Tech Entrepreneurs Have Greater Impact on Nation Than Presidents
The tech industry will have a more lasting impact on America’s future than Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama combined.
That’s not the sense you get from reading the news these days, but journalists and historians always overstate the impact of politicians while underestimating the impact of entrepreneurs. That was true at the founding of our nation, and it’s true today.
Consider Thomas Jefferson, a man properly revered for drafting one of the world’s most important and influential documents — the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson envisioned an agrarian nation, an America peopled with small and independent farmers. He reluctantly recognized that there was some need for carpenters, masons and other workers, but he didn’t want them to taint agrarian America. In fact, he wrote that it would be best “to let our work-shops remain in Europe.”
As the third president of the United States, Jefferson executed the Louisiana Purchase, providing even more land for his agrarian dream. But it was during Jefferson’s tenure in the White House that manufacturing changed America forever.
The change was brought about by Samuel Slater, a man few Americans have heard of today. However, his work merited visits from Presidents James Madison and Andrew Jackson. Jackson dubbed him the “Father of the American Industrial Revolution.” Slater came to America in the year George Washington was inaugurated as our first president and brought with him memorized plans for a textile mill. During Jefferson’s time in the White House, Slater built more than 50 factories. Some of his former workers went on to start their own factories, and the nation was on the path to becoming an industrial giant.
Slater’s impact on early 19th-century America was comparable to the impact of the digital revolution today. It changed economics, culture and the way people related to each other.
Rather than a society where most families worked a farm, the factory model for the first time separated home and work. Gender roles were impacted — men went to work, and women kept the home — and families started getting smaller. Public education began out of a need for more factory workers, and the model of the classroom followed the factory model with a foreman (teacher) up front.
Edward T. O’Donnell, a history professor at Holy Cross, commented on one impact of all this in terms that sound strikingly similar to the current tech revolution. “Industrialized printing of everything from books to sheet music changed the face of entertainment.” In a series of lectures on “Turning Points in American History,” he added, “We can even say the Industrial Revolution led to the invention of time — or at least our disciplined sense of it.”
Slater’s initiative and the work of other entrepreneurs led to a world where every minute counted. Jefferson, on the other hand, carefully designed a magnificent clock for his beloved Monticello plantation home. Our third president, dreaming of an agrarian society, didn’t even include a minute hand because he saw no need for it.
This isn’t to suggest that presidents don’t matter. They can obviously have great influence on the course of events, sometimes for good and sometimes with disastrous consequences. However, if you want to understand the future of America, it would be wise to spend more time following the news from Silicon Valley and less following the partisan bickering in Washington, D.C.