The Gilded Age isn’t one of the periods of American history that that elicits much attention from the average American, if they know about it at all.
The late nineteenth century, the era in which America rebuilt from the Civil War and reforged itself as one united republic, doesn’t earn the vast amount of coverage that the conflict that preceded it does, even though its effects are felt to this day.
Thankfully, the latest addition to the Oxford History of the United States presents an accessible and broad account of the era. Richard White’s “The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896” maintains the high standards the Oxford series has come to be known for and offers new insight on the time period.
One of the things that differentiates this book from other works on the period is the inclusion of Reconstruction into the study. The time immediately after the Civil War is often lumped in with the conflict itself in broad surveys of American history.
White, a history professor at Stanford University, connects Reconstruction and the Gilded Age together with the shared theme of dramatic and messy change.
America became more urban and industrialized during this period. Exciting new technology was brought forth into the world, yet life became more miserable for the millions struggling to live in the brutal cities of the 19th century. Robber barons became obscenely wealthy and powerful, while their workers turned to radical ideas about labor and the economy. The Republicans and the Democrats were no longer the same creatures that they were at the end of Civil War.
White uses Springfield, Illinois — Lincoln’s hometown — to illustrate the ideal American community of 1865. Springfield was Protestant, relatively egalitarian and composed of independent producers, not wage laborers. This is the kind of town Lincoln’s Republican Party hoped the rest of America would follow.
But by 1896, Springfield represented the past, while Chicago was the present reality, according to White. Chicago was multicultural, riven with class conflict, and populated with tens of thousands of wage laborers. Additionally, its politics were corrupt and run by political machines — a far cry from the idyllic politics of small-town Springfield.
White starts his book with Lincoln’s funeral march amid the Confederacy surrendering and the reconstruction of the South beginning. The first chapters are focused on Reconstruction and summarizing the latest research on the efforts to mold the Confederate states back into the Union.
It is a good summary of the period. However, it does feel brief when compared to the discussion of labor struggles and economic change in the later chapters.
A subject that is given much attention in the book is America’s expansion into the West during the period. White’s own past research has dealt at length with this topic, and it receives welcome attention in “The Republic for Which It Stands.”
Most of the book is devoted to the Gilded Age proper, with the period ending in the book with the election of William McKinley. One of the more interesting developments that White tracks in his work is that of the political fortunes of liberals.
Liberals here mean those in the classical sense, not MSNBC talking heads. The liberals of the late 19th century supported limited government, free trade and individualism. White sees them as having more similarity with modern conservatives than with those who are still assigned that label.
Unlike scholars of the past like Richard Hofstadter who saw this ideology as ascendant in the period, White sees these cranky liberals in retreat during the period. Government became bigger while radical ideas from the Left challenged many liberal orthodoxies.
It is one of the book’s primary qualities to see how it charts the decline of liberals in the Gilded Age and how they struggled to fend off the many challenges. One quibble is that the term often seems applied too broadly in the book. Another is that their opponents aren’t as clearly defined as liberals themselves are.
But those are minor complaints.
As is fitting for the Age of Trump, the book does make a somewhat subtle reference to the politics of 2017 in the acknowledgements. White lets readers know that his grandparents were immigrants and that the immigrant experience is vital to America, in a likely jab at President Trump and the current debate over immigration.
“I realized that I had somehow arrived at a time when my country, which I love in my own perverse way, is making devotion to family antithetical to devotion to country, in a way that ironically echoes the Gilded Age,” White writes.
But the book’s appeal is not diminished at all by this acknowledgment and it should serve as a valuable source of information for all readers.
“The Republic for Which It Stands” is another confirmation that Oxford’s series is still the best place to start if you want to learn the basics of U.S. history.