Stanford historian reexamines United States’ Reconstruction, Gilded Age in new book

Stanford’s Richard White, an American historian, analyzes the United States’ history from 1865 to 1896 and provides a fresh perspective on the time period, which was marked by rising inequality and corruption.

The issues of inequality and divisiveness that the United States faces today share many parallels with a period of time after the Civil War which also faced rising inequality, heavy immigration and partisan deadlock.

Richard White

Richard White (Image credit: Jesse White)

Between the end of the war in 1865 and the start of the 20th century, a time that encompasses two periods historians call the Reconstruction era and the Gilded Age, the newly united, post-slavery U.S. saw rapid and disorienting technological change and the country’s largest wave of migration, as well as weak presidents, corruption and bribery.

Stanford historian Richard White analyzes that historical period in his new book The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, which is the latest installment in Oxford University Press’ multi-volume series on narrative history of the United States. White argues that the seeds of the modern U.S. were planted during this time period and that a better understanding of the societal and political struggles of the time could shed light on issues being debated today.

Stanford News Service interviewed White about his research.

What is the biggest takeaway from your research about this period of time?

Toward the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans had a clear vision of what they wanted the country to be. They sought to make the republic a replica of Springfield, Illinois, a Midwestern town that embodied free labor and the middle class. By 1896, it was clear that they had helped produce a very different world. The book seeks to explain how this happened.

The “American dream” during this time was about attaining a “competency” rather than great riches. A competency meant having enough to secure independence, security in times of crisis and old age and the means to start children out in life. Previous historians have described Reconstruction and the Gilded Age as a time of individualism. But it was less about individualism than cooperation. These alternate American values are something we forget today.

How and why did you start working on this book?

David Kennedy, who is also a professor of history at Stanford, asked me to take this on years ago, and I initially said no. When he came back later with the same request, I said yes because my mother became ill with dementia and I needed the book’s advance to help with her expenses. She died more than a year before this book was finished.

I’ve written widely about different topics and issues from this era, but I became increasingly fascinated with the period while working on this volume. I realized that just because I taught and studied this period didn’t mean that putting this book together would be easier. Integrating so much diverse material turned out to be a challenge.

In describing the era, I realized I was describing the world into which my own family came. One of my grandparents was the child of Jewish immigrants from Poland who arrived during the Gilded Age. My Jewish grandfather came from what is now Belarus around the turn of the century. My maternal grandmother came from Ireland about the same time. My Irish grandfather, following his relatives, came later. One grandfather was an illegal immigrant; the other was nearly deported back to Russia; both my Irish grandparents returned to Ireland.

How was the Reconstruction and the Gilded Age viewed before by most historians and how is your interpretation different?

Sometimes a generation of scholarship becomes so influential that it kills a field. That’s what happened here. Influential 20th-century historians, such as Pulitzer-Prize winning Richard Hofstadter and Robert Wiebe, described the United States as a fragmented republic searching for order and dismissed the presence of corruption during the Gilded Age. They described the era as one of laissez-faire and weak government. Only recently have historians started to challenge that portrayal.

I found a different country than the one Hofstadter and Wiebe described. I see a strong government that repeatedly intervened in the economy with tariffs, subsidies and social welfare programs. It had power – but without administrative capacity – so it granted authority to private bodies and relied on fees and subsidies rather than bureaucracy. This contributed a great deal to the corruption about which Americans complained.

In trying to evaluate arguments over whether industrialism and urbanization improved the lives of Americans, I turned to demographic studies. They showed that American lifespans declined as did average height. Large numbers of children died. It is hard to argue that conditions for ordinary Americans improved. Those benefits were largely reserved for the 20th century.

Are there any other misconceptions about this period? Any unheralded events or outcomes that we should pay more attention to?

Hofstadter and other historians also see the Gilded Age as an age of individualism. My research shows that’s not the case. The key idea then was one of home. Americans thought of the republic as a collection of homes.

Most people organized their lives around the home. Real men defended and supported a home; true women maintained and reproduced the home.  Men who could not do this did not deserve full citizenship and the vote. That was the argument used to deny citizenship to Chinese and voting rights to black people and “tramps,” a term used then to describe workers traveling in search of a job. These groups supposedly threatened homes rather than supported them. Similarly, a real woman maintained a home and a family.

Why is it important for us to understand and learn about that particular period of history? What are some of the lessons that are relevant to today’s America?

The parallels between then and now are striking.  In part, the seeds of the modern United States were planted during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.

Many debates over today’s policy recommendations on how to solve American problems go back to the debates over Gilded Age policies. People who talk about immigration or governance today really need to take a careful look at the Gilded Age. Chances are if policies failed then, they are not going to work now.

But, in another sense, the opposite is also true. The best reason to study history is to discover past possibilities that are not apparent today. The idea of a competency rather than endless material accumulation, of cooperation rather than individualism, and of collectives like the home rather than personal self-fulfillment are Gilded Age ideals that deserve reconsideration.

Richard White is the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University. He is a MacArthur Fellow and has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Media Contacts

Richard White, Department of History: whiter@stanford.edu

Alex Shashkevich, Stanford News Service: (650) 497-4419,  ashashkevich@stanford.edu