REVIEW: Reexamining a Lost Era in American History: the Post-Civil War Years

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 6.57.52 PM.png

The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 By Richard White

Oxford University Press, 941 pp.

By Paul Markowitz

The Oxford History of the United States has for over the past 34 years put out individual volumes about periods in United States history covering approximately 30-year increments. In that process this series has won four Pulitzer Prizes for History, been nominated for several more, and has generally won great praise for its efforts.  This newest volume covering Reconstruction and the Gilded Age 1865-1896 will not disappoint admirers of the earlier volumes, and should win the series some new fans.

As Richard White, a respected Stanford professor, reminds us, in this brilliant analysis of the post-Civil War era, that this period in United States history was devoid of a dominant political figure and thus often receives insufficient notice by historians.  Yet it was a critical time in our nation's past, as America was transformed by immigration, urbanization, environmental crisis, new technologies, the creation of powerful corporations, income inequality, mounting class conflict, and increasing religious, socia,l and cultural diversity.

White picks up where James McPherson left off in his seminal history of the Civil War, The Battle Cry of Freedom.  He manages to, in exquisite prose, catch the flavor of the times while conveying the dramatic challenge of a nation’s struggle to define itself.  We see the United States’ failed attempt to remake the South and West in the image of the North.  The country became physically larger but increasingly diverse.  And as it became more urban and industrial, both the poor and the wealthy became more numerous, with the latter generating growing resentment from the vast majority of the population.  Along with concerted attempts to reform the system, the Gilded Age would bring the scourge of corruption and ultimately a great depression.

Not all of this survey is a story of national failure or distress.  There is during this period, to be sure, a great deal of racial violence, ugly labor strife, political corruption, and devastating poverty, but White balances the story with doses of good news, notably the much more positive tale of “Greater Reconstruction of the West.”

He begins his narrative with Lincoln’s attempts to heal a divided country at the tail end of the Civil War and the traumatic story of his assassination and funeral.  He ends with William McKinley winning the 1896 election.  In between, he covers a great deal of history and, in the process, masterfully weaves together the sociological, literary and economic threads that run through a complex and fast-changing nation.

In the 31-year period White covers, the population of the United States more than doubled, from 31 million to 76 million.  The gross national product increased even more dramatically, from $69 billion to $320 billion.  But statistics tell just part of the story.  During these years, the United States took possession of the western part of the continent and transformed it from Indian country into American states and territories.  It was decidedly not what Lincoln had envisaged.  Not only had racial equality not been achieved, but the country was less egalitarian than it was at the era’s start.  American Industry exerted a pull that drew people from many parts of the world and unleashed forces that remade the country.  In this process there was an unintended by-product – a dramatic increase in the role and power of government.

Over the course of this sweeping epoch, the national psyche changed.  Where once the United States had imagined its endowments in terms of abundance, it began to think in terms of scarcity and conservation.  It began to stress consumption over production in its economy.  Where it once thought about sparsity of people it began to worry about immigration. 

As White makes abundantly clear, despite some undeniably disappointing, and even sordid, trends, the years from 1865 to 1896 were critical in the evolution of the country into the powerful entity it would soon become.  It is a chapter in American history that is too often overlooked – in the rush from the drama of the Civil War, to the idealism of the Progressive Era -- and highly deserving of White’s careful and illuminating examination.