Review of Richard White’s “The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896”

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James Thornton Harris is an independent historian and the author of The Evil In Our Soil: the Creation of Slavery in America

“Make America Great Again” was not a campaign slogan used in the 1868 presidential election, but it might have fit in well with the platform of one party — the Democrats. The party nominated Horatio Seymour, a bland, little-known New York politician. The party’s main campaign speaker, Vice Presidential nominee Francis P. Blair, was a segregationist from Missouri who warned about the unleashing of “the semi-barbarous race of blacks.”

The Democrats wanted to rollback the Republican Congress’s efforts to reconstruct the South; they saw no value in enforcing political rights for blacks. The party argued that the federal government has usurped too much power and called for immediately readmitting into the Union the former states of the Confederacy.

This argument, which has echoes in today’s Republican party, was very popular with post-bellum Southern voters and many Northerners as well. However, the Democrats never had a chance in the election.

The Republicans nominated the most famous man in the nation, Civil War hero General Ulysses S. Grant. The quiet, cigar-smoking general did not actively campaign (he considered it undignified) but his party supporters made it clear he would continue the Republican plans for a major Reconstruction of the South. Grant won, polling 53 percent of the vote and winning the electoral college, 214-80.

The ideology of the Republican and Democratic parties was to turn 180 degrees in the next century. But in the 1870s, the Republicans stood for black voting rights, strong federal oversight of state governments, stimulation of the economy and high tariffs (the major source of government revenue).

Many of the issues prominent in today’s political discourse were present in this era: voter suppression, regulation of unions, access to contraception and abortion, women’s rights (e.g. suffrage), and the need to limit immigration.

The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 by Richard White is the latest book in the Oxford University Press’s multi-volume series on the history of the United States. White, a Stanford history professor, has previously written four books on the West, including “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own,” A History of the West.

In taking on this assignment, White has made the most of the hand he was dealt, a period not known for dramatic events and charismatic leaders.

In the introduction to his 940-page account, White points out that the era of Reconstruction has often been considered “flyover” country by historians. Many writers and scholars prefer to focus on the Civil War or the more accessible 20th century.

Lord Acton, the great English historian and political leader urged scholars to “study problems, not periods.” White has taken this advice to heart and has divided his book into chapters that address a series of challenges facing the nation in this era of growth and transformation. These topics include, Reconstruction of the South, labor vs. capital, industrialization, women’s rights and the Great Depression of 1893.

Both parties were divided into factions and often shifted ideologies on local issues. The Republicans had Silver Republicans, liberals and Stalwarts. The Democrats had Mugwumps, Bourbon Democrats and Tammany Hall loyalists.

White does an excellent job of sorting out the various groups, what they wanted and how they impacted national politics.

The book engages the reader with numerous anecdotes and short biographical sketches. The author also takes time to explain some issues that often glossed over in other, wider-scale histories. For example, he carefully walks us through the complex issues involved in the gold standard. This issue, involving abstract concepts about the role of currency, was a factor in every presidential election of the period.

In this effort, White gives a concise portrait of William Jennings Bryan. He explains the imagery of Bryan’s famous “cross of gold” speech in July 1896, why it electrified the crowd and sealed his nomination for president.

The Republic for Which It Stands, however, is seriously flawed in one aspect: the omission of black voices. Almost all the quotes and observations come from white, elite Anglo-American writers and politicians. The book is anchored in the viewpoints of two white journalists, Henry Adams and William Dean Howells. The views of Adams, the Harvard-educated grandson of John Quincy Adams, are referred to more than two dozen times. Howells, the Boston-based editor of The Atlantic, is quoted no less than sixty times.

In comparison, we hear the voices of only two black leaders, Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass. Wells, who spoke out against lynching in the South, is given a couple of paragraphs, Douglass’s work is described in less than two pages.

This Oxford history skips over the contributions of the 21 African Americans who served in the House of Representatives during this era. The book also fails to mention the views of prominent black historians of the day such as A. E. Johnson or George W. Williams, often referred to as “the Negro Bancroft.”

The lack of black voices and the extensive use of elite, white viewpoints create the impression that African Americans were quiescent or submissive in this era. They were not. This was the beginning of a new black culture with the founding of many historically black colleges and the expansion of vibrant communities in Northern cities. Washington had 70,000 black residents, Philadelphia and New York each had about 40,000 black residents.

One of the most frustrating omissions is the work of W.E.B. DuBois, who began writing in the 1890s and earned his PhD from Harvard in 1895. Ironically, some of his first articles were published in The Atlantic, the magazine edited by Howells.

DuBois, in his 1903 book, The Forethought, famously predicted “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” His outlook was a product of his experiences in this period.

African Americans have been present in this nation for four hundred years. The post-Civil War era was a key period for black culture, which developed in midst of continual violence in the South and casual racism in the North.

This is a story missing from White’s book.

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