Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and Today

Having heretofore avoided reading a book about Reconstruction, one of the worst periods in American history, I decided to read a book about Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, two of the worst periods in American history (on the theory that reading a book about Reconstruction and something else would dilute the nevertheless disturbing account of Reconstruction).

The book was The Republic For Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865 – 1896, by Stanford University historian Richard White. It’s one of nine volumes in the Oxford History of the United States. It’s got 872 pages of text and weighs 3 1/2 pounds.

It wasn’t what you’d call a “fun read”. This is part of the publisher’s summary:

At the end of the Civil War the leaders and citizens of the victorious North envisioned the country’s future as a free-labor republic, with a homogenous citizenry, both black and white. The South and West were to be reconstructed in the image of the North. Thirty years later Americans occupied an unimagined world. The unity that the Civil War supposedly secured had proved ephemeral. The country was larger, richer, and more extensive, but also more diverse. Life spans were shorter, and physical well-being had diminished, due to disease and hazardous working conditions. Independent producers had become wage earners. The country was Catholic and Jewish as well as Protestant, and increasingly urban and industrial. The “dangerous” classes of the very rich and poor expanded, and deep differences — ethnic, racial, religious, economic, and political — divided society. The corruption that gave the Gilded Age its name was pervasive.

One thing that summary leaves out is that the period also included “taming the West”, more appropriately described as inflicting cultural devastation and mass murder on the American Indians. It also leaves out the horrors inflicted on former slaves (and some of their white supporters) in the South, the stunningly successful effort to undo the results of the Civil War using a biased legal system and more mass murder (there were places in states like Alabama and Mississippi where maybe 1% of black citizens cast ballots).

Two of the big political issues of this period were tariffs (what taxes should be applied to imports) and money (whether it should be based on gold or silver). Corruption in government, recurring financial panics and the economics of farming were also major concerns. But in some ways, American politics looked a lot like today, with inequality, the power of big business and limits on immigration being major issues. 

These two illustrations show something else that hasn’t changed. The first shows the presidential election of 1896; the second shows the one we had last year. 

1896_large 2020_large

The big difference between the two maps, of course, is that between 1896 and 2020 the two parties switched sides. Partly because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Southern racists became Republicans (not what you’d expect from the Party of Lincoln) and Northern and west coast liberals became Democrats.