- The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865–1896 by Richard White
Richard White's sweeping The Republic for Which It Stands offers a crisply written exploration of two distinct periods covering the last decades of the nineteenth century. His book closes out the story of a tumultuous century for the acclaimed multivolume Oxford History of the United States. As expected, the hefty tome integrates and highlights recent scholarship as well as relying on classic works in the field, and provides useful maps and evocative illustrations. Readers eager to pursue further study [End Page 550] of the era can consult a comprehensive bibliography. I will go on record as expressing my sympathy for White's difficult assignment. The distinguished Stanford scholar was asked to combine two of the most unpopular and misunderstood periods of U.S. history, both holding the taint of catastrophic failure. Generations of published scholarly and popular works have documented the failures in explicit detail. Professor White updates that historiographical tradition by describing a swift national post–Civil War declension characterized by the abandonment of free labor ideals, rampant corporate greed, income inequality, religious hypocrisy, class divisiveness, strikes, mass immigration, labor and race riots, racism, genocide, ethnic cleansing, environmental degradation, and, last but not least, massive political corruption. Reflecting current trends of historiography, White's America is a land of division, not unity, of differences, not similarities, with marginalization for the masses and privilege grabbed for the few. The United States emerges from a little over three decades of change, challenge, and transformation as a weakened country morally if not materially, and unworthy to assume the mantle of global leadership in the twentieth century. Still, it is a riveting narrative, and well worth the many hours I spent reading a book just short of one thousand pages.
The Republic for Which It Stands is divided into three parts: "Reconstructing the Nation," "The Quest for Prosperity," and "The Crisis Arrives." The eight chapters on Reconstruction are preceded by an eloquent prologue equating the death of President Lincoln with the dismembering of the ideals (and many of the practices) of freedom, free soil, and free labor ennobled and embraced by the Republican Party before and during the American Civil War. White laments that the two administrations led by Andrew Johnson (1865–69) and U. S. Grant (1869–77) botched the opportunities to create a biracial society, but he admits that the majority of northerners voted to stop supporting the Reconstruction policies, especially after the depression of 1873 crowded out all other issues. By 1876 a consensus emerged in which both the Republican and Democratic Parties pushed toward reconciliation with the South. Here, I regretted the editorial decision not to treat Reconstruction and the Gilded Age in separate volumes. This was especially true with White's analysis of the Grant administration, which mostly relies on badly out of date scholarship.
On the other hand, White notes that the Lincoln-led government played a huge role in unleashing vast economic forces with three essential laws passed by Congress in 1862. For better and worse, the Pacific Railway Act, the Morrill Act, and the Homestead Act provided the foundation for the most astounding development of industry, education, and agriculture in human history. Federal land policy powered a revolution with unforeseen [End Page 551] consequences and conflicts but with no guidebook to follow. The feckless and reckless railroad building, steadily expanding manufactures, and increased agricultural production made for an integrated capitalist system but one burdened with a creaky financial structure and punctuated by two major depressions.
Indeed, White deftly combines the cultural, political, and social response to the economy and Reconstruction's unedifying turmoil within the tale of the "Greater Reconstruction" of the West that seeks to connect southern Reconstruction with the broader streams flowing through the late nineteenth century. This is an effective strategy, incorporating western expansionism, the Indian wars, the cruel and violent efforts to remove Native...