Struggling for liberty, post Civil War

The Republic for Which It Stands, The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, Oxford History of the United States by Richard White. Oxford University Press, 2017, 968 pages.

I listened to the Audible edition, ably read by Noah Michael Levine. This is another entry in Oxford’s multi-volume history, which includes James McPherson’s excellent Battle Cry of Freedom, The Civil War Era. The author casts the history of the last third of the nineteenth century as a struggle among competing definitions of freedom. He builds much of his narrative around the way in which the ideals articulated by Abraham Lincoln shaped the struggles of the period. Republicans were the party of free labor, seen as the key to every man being able to build and maintain a secure home for his family. Free labor, which was taken to mean freedom of contract between employers and employees, was often invoked to justify government inaction in the face of unfair and exploitative relations. The ideal of the home drove both the efforts to support freed slaves and to acculturate Native Americans to the values and religion of whites, whether they liked it or not. Similarly, the home was man’s castle, but too often, it was the woman’s prison.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the future of millions of freed slaves was the most obvious problem facing the country. The efforts of the federal government to provide for these people and to protect them from the exploitation and violence they faced in the South were hampered by unwillingness to expropriate the lands of rebels, reluctance to maintain troops in the rebel states, and lack of resources to provide for the largely destitute freedmen. Racism contributed to northern indifference and southern resistance. On the other hand, the Republican Party saw the former slaves as a pool of potential votes. There was some success in the immediate aftermath of the war, but in the end, the “old barons,” the large landholders, were able to reestablish control in most of the South. The desire to put the freedmen to work and end their dependence on government provisions, forced most into labor or tenancy agreements that left them little better off than before emancipation.

Nevertheless they resisted the attempts to reduce them to something like their previous condition, and in some parts of the South, they were able to do so for awhile. As the old political order was reestablished, however, they were met with more and more violent repression. As the last federal troops left, the regime of Jim Crow was firmly established, cemented in place by disastrous Supreme Court rulings that allowed false promises of “separate but equal” to count for “the equal protection of the laws.” Despite the gains of the Civil Rights movement, generations later, the current Black Lives Matter campaign and the resistance it engenders show we remain short of the goal.

The other major issue was the future of the western states and territories, especially in the prairie and Great Plains. The Homestead Act and massive land grants to the railroads were intended to open up these regions to agriculture, as well as linking the Pacific Coast to the rest of the country. In the lands between the Mississippi River and the 100th meridian, this strategy was successful, leading to enormous demographic and economic growth. In the arid regions further west, it largely failed, as did efforts to remove the Plains Indians to reservations without bloodshed. Inconsistent policies and lack of understanding and respect for Native American cultures led to a string of broken treaties, wars and massacres by both sides. Railroads made the slaughter of the bison herds into a profitable business, and in the end the army forced the Indians into small reservations. [Ironically, the famous Buffalo Soldiers, black cavalry units including many Union Civil War veterans, were part of the forces deployed. According to one history I read, they suffered more violence at the hands of white townspeople in the communities they were protecting than from the Native Americans.]

In moving to the Gilded Age, White covers a vast array of developments, including the rapid rise of industry, especially steel and railroads, both for their economic importance and for their large role in the struggle for labor rights. He also details the conflict over monetary policy, especially as it split different interest groups and sections of the country and shaped the national political scene. He describes the rise of the temperance movement and the larger preoccupation with home and morality it was part of. White shows how all these developments were seen by the leading contemporary observers and activists. It is especially interesting to learn how the generation that had supported anti-slavery and free labor tried to understand the new realities that emerged with mass industrial employment, increasing immigration and rising wealth and consumption.

In thinking about all of these questions, it is impossible to miss the parallels to our era. We struggle with questions about rapid social and economic change, labor rights, the role of marriage and the family and immigration among others. One difference is that a populist insurgency has succeeded in electing its candidate President. So far though, there seems to be no stopping the momentum that is taking us back towards the economic inequality of the Gilded Age.

All in all, The Republic for Which It Stands is a detailed political, economic and social history that serves as a very readable (listenable) introduction to the periods it covers. There is a very extensive annotated bibliography. I’d like to try more volumes in this Oxford series.

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