Time and Again


Even those reasonably well informed about U.S. history will admit to large knowledge gaps for the period 1865-1900. The years before and after have attracted far more attention and analysis. There won’t be a large audience for The Republic for Which it Stands, Richard White’s massive, nearly 900 page account of this period. Accordingly I assumed the challenge and thus can summarize for those interested. What struck me was the consistently bleak picture he presents for those years, an age which, after all, featured westward expansion, significant industrial developments, the growth of major cities and a nation at peace (overseas at least, until 1898). What follows are notable themes of White’s impressive work.
• A succession of brutal massacres of native Americans by the military, as well as civilians. Rarely were women, children or the elderly spared. Government officials cheated them, starved them, lied to them and drove them off their lands. Indians might survive, it was asserted, only if they abandoned their traditional tribal organizations and adopted the ways of white Americans; even so, the public assumed that extinction of the Indians was close at hand.
• Chinese laborers were critical to railroad construction, mining and Western logging. Still, everywhere, they were exploited, paid “Coolie” wages, attacked, murdered, driven off, their residences destroyed. Viewed as hopelessly clannish, there was no place for them in America and so the Chinese became the first group specifically denied further entry into the United States (1882).
• The slaves had been emancipated and blacks in the U.S. attempted to find their footing, aided by the Federal government and sympathetic Northern and Southern whites. Whatever progress resulted, however, gradually was reversed as violent anti-black organizations (KKK, et al) mobilized to murder and intimidate blacks, limit job possibilities and their right to vote. By the end of the period Jim Crow segregation laws had spread across the South, the promise of freedom largely unfulfilled.
• A growing stream of immigrants to our shores left more Americans fearing for the future of the country. The new arrivals were considered to be of a lower order, uneducated, unskilled, slum dwellers, prone to violence and inebriation, and despite notable exceptions, could not be assimilated. Their continued entry into the U.S. and their high birth rates, it was feared, could result in “race suicide” for white America.
• There was widespread and severe suffering among the working classes, now largely wage laborers. Their work commonly required 12 to 14 to 16 hours a day, but even then they endured lengthy periods of unemployment (due to a series of prolonged economic down turns). A majority lived at subsistence levels. Life expectancy fell, infant mortality rose. The height of Americans actually declined in these years. In response workers began organizing and striking in an effort to improve conditions. They succeeded at times, but everywhere encountered fierce resistance from employers and strike breakers, repressive measures from police forces and the military. “Respectable opinion” tended to dismiss the working classes as rabble, Socialists, Anarchists or worse.
• Corruption was widespread and high profile scandals abounded. Corporate leaders manipulated stocks and bonds routinely and found ever willing government officials who, for a price, provided favorable legislation, tariff protection, and subsidies, and directed police forces to suppress strikers. (In 1895, U.S. Supreme Court justice Henry Brown stated that “probably in no country in the world is the influence of wealth more potent than in this, and in no period of our history has it been more powerful than now.”) In the cities political bosses used their power to skim off public funds to enrich themselves and to reward followers.
• Vicious anti-Catholic sentiment was widespread among Protestant Americans, and Roman Catholics were widely viewed as threatening American values and democracy. Often opposition centered on Catholic efforts to obtain public funding for their schools. Furthermore, assaults against Mormons were common, its support of polygamy seen as a direct attack against monogamy and the sanctity of the home. It was an outrage that Brigham Young had married at least fifty five wives, sixteen of whom had given birth to his forty eight children.
• The “thinking classes” bemoaned the state of affairs across America. Their indictment included unprincipled and greedy political leaders, the fecklessness of government, the widening chasm between rich and poor, the dangerous immigrant hordes, the desperate working classes and the violence, real or threatened. Society might advance, but only, they argued, if the fittest survived.
The “good news” here is the reader’s awareness that as the new century dawned an Age of Reform would be ushered in, led by those determined to grapple with some of the major problems outlined above. Progressive men and women would organize, determined to challenge corporate power, official corruption, city bosses, poverty, racism, environmental degradation, the conditions and compensation of labor, etc.
The bad news would seem to be that now, well over a century later, most of the troubling issues back then bear strong resemblance to current, and still unresolved, problems. Despite measurable advances and improvements in the quality of life within our nation, we still witness widespread racism, suspicion of and anger towards immigrants, concentration of wealth, urban blight, religious discrimination, persistent corporate influence over government, corruption at all levels, working class malaise and serious environmental decline. That we’ve come a long way since the Civil War is undeniable, but perhaps that’s in part an illusion inasmuch as we’re still grappling with most all of the problems that afflicted our society so many years ago.

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