In a memorable episode of the profanity-strewn HBO series Deadwood, freight agent Charlie Utter distills into one observation his frustration with the ability of eastern financial interests to destroy all that was free about the American West: "It's all f***in' amalgamation and capital, ain't it, Mr. Wolcott?" Michael Bellesiles echoes this same sentiment in his study of one of the most turbulent years in United States history.
1877: America's Year of Living Violently presents a sweeping tale of one year during the late nineteenth century in which a wave of unprecedented personal violence exploded across the land. The [End Page 291] financial Panic of 1873, argues Bellesiles, set into motion a series of collisions between capital and society's outliers that amplified middle-American paranoia about anything that might constitute the "other," including southern blacks, Chinese and Native Americans in the West, unionizing laborers in cities, and the poor of every ethnicity or region. Bellesiles unpacks his thesis through a discussion of the signal events of 1877, including the final demise of Reconstruction, the Plains Indian wars, the "tramp scare," widespread labor unrest, and a presumed surge in homicides. The author's roughly Marxian interpretation of American history strikes a tone of genuine compassion for the laboring classes while offering an equally genuine tone of disdain for the middle class and rich of the era. Institutionalized contempt for the poor and mainstream racism, argues Bellesiles, were the root causes of violence in late-nineteenth-century America.
Perhaps the greatest strength of this book is that Bellesiles aggregates a set of topics that historians normally do not combine, despite the fact that most would readily recognize that they are related in some important fashion. For instance, only lately have historians of Reconstruction paid extensive attention to concurrent events in the West. Although this approach delivers a greatly simplified recounting of complex events such as the Compromise of 1877 and the war against the Sioux, it convincingly advances a provocative if pessimistic thesis about the underpinnings of modern America. This expansive vision should earn the author some success in course adoptions in the U.S. survey. Indeed, while reading this volume, one can almost visualize Bellesiles delivering an animated series of lectures to students about the social forces that dominated the late nineteenth century. His chapter about the "tramp scare," far and away his most original, will surely resonate with readers for both its engaging narrative and its continued relevance in our national debate.
Unfortunately, the originality of this work does not extend very far past its overarching theme. Bellesiles appears to have limited his primary research to newspapers and published firsthand accounts, and relies heavily on secondary scholarship for the rest, much of which [End Page 292] is either out of date or selectively read. Some of this is attributable to the nature of penning such a sweeping tale for a popular audience and is hardly unique in works of this genre. Those hoping for a sociopolitical counterpart to Richard Slotkin's landmark exploration of American cultural violence in Gunfighter Nation (1992) will necessarily be disappointed. A greater flaw, however, lies in what is perhaps the most central assertion of the book. In his title and in other numerous direct and indirect inferences, Bellesiles argues that 1877 marked some sort of apex of bloodletting where "Americans killed one another in record numbers previously seen only in time of war" (p. ix). Yet he admits that the sort of data needed to accurately quantify violence is difficult to obtain and that neither he nor anyone else has fully obtained it. Instead, Bellesiles based his central assertions on the work of other scholars, including those published in 1880 by sociological pioneer Horace V. Redfield. In short, this work marshals only anecdotal evidence for a bold statement that can, by definition, only be proven by statistics. This decision is unfortunate, for as Bellesiles demonstrates, 1877 stood out as a watershed year not for the number of lives lost but...