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Grand Illusions

How the ideal of a radically equal republic faded after the Civil War

“There is no place like home,” Dorothy exclaims after a cyclone whisks her and her little dog, Toto, to the bright world of Oz. “No matter how dreary and gray our homes are,” she tells her friend the Scarecrow, “we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful.” Be it ever so gray and dreary—like Dorothy’s beloved Kansas prairie in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—the idea of home is a principle, a rallying cry, an ideal; and it’s one of the adroit symbols organizing Richard White’s The Republic for Which It Stands, a sweeping new history of the three teeming decades known as American Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.

“Home Sweet Home”: It’s the caption of the Currier and Ives print that comforted Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Home: It’s also the “beating heart,” as White puts it, “of an expansive political program.” The idea of home contained all the “gendered and racialized assumptions” of the American republic in the decades after the Civil War. That is, home implied morality, family, and security. If it had a color, it was white; if it had a religion, it was Protestantism. Home: It was a place for manly men and womanly women, a place impervious to the temptations of strong drink and atheism, of Catholicism, of Mormonism, adultery, and feminism. Its origin was a humble cabin (preferably made out of logs) from which greatness sprang—after hard work of course. The Homestead Act sought to provide all these things for settlers who, after improving a tract of land for five years, graduated to home ownership and presumably to economic self-sufficiency. When Republicans promoted the tariff, they promised high wages that would help workers maintain their homes. Home was the “prized ideological ground,” White declares, over which most battles were fought.

And it’s the very clever device that White uses to shape what might have been a loose, baggy monster: a book chronicling a country, after a Civil War, that was rocked by labor unrest, xenophobia, new technologies, and two serious economic depressions. After the Panic of 1873, White writes, “Americans had entered a period of radical economic and political instability they were ill-prepared to understand.” It was an era of producer goods; of skyscrapers (“the privileges of capital manifest in steel”); of tenements and national strikes and strikebreakers; of violence, anarchism, and socialism; and of the rise of the Populist party. It was an era that produced Henry George’s widely read Progress and Poverty, and the construction of railroads that the West didn’t need but the South did, an era of corporate mergers, of industrial and farming unions, and of wastefulness on a grand and tawdry scale. Wealthy diners in swallowtail coats feasted on small songbirds soaked in Armagnac, flambéed, and then eaten whole. No wonder that Mark Twain christened the era the “Gilded Age.”

The promotion of the American home during this time reveals a deep anxiety about its ability to maintain itself against perceived threats from outsiders, particularly immigrants, and against the apparent or real menace posed by alcoholic men, or women who wanted suffrage. The idea of home (white, Protestant) was foisted on various Native American tribes by the numerous treaties divvying up their homelands, forcing them into deadly reservations, breaking down their cultures—and teaching women how to knit. It would become a weapon against Chinese immigrants, whom Sinophobes accused of not understanding or caring for home life; in the South, the labor contracts, the so-called Black Codes, and the vagrancy laws enacted by various Southern state legislatures effectively prevented black men and women from owning their own homes. And because there were more and more single-parent homes, and more and more homeless children roaming the streets, the image of the orphan began to dominate popular culture. Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an orphan, and so are Huckleberry Finn and Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick. Anthony Comstock’s zealous crusade against vice, the uptick in fraternal lodges and the Knights of Labor: All these were responses to what seemed challenges to the sanctity of the home.

The most recent contribution to the impressive Oxford History of the United States (other volumes include James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought), The Republic for Which It Stands demonstrates White’s subtle understanding of a period that may once have been regarded as “historical flyover country”—and of the American West. Margaret Byrne professor of American history at Stanford University, White is also the author of such richly detailed books as Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and he brings to this perceptive new volume his familiarity with land grants, government subsidies, and railroad buccaneers. Immigration, industrialization, failures of governance, class conflict and, importantly, the vestiges of Civil War, he shows, dominate and roil this period in ways that shaped the upheavals, inequities, and even the hopefulness, sometimes blinkered, that remain with us today.

From a certain point of view, White’s history is also a history of Republicanism. One of the many merits of his book is his careful delineation of the underlying tensions in the party of Abraham Lincoln after the Civil War. No longer held together by the anti-slavery consensus, Liberal Republicans (as they were called) broke away from the Radical Republicans who’d fought for equal political and civil rights. Ideologically opposed to the centralized, strong government that had developed during the war, Liberal Republicans actually became more like conservatives and libertarians of today, with their commitment to a more constrained federal government and to individual freedom, private property, and laissez-faire capitalism. Defending moral uplift, individual autonomy, free trade, and the gold standard, they also opposed federal interference in state government and soon promoted a restoration of states’ rights.

Oxford University Press, 968 pp., $35.00

Another clever organizing device of this large book is the people who glide through its pages. Consider William Dean Howells, a mostly forgotten nineteenth-century novelist dwarfed in stature by his contemporaries Henry James and Mark Twain, both of whom were his friends. The champion of the optimistic and the moderate, the prudish Howells briefly read law in the office of the Radical Republican Benjamin Wade, an abolitionist, and then composed a campaign biography for Abraham Lincoln. After the war, though, he was a Liberal Republican who wrote for the moderate Nation, edited the staid Atlantic Monthly, and genteelly hid from his children the novels of Émile Zola. In 1876, he composed a campaign biography for fellow Ohioan Rutherford B. Hayes, the man credited with withdrawing federal troops from the South and ending any further chance for political rights, particularly at the polls. “Homogeneous citizenship, which originally had been inclusionary,” White notes, “narrowed once more to mean rights for white men only.”

Howells backed James Garfield for president in 1880 but shortly after Garfield’s assassination, he traveled to Europe, read Tolstoy, and on returning to America, championed the literary realism of the Russian writers. He no longer trusted the eclectic, popular philosophy of Herbert Spencer, who’d coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” Howells and then a younger generation of “American intellectuals, academics, and reformers,” White points out, disagreed with Spencerian liberalism, which suggested that “natural laws systematically weeded out the biologically unfit.” Said William James, Spencer’s “sociological method is identical with that of one who would invoke the zodiac to account for the fall of a sparrow.” Realizing that the Republican aim of a homogeneous citizenry, in which equal rights were enjoyed by everyone, had drastically shriveled into a plutocracy, Howells agreed with the reformer Lyman Abbott that “politically America is a democracy; industrially America is an aristocracy.”

In the wake of the Haymarket Affair in Chicago in 1886, when a dozen people were killed, many more wounded, and eight anarchist leaders were put on trial for conspiracy, Howells publicly opposed “punishing men for their frantic opinions.” Breaking with liberal friends like John Hay (Lincoln’s former secretary and one of his biographers), Howells began to attend various socialist clubs; Hay meanwhile wrote a novel, The Bread-Winners, in which he skewered the rich but also the workers, whom he characterized as frauds and criminals.

As White shows, Howells’s despair over the state of his country was not unique. Nor was his desire to improve conditions for men, women, and workers (blacks, Native Americans, and the Chinese population typically received short shrift). There was Jane Addams of Hull House and her settlement work; there were labor leaders like Terence Powderly and Eugene Debs. There was also Ida B. Wells, who not only catalogued and publicized racial violence and the horrors of vigilantism but pushed the otherwise racist Women’s Christian Temperance League to condemn the widespread lynching of blacks. And there was Sara Winnemucca, the author of Life Among the Piutes, who wielded the idea of home as a weapon against white Americans. Dressing up in what Victorians imagined Native American princesses might wear, on the stump she stirred her audiences with tales of rape and pillage—of white men terrorizing Native American homes and women, not the reverse.

Reformers increasingly embraced a socialism that rejected individualism and liberal orthodoxies; that rejected immutable moral laws; that confronted monopolies and other corporate structures, sometimes violently; that organized workers into various labor movements and wanted nonetheless to protect the sanctity of the home; and that achieved a certain degree of political success while they teetered between “giddy enthusiasm for the future and near despair over their country.” White tellingly notes that, “in this they, too, reflected the age.”

Howells’s imagination failed him after the massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee, for even though he condemned the government’s Indian policy, he admired General George Custer and called the Sioux “butchers.” But White does not look for consistency or perfection in the figures he writes about; he understands the fallibility and self-deceptions of human beings caught by the ironies of history, whether on a small or large scale.

Take Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of the beloved president, who became the head of the exploitative Pullman Palace Car Company. (George Pullman, who considered himself a reformer, created a company whose underpaid employees hated him so deeply that he ordered his casket to be wrapped in concrete in case, after his death, they took revenge on his body.) Take Theodore Roosevelt’s mother, fastidious about cleanliness, who died of typhoid, likely contracted through contaminated water. Pollution affected rich and poor alike; it was “democracy of defecation,” White dryly notes. (One of the pleasures of White’s book is sly humor.) Or take the notion of nature. “Civilization paradoxically demanded wilderness,” White observes. Conservation, particularly through hunting, became a way of restoring health to rich, nervous middle-class men; but hunting had to be done right, in fancy get-ups purchased back East—hardly the way Native Americans hunted. And conservation ironically meant the creation of laws that circumscribed how and where Native Americans, for instance, could hunt. With the settlement of the West came the destruction of some of the continent’s common species, like the bison herds and the passenger pigeons, which numbered in the billions early in the 1870s but, by the 1890s, only in the dozens.

Take, too, the story of the Fourteenth Amendment, another kind of character in White’s impressive story. In 1869, a New Orleans butchers’ association sued Louisiana when the state government, in order to control pollution, allowed only one company to operate a slaughterhouse within the city and demanded all others be relocated on the outskirts. The butchers then used the Fourteenth Amendment to claim they were being denied their rights without due process. Though the Fourteenth Amendment had been broadly conceived as an extension of the Bill of Rights and aimed to secure racial equality and protect all citizens from discrimination, in the Slaughterhouse Cases, the Supreme Court decided that the federal government had no jurisdiction over where butchers slaughtered their animals; that was for the state to decide. In other words, the Fourteenth Amendment could not protect rights deemed the state’s prerogative. Thus interpreted, the Amendment didn’t guarantee the absolute rights of citizens, which were presumably to be protected by the states. That decision allowed for the erosion of the very securities the Amendment had been designed to safeguard.

Subsequently, in 1886, in a victory for railroads, the Amendment was used to defend something called corporate personhood, an artificial construct distinct from the personhood of human beings. In deciding a case about the assessment of taxes, the Court ruled that the Amendment’s equal protection clause applied to California corporations too, and over time, the distinction between corporations as artificial persons and natural persons would break down, as we know. In addition, the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment redefined natural rights as those which had value, real or potential, whether capital or labor, in the marketplace. For instance, when New York State prohibited the manufacture of cigars in tenement sweatshops—apartments rented by employers where families lived in one room filled with drying tobacco, and everyone, including children, rolled cigars—the court reversed the law, arguing that it deprived the worker of his property and personal liberty. “Judges regarded their decisions involving freedom of contract as evenhanded, striking down any effort to prevent people from following their calling, no matter whose ox was gored,” White explains. And here is another paradox: “In the name of restraining government,” White notes, “the courts were establishing broad new government powers.” It became an age of judicial imperialism.

In 1896, the famous Plessy v. Ferguson decision enshrined Jim Crow discrimination in its “separate but equal” ruling. Further, the Fourteenth Amendment could be interpreted as a defense of property, whereby the color of a white person’s skin was deemed to have an “actual pecuniary value” that was presumably in need of protection. Black skin had no value.

By the 1890s, as White amply demonstrates, the ongoing tension between individualism and bureaucracy seemed to favor the latter. The Republican ideas that “had arisen in opposition to slavery and feudalism, and had done effective work against them” now seemed “irrelevant in the new industrial economy.” The liberal market was not open or fair. “The actual market was opaque, was inequitable, and consisted of connected transactions between entities of vastly different influence and power.” And the Democrats faced a different sort of contradiction. William Jennings Bryan, the evangelical spellbinder from Nebraska, argued in the 1896 presidential election that McKinley Republicans were the party of corporate power, corporate subsidies, and the gold standard. Bryan’s campaign for the White House thus inadvertently registered a coming transition in the Democratic party, away from a creed of small local government toward one that embraced reform and government activism in the name of improving the quality of life of the common working folk.

White’s Gilded Age chronicle comes to its close as he returns to the image of Abraham Lincoln, whose sudden death in 1865 inaugurated the period. By the end of the nineteenth century, the country no longer belonged to Lincoln. It was more populous, its land mass greater, its streets grimier, its markets more international, its corporations huger, its classes more divided, its races still divided, its immigrants divided, and the narrative of the recent past tidied up. Secession disappeared from the story of the Civil War, and so did slavery, and where once there had been the rhetoric of sin and strife and freedom, of bondage and rebellion, there was a myth of charity for all. Meantime, the figure of Lincoln, though ubiquitous, had grown somewhat smaller. “To be everything to everyone,” White remarks, “he had been largely emptied of historical content, and more than that, the failures of his vision, as well as the larger Republican vision, for the country had to be ignored.”

Ignored, yes, and for a while, even a long while, but not forever, and certainly not by Richard White, who characterizes Lincoln as the melancholic man who boldly faced suffering, who grew with time and in time, who hoped for the best and planned for the worst, and who, like White himself, was not at all blind to the possibilities of the republic—nor to its myriad, tragic faults.