Monday, October 2, 2017

Author Q & A - Richard White on "The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896"

I am joined by Richard White to discuss his new book The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, which is the newest addition to Oxford University Press's venerable Oxford History of the United States series.

From his author bio: Richard White "is Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University. He is the author of numerous prize-winning books, including Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, and "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West."

DW: As part of the celebrated Oxford History of the United States series, one might reasonably suppose that the Reconstruction period and the Gilded Age would be covered in separate volumes. What inspired you to treat the two eras together in a single study?

RW: The inspiration was Oxford’s, but I came to agree with it. The two eras overlap in time, and the latter stages of Reconstruction are clearly part of the Gilded Age. It is very hard to argue that Tom Scott’s funding of Southern railroads and interventions in Southern politics, for instance, were not central to both Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.

Similarly, it was the scandals of the Lincoln and Johnson administrations as well as the Grant administration that inspired Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner to name the period the Gilded Age. Politically, it is impossible to understand the Gilded Age without its connection to the Civil War and Reconstruction. The North during Reconstruction tried to reshape the nation in its image, but the irony was that the North itself was changing from a largely homogenous, Protestant, and rural region to a diverse, multicultural, urban and industrial area.

DW: What were the defining characteristics of the “Gilded Age”?

Richard White
RW: The Gilded Age took its name from the corruption of the period and the rise of great fortunes that underlined the growing inequality of the era. Unlike some scholars, I do think the age was remarkably corrupt, and inequality was certainly growing. Immigration and industrialization—central facets of the period—produced diversity but also inequality on a scale that the country had not seen outside of slavery. The great paradox of the period was that the attempts to deal with corruption and inequality also made it an era of reform. The Knights of Labor, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the Farmers’ Alliance, the Greenbackers, the Populists, and much more emerged during the Gilded Age. I would argue that antimonopolism became the dominant political movement of the period.

DW: In what ways do your views, as expressed in your book and in the previous question, differ from the popular conception of the period?

RW: The theme of my book is how Northern Republicans set out to create a country in the image of the antebellum North—in effect a nation composed of so many replicas of Lincoln’s Springfield –and ended up creating a very different nation. Chicago—urban, industrial, and multicultural—was a world they had not imagined but one that they helped create. I see the period as the great age of the Midwest. It, rather than the Northeast, dominated the country politically and increasingly industrially, although not financially.

I have stressed the role of government and rejected the view that this was a period of laissez-faire and limited government. The government actively intervened to shape the economy through the tariff, subsidies to railroad corporations, the Homestead Act, and more. It was the government that intervened to break strikes and protect capital. As newer work in history and political science has shown, we miss the power of government in the United States during this period because we think it should look like a European state, and it doesn’t. The laws granted the government great powers, but it lacked the administrative capacity to implement them. The army, which was small, was often the only reliable institution officials had for administering laws. The United States instead relied on fee-based governance—the paying of bounties, fees, and the granting of subsidies to private parties to enforce laws and enact policies. This produced the corruption, inefficiency, and popular resentment so central to the era.

I have made the home the core concept of my book and the period. Individualism, either in the form of a Horatio Alger hero or Social Darwinism, did not define the Gilded Age. The home determined who counted as a man, a woman, and a citizen. As the era went on, not only reformers but also industrialists like John D. Rockefeller stressed cooperation (although they differed on the meaning) rather than individualism. A novel such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward captured these Gilded Age views. It was a very American product.

I have also tried to cut through the long argument about whether the triumph of capitalism and industrialization raised living standards over the nineteenth-century by using the demographic data compiled and analyzed by economists and demographers to argue that it did not. Economic statistics on the household level are very unreliable, but we have better information on lifespan, health, height, and other demographic markers. To generalize broadly, Americans grew shorter, sicker, and did not live as long as their ancestors. Their children died in shocking numbers, and work was incredibly dangerous. All of this indicates that life for most Americans was growing worse, not better.

DW: One might readily draw connections between the Civil War’s national mobilization of human and material resources and the mass industrialization of the Gilded Age. What other major features of the Gilded Age could the Civil War be considered to have been instrumental in accelerating?

RW: The Civil War amounted to a second American Revolution, and the republic that emerged from it was different than the nation that entered the war. The great political goal of Reconstruction was to create a homogenous citizenry that gave male citizens, black and white (but not Chinese or Indian), a uniform set of rights guaranteed by the federal government. Governments could, and did, still discriminate on the basis of gender. The attempt to create this homogenous citizenry ignited many of the battles of the Gilded Age. Until the very end of the century, whose side you were on during the Civil War framed political allegiances. The war’s legacy was apparent in most political campaigns.

The influence of the Civil War went well beyond political allegiance. In a way historians have now recognized, pensions for Union veterans and eventually their families created the first American social welfare system. By the end of the century, it was the largest in the world.

Finally, it was the Civil War that allowed the Republican Party to enact tariffs and railroad subsidies, pass the Homestead Act, create a national banking system, and more. All of these things shaped the Gilded Age economy and the industrialization of the United States.

DW: The American South is often viewed as having been largely left out of the Gilded Age’s economic expansion in favor of more concentrated levels of development in the North and West. Is this popular shorthand an overgeneralization?

RW: The South certainly developed differently, but it was very much part of the Gilded Age economy. By and large, it did not share in the federal subsidies for infrastructure and transportation, but the corruption of Southern governments during Reconstruction resulted, in part, from an attempt by the states to enact similar subsidies. The end of slavery was a triumph of social justice but a terrific, if temporary, economic blow to the South. The South’s attempts to create other forms of coerced labor shut it off from immigration and investment. It became, as Gavin Wright has put it, a low-wage region in a nation known for comparatively high wages. Fee-based governance (think of revenuers and the leasing of prisoners) was very much part of Southern politics and the economy. The South remained central to the larger economy. Cotton was the nation’s critical export, and the inflow of gold that it brought was critical to the financial system. Although it remained a region of unskilled labor with a relatively undiversified economy, the South was growing at rates comparable to other sections by the 1880s, but, of course, it started from a much lower base.

DW: In what manner did the Gilded Age fulfill the promises of Reconstruction and in what ways did it fail?

RW: The great hope of Reconstruction was the creation of a homogenous citizenry of both black and white people. In the South, this involved the legal and civil equality of freedpeople. The attempt was a noble one, but, by and large, it failed. There were islands of black freedom and autonomy but most did not endure. Black political activism hardly vanished, but it was forced into narrower channels. Jim Crow and disenfranchisement marked the failure of Reconstruction. The North also hoped to establish independent black homes. Here the record is more mixed. The black home became the target of terrorists in the South. Attacks were meant to show that freedmen could not be men, because they could not protect black women and children. These attacks did immense damage, but the black home persisted and freedpeople refused to submit to gang labor. But even this success was partial as Southerners used debt and criminal sentences to create a new source of coerced labor. Nor did the hopes for education and development in the South for either poor black people or whites achieve success.

The Gilded Age in the West did fulfill, in part, the aims of the Greater Reconstruction at the expense of Indian peoples, Mexican Americans, and Chinese. It turned Indian country into American states and territories. It facilitated the removal of Indian peoples from vast tracts of land in a way we would now call ethnic cleansing. It integrated the West into the larger American economy. What it failed to do, outside of the Middle Border, was to create the desired free labor landscape of prosperous small farms in the West.

DW: Of course, this next question is pure alternative history speculation. In your opinion, how different (if at all) might the second half of the nineteenth-century turned out had Lincoln not been assassinated in 1865?

RW: I don’t think the broad contours would have changed. Like other politicians, Lincoln did not anticipate the ways immigration, industrialization, and urbanization were going to change the country. Nor would another term for Lincoln have affected the corruption of the period. The Lincoln administration achieved levels of corruption that approached those of the Grant Administration. The Indian wars would have been fought with or without Lincoln. Reconstruction might have proved more successful, but I think this would have had less to do with Lincoln’s moderation compared to the Radicals and more to do with the possibility that he would have kept troops in the South longer than Johnson did.

DW: Was there significant party realignment on a national level during the Gilded Age? Did partisanship intensify or moderate over the period?

RW: Partisanship remained high despite arguments of liberals that only character and ability should govern political choices. There were three major shifts in party strength. The first two went in favor of the Democrats. The first came in 1874 with the reaction against Grant’s response to the Panic of 1873. The second came with the end of the Reconstruction governments in the South and the success of Southern Redeemers at suppressing the black vote. Taken together, these developments created a balance between the two parties so that most of the period after 1874 was one of divided government and stalemate. It is important to remember that if black people had been able to retain the vote, this would have been a period of overwhelming Republican dominance. The final realignment comes in the 1890s when the Republicans survived the Populist uprising and created a working class and business coalition that dominated the country until the Depression. The Democrats attained national power only when the Republicans fractured. The shift came not so much because existing voters changed their loyalties but rather because new voters trended very heavily toward the Republican Party.

DW: What was it in particular about the year 1896 that led you to use that date as your point of demarcation between the Gilded and Progressive eras?

RW: The first reason is that the election of 1896 cemented the political realignment that would dominate the country until the Great Depression. The second is that only after 1896, as antimonopolism shaded into progressivism, were many of the reforms championed during the Gilded Age achieved. The struggles that defined the Gilded Age became muted. The third is that the Spanish American War lies largely outside the narrative that I have pursued. It can be seen as the extension of the kind of colonialism the United States pursued in the West, but there were real differences, and so 1896 seemed to be a good place to end the narrative.

DW: Thanks once more to Prof. White for taking part in the interview. Again, readers, the book is The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896.


  1. Drew: Interesting and erudite interview. I know you don't like to read reviews of books you might review but this book has been well received. I was taken a bit aback though by Prof. White's opinion that Lincoln's Administration "achieved levels of corruption that approached those of the Grant Administration." Seems like overstatement to me.

    John Sinclair

    1. Hi John,
      One of my favorite interviews. I am fortunate that nearly all the Q&A guests really seem to take the opportunity to talk about their books seriously. I am far from well read on the topics covered in this one, but I did get the impression that his colleagues might challenge some of his views!


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