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A Model Reconstruction?

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 41, Number 2, June 2013
pp. 258-263 | 10.1353/rah.2013.0058

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A Model Reconstruction?
John B. Jentz and Richard Schneirov. Chicago in the Age of Capital: Class, Politics, and Democracy during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012. xii + 310 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $55.00.

In her presidential address at the Organization of American Historians’ 2012 annual meeting, Alice Kessler-Harris cast capitalism and democracy as competing poles within the American experience. The relationship between the two has always been subject to “fundamental” tensions, she argued, going so far as to evoke a “long struggle between freedom and equality, between capitalism and democracy” in the nation’s past. The parallelism is revealing: throughout the talk, entitled “Capitalism, Democracy, and the Emancipation of Belief,” Kessler-Harris deployed “capitalism” as shorthand for the unrestrained liberty to pursue one’s own self-interest, while insisting that a (relatively) egalitarian distribution of wealth is a sine qua non of “democracy.” In her telling, the tide of democracy receded sharply in the North in the decades following the Civil War, which saw “the rise of the robber barons, frequent economic crises, the great strikes that repeatedly descended into violence, instigated usually by private, public militias, [and] the sad, social disorder as families fell into poverty, were forced into peonage, or fought with incoming immigrants for scarce jobs.” While this period witnessed an influx of new voices—“utopian, socialist, syndicalist, populist, and sometimes even anarchist”—into the public conversation, these scrappy dissidents proved no match for an industrial aristocracy that wielded vast control over the nation’s financial and credit systems. Not until the Progressive Era, in fact, would some semblance of equilibrium between capitalism and democracy be restored, or so Kessler-Harris and a number of other leading scholars in the field would have it.1

In a new book, veteran labor historians John B. Jentz and Richard Schneirov tell a notably contrasting story. Chicago in the Age of Capital: Class, Politics, and Democracy during the Civil War and Reconstruction argues that the years between 1860 and 1880 witnessed a profound transformation of the urban North, a kind of Northern “reconstruction,” that paralleled, in both timing and scope, the Reconstruction of the South. Jentz and Schneirov cite vast economic change as both a central feature of this larger transformation and a driving force behind [End Page 258] it, conclusions that will neither surprise nor trouble anyone familiar with the story of Chicago’s astonishingly rapid metamorphosis into an industrial powerhouse. More provocative is the authors’ characterization of political and cultural life in the industrializing city. In the wake of the Civil War, they claim, Chicago’s “capitalist class” managed to establish its own “hegemony,” even as the city’s organized wage earners gained sufficient political clout to “sideline existing antidemocratic forces and make the city’s politics and government substantially more democratic than before the war” (p. 12). In recasting this period as a heyday of both bourgeois power and representative government, Jentz and Schneirov paint a sunny—and controversial—picture of life in postbellum Chicago, one in which capitalism and democracy appear not as competing poles but rather as twin pillars of progress well before the Progressive Era.

The book’s first chapter sets the scene, as Jentz and Schneirov describe Chicago’s breathless transformation “from a commercial center into a dynamo of industrial capitalism” (p. 13). While there is little in the way of new material here, the authors craft a useful and even elegant synthesis that draws on their own previous work, as well as that of noted scholars such as Rima Schultz, Robin Einhorn, and William Cronon. Jentz and Schneirov recount how, prior to the Civil War, Chicago’s economy thrived on commerce. Throughout this period, a booster elite, comprised mainly of merchants, promoted the city far and wide as the premier point of exchange for both Eastern finished goods and Western raw materials. The members of this well-heeled group did not aspire to become captains of industry. They imagined, with Abraham Lincoln and any number of other contemporaries, that wage earning was, in the life of hard-working persons, merely a passing stage along the way to economic independence. But...