Reading: The Republic for Which It Stands by Richard White

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Title: The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. 1865-1896
Author: Richard White
Date Finished: August 6, 2018
Report Posted: September 4, 2018
Rating: ★★★★★





This book is a comprehensive view of Reconstruction to 1900s. Politics, power, culture, western expansion and industrialization. It would be impossible to address everything this book covers so I’ll stick with a couple of the central themes.

The ideal of “home” is a theme that ties much of the book together.  At end of Civil War the prototypical “home” was a self-sufficient farmer or small tradesman in a town like Springfield, Illinois. By the end of the century “home” had transitioned to an apartment in a  big city like Chicago with the wage-starved tenants barely able to get by. 

The idea of home was part of the drive to eradicate the Native Americans. They were depicted in popular culture as the enemy of families in the west. Native Americans had to be murdered to keep homes of the white settlers “safe”.

Likewise, the newly freed blacks were seen as a threat to the idyllic white home of the South. Laws and culture were built up to protect the white people’s homes by squashing Blacks. The chapters on the systematic denigration of Blacks is more than depressing, it is sickening. Andrew Johnson – Lincoln’s Vice President  who became president following the 16th president’s assassination – was racist from start to finish. In addition the North lost its appetite for pursuing equal opportunity following the Civil War. As a result the Ku Klux Klan worked hand-in-glove with Southern politicians to effectively deprive Blacks – through intimidation and murder –  the right to vote or work as anything other than sharecroppers. Since they were now workers instead of property (slaves) the Whites physically mistreated the freed people even worse than they had prior to their emancipation.

Throughout the book we read how corrupt the upper levels of society and politicians were. The author details the building of the railroads which settled the American West. The railroads were given tens of thousands of miles of territory. Financing was done through back office deals and outright bribery of Congressmen and Senators. They were so badly managed it’s a minor miracle they were built at all. Nevertheless, Jay Gould and the other heads of the railroads reaped enormous profits.

My biggest take away was how Congress and the judiciary turned milestone laws on their heads. Although industrialization had changed the way society worked, “the court acted as if industrialism had changed nothing essential and the economy still consisted of open competition between small independent producers.” [p871] For example,

“… judges appropriated the democratic language of Jacksonianism, which had sought to protect the many from the few, and turned it into a legal vocabulary that protected the few from the many. Turning people into commodities was impermissible, but turning people’s labor into a commodity  – a piece of property to be bought and sold – was the source of progress. Freedom became the protection of property.” [p 812]

Likewise, the Supreme Court turned the 14th amendment on its head. The end result was that

“By rendering freedom as the ability to dispose of ‘property’- either labor or capital – liberal judes cast restraints on property as potential attacks on freedom. … [A]nything that restricted contract freedom – whether licensing laws, certain kinds of public health regulations, strikes, boycotts, or the closed shope – became the legal equivalents of slavery. Such restrictions violated either the rights of workers to pursue a calling or the freedom of citizens to use property as they saw fit. Old protections against seizure of property without due process morphed into the ‘right’ of capital to a fair expected return on investment.”[p 814]

[Note: the term “liberal” judges should not be seen using our current terminology; it is a term to identify a group in the late 19th century.]

Corporations held all the cards. Strikes were illegal and workers had no rights to negotiate salaries or work environments. The law written to maintain competition and put controls on corporations was subverted.

“The Sherman Antitrust Act became virtually a dead letter against corporations for much of the 1890s, but unions, which were not the original concern of the legislation, became its targets. The courts could empty laws of content and fill them with new meaning. Of thirteen decisions invoking antitrust law between 1890 and 1897, twelve involved labor unions.” [p 819]

This book details the dismal lives of the majority of citizens and demonstrates what happens when money and power go untethered. As I’ve said before – what is good for business is not necessarily good for the citizenry.

In between we read about people and events that have come down through history. John Henry Brown has been memorialized as dying while racing a machine building a railroad. In truth he was most likely a prisoner rented out to the railroad and worked to death. The book also chronicles John Wesley Powell’s exploration of the United States arid reaches west of the 100th meridian.   We are also treated to stories about Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, General Custer and more.

I see parallels between that age and our current one. The power the one percenters have over our society today is similar to that of the Gilded Age. The early 1900s ushered in the Progressive Era where many of these injustices were addressed and corrected. I don’t think it is a foregone conclusion that the same will happen today.

The Oxford History of the United States is a fantastic series which gives a comprehensive view of America’s growth. This is a worthy entry in the series.

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