- The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865–1896 by Richard White
By Richard White. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. xv + 901 pp. Maps, illustrations, bibliographical essay, index. $35.00 cloth.
Reconstruction began in the West. This is the provocative point of departure for eminent historian Richard White’s sweeping new synthesis of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. These two eras have traditionally been strange bedfellows, with Reconstruction treated as the fraught postbellum effort by the North and South to put the union back together again, while the Gilded Age, usually deemed the “fly-over country of American history,” has been a different animal altogether, one of corrupt plutocrats, weak political leaders, and a new industrial age (874). But in White’s fresh retelling, these periods share something in common: both Reconstruction-era policies and Gilded Age reform initiatives centered on defending and protecting the American home.
What that home actually was, White tells us, developed during the Civil War and in the West. The Homestead Act of 1862—which had huge implications for slavery and western settlement—emerged as the Republicans’ postbellum vision of America: a “farm home, which combined ideas of competency, independence, family, and free labor” (141). Throughout Reconstruction, Republicans aimed to coerce and cajole all sections of America, including the West, and all marginalized groups, particularly African Americans and Native peoples, into embracing this ideal. But, as demonstrated by white Southern Democrats’ hostility and violence, African American disenfranchisement and persecution, and Indian wars and displacement, America failed to become unified and homogenous in the 1870s and 1880s. To the Republicans’ disappointment, not all of America wanted to replicate their chosen model: Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois.
Even if the Republican dreams of homogenous citizenship, contract freedom, and a free labor economy did not come to pass during Reconstruction, they continued to be debated in the Gilded Age through the prism of the home, which “sat at the juncture of politics, public policy, gender relations, racial relations, social reform, the economy, and childbearing” (171). In an era of immense change—the switch from an agricultural to an industrial economy, the rise of wage labor, large-scale immigration, the expansion of the federal state, and the violent [End Page 216] exclusion of nonwhites—the idea that the American “home had never been more endangered” mobilized Gilded Age Americans across the political spectrum to enact reform (764). Most of these political and social reforms emerged under the broad rubric of “antimonopolism,” an outgrowth of liberalism that was the “most significant political movement of the Gilded Age” (898).
Though at times White’s argument becomes too diffuse and his enormous subject unwieldy, he nonetheless offers a fascinating window into a period of failed aspirations and decline. For most of America, the “changes apparent in the Gilded Age hurt more people than they helped” (890). The poor got poorer and the rich richer, the economy became dominated by corporate interests, and racism and nativism grew pervasive. But White’s point in detailing this era may be to show us that it closely mirrors our own.
University of Missouri