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.

Historian Richard White on “Home”


Yesterday we posted a link to a History News Network interview with Stanford historian Richard White.

Today, White is back with a piece at Smithsonian.com on the idea of “home” in America’s Gilded Age.

Here is a taste:

When reduced to the “Home Sweet Home” of Currier and Ives lithographs, the idea of “home” can seem sentimental. Handle it, and you discover its edges. Those who grasped “home” as a weapon caused blood, quite literally, to flow. And if you take the ubiquity of “home” seriously, much of what we presume about 19th-century America moves from the center to the margins. Some core “truths” of what American has traditionally meant become less certain.

It’s a cliché, for example, that 19th-century Americans were individualists who believed in inalienable rights. Individualism is not a fiction, but Horatio Alger and Andrew Carnegie no more encapsulated the dominant social view of the first Gilded Age than Ayn Rand does our second one. In fact, the basic unit of the republic was not the individual but the home, not so much isolated rights-bearing-citizen as collectives—families, churches, communities, and volunteer organizations. These collectives forged American identities in the late-19th century, and all of them orbited the home. The United States was a collection of homes.

Evidence of the power of the home lurks in places rarely visited anymore. Mugbooks, the illustrated county histories sold door to door by subscription agents, constituted one of the most popular literary genres of the late-19th century. The books became monuments to the home. If you subscribed for a volume, you would be included in it. Subscribers summarized the trajectories of their lives, illustrated on the page. The stories of these American lives told of progress from small beginnings—symbolized by a log cabin—to a prosperous home.

Read the entire piece here.

Richard White: Historian

WhiteErik Moshe continues his series of interviews with historians at History News Network. Here is his conversation with Stanford University historian Richard White.

A taste:

Why did you choose history as your career?

I’d credit my interest in history partially to Landmark Books. It was a series for young readers that I devoured as a child in New York before we moved to California. I particularly remember the books on American history and those written by Harold Lamb, things like Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde. If I liked authors, I would read the books they wrote for adults. My father was not indulgent about many things, but I could buy as many books as I wanted if I read them. The books were on sale for a quarter or less in New York City used bookstores that we would visit from Long Island.

As for becoming an historian, I’d put most of the blame on the Nisqually Indians. I was active in the Indian fishing rights struggle at Frank’s Landing in Washington State in the late 1960s. The Nisqually were the most interesting people that I had ever met, and talked about events a century or more earlier as if they had happened yesterday. In trying to understand that past and how they thought about, I went to graduate school and wrote my master’s thesis on the Medicine Creek Treaty. It was flawed—I was learning to be a historian— but it had me starting to do research, and I have never stopped. In many ways, I am still happiest in the archives.

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

For starters: patience, imagination, humility, curiosity, and empathy. Historians need an eye for the bigger picture – they need to answer the “who cares?” question and explain why what they are writing about matters. But at the same time, they need to recognize the specific illuminating details that ground the past in a vivid lived experience.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

I am an academic and so the short answer to both is universities. I have been at Stanford for nearly twenty years, but my heart is still with public institutions, which unfortunately with rising tuition and declining state contributions have become less and less public. At their best, universities offer an engagement not only with ideas but with larger public purposes. At their worst, they are narrow parochial institutions devoted largely to what will enhance their ability to raise funds and to creating an instrumental knowledge that largely serves the powerful.

The horrifying thing about universities is that you constantly grow older, while students never age. But the good thing – really a wonderful thing – is that they allow me to follow my own intellectual curiosity in the company of undergraduates, and particularly graduate students, of often astonishing ability.

Read the entire interview here.

Richard White on Christian America

When I think about the historian Richard White, I think about books like The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815.  It is an amazing piece of scholarship.  I read it in graduate school and have built several lectures off of its argument.  I tried assigning it once to undergraduates but they found it to be too long and too theoretical.  

When I think about White I also think about Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America and his remembrances of his mother in Remembering Ahanagfran: A History of Stories.

I don’t normally think of Richard White as a historian interested in the idea of America as a “Christian nation.”  That is why I was surprised to run across his Boston Review review of Steven Green’s Inventing a Christian America: The Myth of the Religious Founding and Kevin Kruse’s One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.  It’s a great review.  Here is a taste of his conclusion:

Viewed over the longue durée of three centuries, the idea of a Christian nation traces our changing religiosity, but more interestingly our sense of ourselves. Like originalist constitutional interpretation, the appeal of the Christian nation lies in its assertion that nothing has changed; we are who we were in the beginning and will presumably be until the end of time. Except of course we are not. We are certainly not a Christian nation. Over three centuries we have had three chances to enshrine that belief in the Constitution, and each time

we refused.

And yet there is no denying the enduring influence of the idea. It is a way of linking an enduring secular providential strain of American thinking—that we are a chosen repository for the fate of all mankind—to a beneficent deity. When, at various times in our history, we did not have a clue as to what we were doing, it was good to believe that God did. And since we are a democracy, and the majority of us have been in some sense Christian, that God must be a Christian one. But attempts to be specific about God’s identity and plan lead to trouble. On those occasions, as Kruse writes, it becomes all too apparent that the United States is “not, in any meaningful sense, ‘one Nation under God.’”

Richard White: "Americans Didn’t Always Yearn for Riches"

But, according to Credit Fix, all of this changed in the Gilded Age when Americans began to think of the American dream “not as competency but rather as the accumulation of great wealth.” The change had a lot to do with the books of Horatio Alger and the social theory of William Graham Sumner.

Read Richard White’s essay at Boston Review.  Here is a taste:

Speaking in New Haven in 1860, Abraham Lincoln told an audience, “I am not ashamed to confess that 25 years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat—just what might happen to any poor man’s son.” After his death, Lincoln’s personal trajectory from log cabin to White House emerged as the ideal American symbol. Anything was possible for those who strived.

But the goal of this striving was not great wealth. Perhaps the most revealing memorial to Lincoln and his world is found in one of the most mundane of American documents: the census. There he is in the Springfield, Illinois, listing of 1860: Abraham Lincoln, 51 years old, lawyer, owner of a home worth $5,000, with $12,000 in personal property. His neighbor Lotus Niles, a 40-year-old secretary—equivalent to a manager today—had accumulated $7,000 in real estate and $2,500 in personal property. Nearby was Edward Brigg, a 48-year-old teamster from England, with $4,000 in real estate and $300 in personal property. Down the block lived Richard Ives, a bricklayer with $4,000 in real estate and $4,500 in personal property. The highest net worth in the neighborhood belonged to a 50-year-old livery stable owner, Henry Corrigan, with $30,000 in real estate but only $300 in personal property. This was a town and a country where bricklayers, lawyers, stable owners, and managers lived in the same areas and were not much separated by wealth. Lincoln was one of the richer men in Springfield, but he was not very rich.

Not only was great wealth an aberration in Lincoln’s time, but even the idea that the accumulation of great riches was the point of a working life seemed foreign. Whereas today the most well-off frequently argue that riches are the reward of hard work, in the Civil War era, the reward was a “competency,” what the late historian Alan Dawley described as the ability to support a family and have enough in reserve to sustain it through hard times at an accustomed level of prosperity. When, through effort or luck, a person amassed not only a competency but enough to support himself and his family for his lifetime, he very often retired. Philip Scranton, an industrial historian, writes of one representative case: Charles Schofield, a successful textile manufacturer in Philadelphia who, in 1863, sold his interest in his firm for $40,000 and “retired with a competency.” Schofield, who was all of 29 years old, considered himself “opulent enough.” The idea of having enough frequently trumped the ambition for endless accumulation.

As the men and women of Lincoln’s and Schofield’s generations aged, they retained the ideal of progress from poverty to competency. Later in the century, midwestern publishers created county histories that featured images of their subscribers’ homesteading progress, from “first home in the woods” to comfortable farm. The “mug books”—so called because they included images not only of cabins and farms but also of their owners—captured the trajectory of these American lives and the achievement of their economic ambitions: the creation of prosperous homes. They built them, but they could build them because they were citizens of a democratic republic. The opportunity to build secure homes was part of the purpose of the economy

For a moment at the end of the Civil War, it seemed the liberal ideal of a republican citizenry, in which autonomous individuals build a society based on contracts, would reach fruition in a United States where extremes of wealth and poverty were largely nonexistent. Instead, by 1900, extremes of the sort that hadn’t been seen since the abolition of slavery were de rigueur. In 1860 there was only one Cornelius Vanderbilt, but 40 years later, the concentration of wealth in the corporate form ensured an enlarged class of the super-rich.