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Book Review

Our history of racial, cultural, economic turmoil

The Ferris wheel at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

For more than a half century the notion of an authoritative multivolume history of America has been a preoccupation of the Oxford University Press. The project attracted the attention, and in time the involvement, of the most storied historians in the United States. Indeed three of the nine volumes completed thus far have won the Pulitzer Prize. The 10th entry in the series, covering the United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, may be the most erudite and sweeping of them all — as well as among the most timely, reminding during a time of turmoil that the divisive tensions of race and class inequities, economic upheaval, and regional schisms have deep, tangled roots.

“The Republic for Which It Stands,’’ by Stanford historian Richard White, is a rich and breathtaking portrait of a country that, from Reconstruction on, really was under construction, and in treating a period that White describes as “historical flyover country,’’ he portrays a nation and a time when political parties were more important than political figures and when tribal loyalties mattered more than ideology. It was not a period of great men but of great trends: urbanization and immigration, nativism and capitalism — “an astonishing and frightening period, full of great hopes as well as deep fears.’’


Great hopes, great fears — and great disappointments, great passions, and great changes: in technology, in the economy, in the racial and ethnic composition of the country. With these changes came important changes in national outlook, national values, and national focus. “The era began with the universal conviction that the Civil War was the watershed in the nation’s history,’’ White writes, “and ended with the proposition that the white settlement of the West defined the national character.’’

And yet so much of this period belonged to the Midwest, which held the lion’s share of the country’s population, provided most of its food, was the staging area of the great industrial boom, and supplied much of the nation’s cultural identity, its leadership, and its figures of invention and reform. But the South, too, was undergoing great change, and the fight there over the three legs of the stool of change — emancipation, freedom, and reunification — would also define the period, and the nation.


At a time when one of the tenets of liberalism was opposition to government intervention in the economy, Republicans nonetheless pressed to use government to build a new nation, steeped in nationalism and freedom. “Liberalism, held strongly by some Republicans and weakly or hardly at all by others, was less a glue holding the party together than a solvent that, once the [Civil War and Reconstruction were] over, threatened to dissolve its unity,’’ White writes.

This is the rare conventional, establishment historical survey that argues that the politics of the time involved the “gendering of liberalism,’’ which in essence kept women in a social standing that denied them many of the freedoms liberals were eager to provide to blacks. This was, as Wendell Phillips was to argue, the black man’s hour. The women’s hour had not yet chimed.

This chimes with the central thesis of this volume, which is that the story of the strife of this period is the establishment of the concept of “home,’’ not your usual historical prism. But here the struggle to define, and to populate, the American home is the American story itself. “Homes sheltered and largely confined girls, who were not encouraged to explore a larger world, and prepared boys for a life of independence that would allow them to support homes of their own,’’ White argues. “Separated from this larger cultural universe, disputes over politics and the economy made little sense.’’


The centrality of home, though, also carried within it a path to eventual change. During the Civil War men went off to battle, leaving women in charge of the domestic space even after. Once established as the moral center of the household, women could push to bring “the principles of a well-run Christian home into community life’’ and expand political and cultural influence.

The ideal home in this epoch was rural; the Homestead Act and the tracts it provided, which White writes “demanded the labor of both men and women and thus the creation of a home and family,’’ are a major element here. But soon the American drama would move to the cities, with their immigrants and political machines, their sense of opportunity, and their remorseless limits.

Two economic disruptions, in 1873 and 1893, would jolt the nation, throwing it into upheaval that would have political and social as well as economic implications. No longer would joblessness be explained merely as the product of disability, sloth, or bad luck. Other factors — broad, global economic forces and corporate missteps — were to blame. “Americans had entered a period of radical economic and political instability that they were ill prepared to understand,’’ White writes of the 1873 downturn. It would be even more so two decades later.


Above all this volume reminds us that the last third of the 19th century, populated by forgettable presidents, was no blank page in history.

“The nation was in economic depression and had not resolved old divisions,’’ White wrote of the middle of this period in words applicable to the whole of it. “The Indian problem refused to go away; the political compromise and the resolution of Southern Reconstruction proved no more than a scab over a festering sore; Southern Democrats scratched that scab, hoping to weaken the Republicans further. Above all the new industrial republic erupted in conflict, disorder, fear and anger.’’

This is a great and grand story, punctuated by debates over tariffs and taxes, pockmarked by corruption and congressional failures, and around it all swirled questions of race and the small dramas of farmers and miners, pioneers and politicians, suffragettes and suffering masses, railroads and reformers. It is a large bite White has assumed, and a major commitment for the reader, but its rewards and lessons, too, are great and grand.


The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896

By Richard White

Oxford, 968 pp., illustrated, $35

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.