Historian Richard White on the Gilded Age

WHiteOver at Readers Almanac, the blog of the Library of America, Stanford historian Richard White answers a few questions about his recent book, The Republic for Which it Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.

Here is a taste:

Library of America: In The Republic for Which It Stands, you take up the challenge of treating two periods of American history, Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, which are often written about in isolation from each other. One way you bridge the divide is by taking the Republican vision of a good society—a society of homes and “homogenous citizenship”—as an overarching theme, using it as a kind of yardstick against which to measure the age. Was the distance between governing ideology and life as it was actually lived unusually great in this period?

Richard White: Originally, the distance between ideology and life wasn’t great at all. At the end of the Civil War, the United States hadn’t yet become a nation of wage workers. Independent labor and prosperous homes seemed the inevitable outcome of a war to eliminate slavery. Large factories remained relatively rare and class divisions, although real, weren’t impenetrable. Americans believed that free labor would secure independent homes, and black homes, identical to white homes, would arise in the wake of the war. Springfield—Lincoln’s home town—embodied their hopes; the nation would become a collection of Springfields.

Similarly, a homogenous citizenry with a set of uniform rights guaranteed by the federal government in a remade republic was legislatively possible in 1865, but the ideal was never absolute. In practice Indians and Chinese would be totally, and white and black women partially, excluded.

By the 1870s the gulf between the ideal and the reality had widened considerably and would continue to widen for the rest of the century. Americans listed as the markers of this failure the decline of independent labor and the rise of a large and permanent class of wage workers. The inability of many wage workers to earn enough to support the gendered ideal of a home—men protecting and supporting families, women in charge of hearth and home and nurturing children as republican citizens—proved alarming. Particularly in cities, immigrant tenements became the antithesis of the home. Not only did the federal government fail to secure black people a full and equal citizenship, but in both urban areas and the South, reformers pushed restrictions on suffrage. A kind of cultural panic, often racialized, ensued in which black people, Indians, Chinese, tramps, single working women, and many immigrants were defined as threats to the white home.

Although the economy grew immensely, the evidence we have indicates that individual well-being declined. Americans grew shorter, sicker, and the children of the poor—particularly the black and urban poor—died in shocking numbers. If the purpose of the economy was to buttress the Republic, it seemed to be failing while the two dangerous classes, the very rich and the poor, increased in numbers. The old ideal of a working life—the original American dream of a competency, the amount of money needed to support a family, provide a cushion for hard times and old age and to set children up in life, rather than great riches—seemed harder and harder to attain.

Read the rest here.