20 (1935) is an important study of economics of early textile industry in New England. Louise Hall Tharp, The Appletons of Beacon Hill (1973) is a gossipy, informal look at the Appleton family, drawn largely from their correspondence. Tharp has little information on her subjects’ careers or accomplishments, but illuminates the relationships among the various family members.
Article by Lynn Gordon Hughes
Posted August 19, 2001