Book Reviews

Richard White

Oxford University Press

Nineteenth-century Americans were a sickly people. The decline of virtually every measure of physical well-being was at the heart of a largely urban Gilded Age environmental crisis that people recognized but could neither name nor fully understand. By the most basic standards—life spans, infant death rate, and bodily stature, which reflected childhood health and nutrition—American life grew worse over the course of the nineteenth century…An average white ten-year old American boy in 1880, born at the beginning of the Gilded Age and living through it, could expect to die at age forty-eight. His height would be five feet, two inches. He would be shorter and have a briefer life than his Revolutionary forebears.

  from The Republic for Which It Stands

 

  

 We've Been Here Before

Historian Richard White opens his magisterial work with this observation: “I have written a book about a time of rapid and disorienting change and failed politics, and now I finish it in a parallel universe.”

Reading his history of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, one can’t help but draw parallels with our own time. It was, he writes, a period where the United States was “a country transformed by immigration, urbanization, environmental crisis, political stalemate, new technologies, the creation of powerful corporations, income inequality, failures of governance, mounting class conflict, and increasing social, cultural, and religious diversity.” Yep, sounds familiar.

White, a professor at Stanford University, writes with a vividness and verve that [CLICHÉ ALERT] makes history come alive. Part of the Oxford History of the United States series, The Republic For Which It Stands opens with the funeral train returning Abraham Lincoln to Springfield in 1865 and ends with the election of William McKinley in 1896 on the eve of the twentieth century. During that brief span of thirty-one years, our country experienced almost a complete make-over. The Civil War is often referred to as the second American Revolution. White adds, “Americans did give birth to a new nation, but it was not the one they imagined.”

There was the promise and the failure of Reconstruction, the shock of moving from an agrarian to an industrial society, the explosion of railroads crisscrossing the continent (nearly 30,000 miles of track laid in just five years), successive waves of immigrants, the Indian wars, institutionalized corruption in government and business, women’s fight for equality, the growth of the labor movement, and the United States’ emergence as a world-class economic power.

It is a story in which we as Americans can feel justifiable pride (technological inventiveness, personal enterprise) and justifiable shame (the brutal suppression of the former slave population, the broken treaties and treatment of the native peoples.)

Lincoln’s dreams of Reconstruction were gutted by his successor and a divided Congress. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States (Mississippi refused to ratify the amendment until 1995—Better late than never, I suppose.) but it took the occupation of federal troops to try and enforce it, 28,000 troops to police the South’s nine million people. The soldiers could not begin to stem the almost insane violence committed against the “Freedpeople”—a horrific story of systemic murder, mutilations, rape and whippings. Unable to stop the homegrown terrorism against African Americans in the area he was responsible for, General Philip Sheridan commented, “If I owned hell and Texas, I would rent out Texas and live in hell.”

Ironically, for being a “nation of immigrants,” our history shows a rather undiluted distrust and dislike of them. Each wave of immigration still seems to produce a nativist fear and loathing in the children and grandchildren of earlier immigrants.

Throughout his account, White frequently employs a wry, sly humor that lightens as well as enlightens. For example, funding the private railroads at the public’s expense: “It would have been a miracle if such policies went forward without corruption. There was no miracle.”

This is a book for people who love immersing themselves in history, and then contemplating it. One comes away with the sense that times change, but not the forces that drive and shape the times: our dreams for a better life, our desire to create a better world--along with our innate fears, prejudice, ignorance, and greed; it is through these that we continue to create and recreate humanity in our own image, dreaming dreams and committing atrocities.

 


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (June 15-July 14, 2018.) Reprinted with permission.