Rothera on White, 'The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896'

Richard White
Evan Rothera

Richard White. The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 968 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-973581-5.

Reviewed by Evan Rothera (Penn State University) Published on H-SHGAPE (May, 2018) Commissioned by William S. Cossen (H-SHGAPE Book Review Editor; The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology)

Printable Version:

Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, is an exceptionally accomplished historian. Two of his books—The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (1991) and Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (2011)have been Pulitzer Prize finalists. In addition, both won the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians, along with other awards. He has also served as president of the Organization of American Historians. The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865–1896, is part of the Oxford History of the United States, a prestigious series that includes many prize-winning volumes. White examines the United States from Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 to William McKinley’s election in 1896. In 1865, he asserts, “Americans did give birth to a new nation, but it was not the one they imagined” (p. 1). From the beginning, White informs readers that this is not a triumphal narrative extolling economic growth. Rather, he illustrates how things went awry in a crucial, if often maligned, period in US history.

White divides the book into three parts: “Reconstructing the Nation,” “The Quest for Prosperity,” and “The Crisis Arrives.” Part 1 analyzes postwar Reconstruction, assumes readers have read James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom or Eric Foner’s Reconstruction, and does not consider “rehearsals for Reconstruction” during the US Civil War.[1] White provides a competent overview of postwar Reconstruction and examines the major episodes, including Presidential Reconstruction, Radical Reconstruction, Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency, the Panic of 1873, and the use of paramilitary violence to overthrow Reconstruction. However, he departs from other narratives of Reconstruction in his insistence that one cannot understand the period without considering the western dimensions. For the past decade, scholars have been westernizing Reconstruction.[2] White makes good use of this literature, specifically Elliott West’s idea of a “Greater Reconstruction.”[3] Because “the violence unleashed by the Civil War in the West, like the violence in the South, needed to be mitigated and suppressed” (p. 105), White’s narrative explores entwined ideas about violence and state power. He also discusses the rise of wage labor, which “provided ideals of independence, citizenship, and manhood that workers were loath to surrender.” However, “as long as it remained attached to ideas of contract freedom, it also provided their employers with a powerful weapon” (p. 242). Scholars who have begun reassessing Grant’s presidency will not be happy with White’s treatment, which highlights corruption, cronyism, and Grant’s less positive qualities.

Part 2 covers the late 1870s and 1880s and finds little to admire about this period. White juxtaposes violence against the Nez Perce with reactions to the Great Strike of 1877. He guides readers through the disastrous Rutherford B. Hayes presidency, charts the period’s staggering array of reform movements, and probes debates about immigration and nativism. Most immigrants, he notes, “were not fleeing persecution or famine; they chose to come, although their choice was shaped by circumstances” (p. 415). At a time of explosive population and economic growth, life spans shortened and people were sicklier than their ancestors were. In other words, “a people who celebrated their progress were, in fact, going backwards—growing shorter and dying earlier” (p. 477). Furthermore, the contours of life in the Gilded Age United States became dizzyingly complex. Labor militancy cheered some people and worried others. A powerful antimonopoly movement emerged as the robber barons solidified their fortunes. In the West, farmers and miners revolted “against the political system originally designed to aid them” (p. 607). White finds the election of 1888, in which Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote but won the presidency, a seminal moment because “the political system tipped, lost its balance, and would not right itself for nearly a decade” (p. 619).

Part 3 dissects the crisis cued up in part 2. Republicans passed the McKinley tariff and reaped a whirlwind in the midterm elections of 1890. Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick became the menacing face of the tariff. Grover Cleveland defeated Harrison in the election of 1892. However, “mandates had a way of souring quickly in the Gilded Age” (p. 767). Although this assumes Cleveland had a mandate in the first place, which seems unlikely, White’s point is that the Panic of 1893 broke the Cleveland presidency. As Jacob Riis revealed through photography the “ambiguities of the new, urban, industrial America” (p. 693), nativists panicked about the changing composition of the United States and argued for immigration restriction. White maps the rise, power, and limitations of Populism and concludes with the epic presidential contest in 1896. McKinley’s election was simultaneously the end of one era and the beginning of another.

Like other authors for this series, White has an eye for vivid quotes. Furthermore, some of his assessments are delightfully pungent. For example, Andrew Johnson’s Washington’s Birthday address “provided more evidence that he should never give impromptu speeches” (p. 66). George Armstrong Custer, “force-marched his men, who did not love him, back to Fort Harker so he could visit his wife, who did” (p. 108). In Massachusetts, “everything wrong with the Republican Party seemed distilled in [Benjamin F.] Butler, who looked like a pudgy, disheveled pirate” (p. 208). Ulysses S. Grant’s “second cabinet was as undistinguished as his first and could not provide worthwhile advice even if Grant had been willing to listen to it” (p. 255). Antimonopolists considered Stephen J. Field “a thoroughly corrupt tool of the railroads, and there are good reasons to believe this” (p. 470).

For all the pleasing aspects of this book, problems exist. The first involves the periodization of this volume. To be fair, this problem is not White’s fault. The volume preceding his, James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, ended with Appomattox and did not analyze postwar Reconstruction. Thus, White received Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, and a starting date of 1865. Some people might consider this logical. After all, 1865 is the traditional end date of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction. However, Eric Foner forcefully reminded scholars three decades ago that Reconstruction really began in 1863 or, arguably, in 1861 after the firing on Fort Sumter. Thus, 1865 makes for a somewhat troublesome beginning. Furthermore, pairing Reconstruction and the Gilded Age is not necessarily a bad idea, but there is a compelling reason for pairing the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. White comments, “as with so many other things, the environmental improvement initiated during the Gilded Age would not bear fruit until the Progressive Era” (p. 500). In other words, the Gilded Age contains ideas and movements that flowered decades later, but readers will not get a precise sense of how things changed until Oxford assigns the next volume in the series.

If the first problem is not White’s fault, there are two problems with his approach to the era. First, he is not particularly attentive to the international dimensions of US history. He comments, “to simply track the United States as another swimmer in a vast transnational current misses all the complexities of the Gilded Age. Most of the developments examined in this volume took place on national and regional scales, not the transnational. Transnational developments mattered, but during the Gilded Age the nation took shape in response to these larger changes rather than as a simple reflection of them” (p. 6). He is correct that the United States responded to larger changes but, problematically, does not spend much time analyzing the world beyond US boundaries and exploring how it and the US influenced each other. Admittedly, it would hardly be fair to expect a book in a series about the United States to spend all its time abroad. However, White could have probed, in a more sustained fashion, links between the US and the world and offered compelling comparative and transnational analysis.

Second, White’s cast of characters seemed exclusive. He relies heavily on the usual suspects: William Dean Howells, John Hay, and the acerbic Henry Adams, among others. However, the relative lack of nonwhite voices is troubling. White includes no discussion of Matías Romero and little analysis of the complexities of the US-Mexico relationship. He does not offer much analysis of the broader US-Latin America relationship. Frederick Douglass crops up here and there, but White barely mentions Booker T. Washington. In an 872-page volume, Washington’s Atlantic Compromise speech receives less than a sentence. Ida B. Wells and W. E. B. DuBois are peripheral figures at best. True, White mentions Henry Adams, the African American organizer who played an important role in Steven Hahn’s A Nation under Our Feet.[4] However, he spends little time on black officeholders during and after Reconstruction. In sum, White could have and should have brought a more diverse array of people into his narrative. Still, these problems aside, this volume is a good introduction to the period for those with limited background and reads easily.


[1]. James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); and Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988). The classic account of wartime Reconstruction is Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (1964; repr., Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1999). However, see also William C. Harris, With Charity for All: Lincoln and the Restoration of the Union (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997); and John C. Rodrigue, Lincoln and Reconstruction (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2013).

[2]. For several examples see Heather Cox Richardson, West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007); Joshua Paddison, American Heathens: Religion, Race, and Reconstruction in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012); D. Michael Bottom, An Aristocracy of Color: Race and Reconstruction in California and the West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013); Stacey L. Smith, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States, ed. Adam Arenson and Andrew R. Graybill (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015); and Virginia Scharff, ed., Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015).

[3]. See Elliott West, “Reconstructing Race,” Western Historical Quarterly 34 (Spring 2003): 6-26; and Elliott West, The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[4]. Steven Hahn, A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

Citation: Evan Rothera. Review of White, Richard, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896. H-SHGAPE, H-Net Reviews. May, 2018. URL:

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