Politics & Policy

What Can Reconstruction and the Gilded Age Teach Us about Today’s America?

Andrew Johnson and Abraham Lincoln in an 1865 political cartoon, “The ‘Rail Splitter’ at Work Reparing the Union” (Library of Congress)
A massive new history reexamines a period in the nation’s history with many parallels to our current moment.

The United States grew from a peripheral nation to a world power in a period that high-school history classes often gloss over. The Reconstruction era and the period of economic growth it touched off remade the American nation in the late 19th century but are studied less deeply than the Civil War that preceded them and the Spanish-American War that followed.

Recent racial tensions have led some, especially on the left, to reexamine Reconstruction. The rise of populism and an increasing rural-urban divide also suggests the need for a second look at the Gilded Age, a period that featured both. In The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865–1896, the latest installment of the multi-author Oxford History of the United States, historian Richard White delves deeply into the period. At 928 pages, White’s book offers a weighty discussion of an era that deserves it and, despite his occasionally odd conclusions about the nature of our nation, it is a tome worth reading.


Unfinished Revolution

White, a professor of American history at Stanford University, begins at the end of the Civil War, with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. The close of the bloody conflict gave many Americans hope of returning to the old way of life, including the small federal government they had known in decades past. But the war broke ideals just as it broke men. The republic had been shattered and reforged, similar in many ways to what it was before, but not identical.

The Radical Republicans who held sway in Washington after the war had no love for the status quo ante bellum and, for a time, the people and the new president, Andrew Johnson, were with them. They had not watched the country bleed simply to reunite it, unmended flaws and all. The war and Congress freed the slaves, and the Radicals aimed to keep them free in deed as well as in law.

Several obstacles presented themselves. Southern statesmen believed that with the war ended, changes should be minimal: restoration of the union and abolition of slavery. As the victors’ zeal faded, many in the North began to adopt the erstwhile rebels’ philosophy, as did President Johnson. With Congress fighting Johnson for control of Reconstruction, trying to restore the South to the Union while guaranteeing the rights of the freedmen was, as White puts it, “akin to building a house during a hurricane.”

The election that followed in 1868 was violent in a way that seems incomprehensible to modern voters. The Fourteenth Amendment disenfranchised high-ranking rebels, repudiated Confederate debts, and guaranteed a rough form of voting rights that wouldn’t be more firmly cemented until the 15th Amendment was ratified two years later. Diehard ex-rebels used violence to keep Republicans and newly enfranchised blacks from the polls. Temporarily repulsed under President Ulysses S. Grant, white Southern resistance to black enfranchisement finally succeeded when the military occupation of the South ended. White illustrates the scale of the withdrawal in a pair of excellent maps that show the army’s presence in the South to have been greatly diminished as early as 1869.

Going West

Part of the federal withdrawal that ended Reconstruction owed to the weakening Northern resolve to defend the rights of newly freed slaves. But the army also had increasing duties out west, where advancing transcontinental railroads led to the settlement of Native American lands. The resulting conflict led to a generation of war, mostly of low intensity but punctuated at times by bloody massacres.

In discussing the West, White extends the metaphor of Reconstruction to suggest that in the former Confederacy and in the former Indian lands, the goal of the federal government was the same: the extension of the new, Northern ideas over a conquered land and people. It is a theory currently popular among historians — Steven Hahn’s 2016 A Nation without Borders, covering much of the same period, relies even more heavily on it — and it is certainly thought-provoking, but it is flawed, to say the least.

While Reconstruction attempted to expand individual rights to black Southerners, Native Americans were treated quite differently.

For one thing, the differences between South and West outnumber the similarities. The West was not unpeopled, but it was sparsely populated, and its native population was primarily nomadic; the South was more densely populated and its population was settled. In the South, Republicans wanted to remake the legal (and in some cases, social) order; in the West, the majority of settlers simply wanted to push Native Americans aside, by means that were often as murderous and savage as they imagined the natives themselves to be.

White writes that our nation-building in the West “involved the same paradox as in the South: the expansion of individualism and contract freedom — hallmarks of a liberalism ideologically opposed to strong governments — under the sponsorship of a newly powerful state.” But the individualism of the early American republic needed no expansion; Americans were about as individualistic as any people could get. And while Reconstruction attempted to expand individual rights to black Southerners, Native Americans were treated quite differently. Despite occasional bursts of assimilationist sentiment in Washington, the relationship between the federal government and the tribes within its borders remained one of group rights and collective wardship. That collectivist relationship endures today, and is largely responsible for the current problems on Indian reservations, as Naomi Schaefer Riley chronicled in her 2016 book The New Trail of Tears

More Government

White often makes the point that Reconstruction and Western settlement both involved more government intervention than is generally known. He is right, in a sense. The government grew massive during the Civil War, and the post-war political dominance of Republicans — many of them former Whigs who favored stronger central government anyway — meant that those effects would not be undone in a trice. But the nature of government intervention differed from South to West.

The South saw direct federal intervention of a kind that would not be seen again until the New Deal. The military monitored state elections and intervened to prevent fraud or coercion by the Ku Klux Klan and other white-supremacist groups. At the same time, federal authorities meddled in the economy, encouraging freedmen to take year-long contracts as farm laborers in order to prevent the collapse of the region’s existing agricultural system — effectively reestablishing a slightly less brutal version of the old order. After troops withdrew from Southern capitals in the late 1870s, state governments filled the vacuum and expanded their powers to create what became the Jim Crow system of segregation.

In the West, while the federal government’s involvement with Indian tribes was considerable, the tribes made up a rapidly shrinking segment of the population. White notes the government’s massive land giveaways to railroad companies, but those were an indirect government intervention at best, and the only way to ensure that the transcontinental lines got built in any case. Those lines united East and West and spurred rapid settlement of the plains. Without the land grants that made them possible, their middle portions, which White admits were not profitable even decades after their completion, would not have been built. In other words, the government’s biggest intervention in the West was like a corporate Homestead Act: Washington gave away public lands and stepped aside.

A Problem of Scale

In the growth of industry in the North and the changing nature of work there, White draws a sharp line between the old free labor idea of Lincoln’s day and the contract freedom of the late Gilded Age. In this, he sees a break between the laissez-faire liberalism of the Civil War generation and the pro-corporate agenda of the generation that followed.

Both groups believed that workers had the right to take their labor where they pleased under whatever terms they and their employers could managed to agree upon. The principle was consistent and courts, if anything, were more favorable toward workers’ liberty at the end of the period than at the beginning. What changed was not the idea, but the scale. The size of employers, and thus their negotiating power, increased. Workers’ power did not, unless they joined a trade union — and White does well to point out the extent to which courts turned antitrust laws on their heads in the period, directing such laws against unions rather than corporate monopolies.

The problem of size — what Louis Brandeis later called the Curse of Bigness — inspires debate even in our own time. Then as now, one camp favored anti-monopoly advocacy as a solution. The idea cut across partisan lines, spurring the creation of several third parties, including most prominently the Populists. White does well to explain the populist fervor of the time. It was a rural phenomenon, though some attempts were made to join hands with labor unionists in urban areas. Its adherents’ demands ran the gamut from trust-busting to railroad nationalization to the creation of local banks to lend money to farmers without the interference of Wall Street.

Populism in the 1890s was primarily a movement of the Left in a way that seems impossible today. The triumph of progressivism in the generation that followed made the Left the party of more, bigger government, technocracy, and scientism. Populists of that era wanted some government intervention, but they wanted to rule themselves. Squaring that circle is difficult in any time period, but adding in top-down bureaucracy from Washington makes it even more difficult.

The Republic for Which It Stands is a thorough examination of late 19th-century America. White tracks the building of a nation and the growth of its industrial and economic power with an eye toward those left behind by the changes — a welcome focus at a moment when those being left behind by the equivalent changes of our time have just helped spark profound political upheaval by electing President Trump. And even when his analysis tends toward the negative, progressive view of American history, his detail nevertheless enlightens the reader.


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