18 July 2018
It was a time of turmoil, a time of failure and a time of progress. It boasted names such as Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill, Sitting Bull, George Armstrong Custer, Thomas Edison. It witnessed the rise of the skyscrapers and the birth of the Ferris Wheel. Politics swung from Republicans to Democrats and back again. There were public debates over adoption of the gold standard, the silver standard or fiat money. The American judiciary discovered classical economics. Just as it was being rethought and replaced by economists. It saw the advent of consumer goods and Coca Cola. And Frank Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz.
Richard White, over the course of nearly 900 pages, explores this era, roughly bracketed by the end of the American Civil War and the end of the 19th Century, incisively and with an often wry wit. Completing a tome of such a length, for his readers as well as for him, presents a considerable challenge, but it is worth the effort for the insights it provides, not only for understanding a critical period in the development of what was to become the preeminent superpower of the following century, but also for understanding some of what ails it in the current one.
Following the brutality and destruction of the world’s first large-scale industrialised war, between the Secessionist South and the Unionist North, the overriding mission for the newly reunited United States was to win the peace. It was, to say the least, an ill-fated mission, and one that was derailed from the start, dooming the country to a further century of struggle. In fact, arguably the struggle continues, with descendants of the secessionists continuing their intimidatory and sometimes murderous campaigns, black citizens denied their proper rights, and a nation divided over whether assertions such as those are true, or even matter.
Fans of the counterfactual have two blockbuster what-ifs about the Civil War. How much worse would the world be without Abraham Lincoln? And, how much better would the world be without John Wilkes Booth? In the short term, almost certainly, the shot which brought about Lincoln’s death, at the very point of his victory, was the knell which marked the strangulation of his project to bring about full emancipation and enfranchisement for the slaves.
Whilst some argue otherwise, it is pretty clear that this strangulation was at the hands of Lincoln’s Vice President, Andrew Johnson, upon his accession to the presidency. A weak abolitionist at best, he failed to resource the Reconstruction adequately, denying the South the federal forces required to enforce emancipation and enfranchisement, leaving former slaves, especially those with the temerity actually to expect freedom, prey to supremacists.
Hence began a campaign of terror, with blacks, agents of abolition and some of the few Union soldiers who were deployed attacked and murdered with impunity. The attacks were often led by local law enforcement officers.
Having lost one means of exploitation, the plantation owners and other employers introduced contracts which continued to tie former slaves to their land, with prohibitions on travel which meant that any black workers found straying from their place of employment were subject to beatings and summary execution. During elections in 1868, blacks trying to vote were attacked by former Confederates. When the blacks established self-defence groups, these were used as justification for the attacks in the kind of perverse logic common amongst white supremacists.
That election saw Johnson replaced by Union hero Ulysses S Grant. His record was no better than Johnson’s. According to White, however, they were both merely typical of the inept and ineffective men who held the presidency during the ironically named “Gilded Age”, taken from the title of a novel – otherwise quite “forgettable” according to White - co-authored by Twain and Charles Dudley Warner.
At the heart of the American Narrative of the age, White places Home. Home symbolises the American way of life, a gendered ideological construct with its Head, a man, venturing out each day to earn his living whilst the Woman of the house cooks, cleans and raises the children. Marriage is yet another contract deployed in society, in this case for the purpose of legally subjugating women.
This Narrative applied only to whites, however. Blacks, again usually by way of violent means, were denied the right to a home. Simultaneously, American Indians were being driven from theirs, as well as being denied their language rights and being subjected to enforced education in the name of Christianity. As with the blacks who resisted, retribution for the Indians was swift and hard, and dealt out by Federal forces on an industrial scale. Resistance was again used as the pretext for violence. In defending their own homes, the Indians were deemed to be threatening those – still non-existent – of the new settlers. It’s a logic to be seen in Gaza to this day.
Meanwhile, the Chinese immigrants who were needed on the west coast to cook and clean and build the railroads were demonised as gangsters, job stealers and prostitutes.
The railroads were part of the story of progress in the United States, going hand in hand with deepening urbanisation and industrialisation. Factories were becoming larger and increasingly machine-powered. In Chicago between 1865 and 1873, capital employed in manufacturing quadrupled.
Industrialisation included that of agriculture, which meant abundant cheap food. When this was exported to Europe it undermined prices, meaning farmers there were unable to compete. Some of those driven out of business as a consequence joined the increasing numbers emigrating to work on American farms or in American factories. In 1890, 15% of the US population was born outside the country, with Germans, Irish and English the largest immigrant groups.
Working conditions in many places bordered on the purgatorial. Little if any concern was displayed for workers’ well-being, pay was fixed at survival rates at best, and working hours were long. Unionisation, often led by radicalised European immigrants, began, and the unions campaigned for improvements, including better pay and an eight-hour day. Union actions were met with the kind of violence with which blacks, Indians and Chinese were familiar. If local officers refused to suppress strikes, a common occurrence, recourse would be taken to Pinkertons and, on occasion, the Army. In 1887 in Thibodeaux, Louisiana, a state well-practised in extra-official repression, white strike-breaking militias killed dozens and injured hundreds. Nobody was ever prosecuted.
Andrew Carnegie, one of many villains profiled by White, got his first break through a US tariff on UK steel. He was ruthless in breaking unions and minimising wages, as well as bribing government officials. His employees worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. The high accident and mortality rates at his steel mills were exacerbated by the resultant tiredness through which attention to safety receded. A potential bright spot in this story may have been Bill Jones, the manager of Carnegie’s Edgar Thompson works. He once professed that “Good wages and good workmen I know to be cheap labour”, and organised through ethnically-mixed work teams in order to avoid the conflicts common in other factories. Jones died when a blast furnace exploded.
Cities too were, in places, little better than cesspits and firetraps. Despite increasing wealth, American life expectancy deteriorated throughout the 19th Century. Cities combined high population densities with a paucity of sanitation, leading to the spread of diseases such as cholera which were still popularly attributed to “miasma”. In Chicago the slaughterhouses – famous for using every part of the pig except the oink - were the cause of considerable pollution, a negative externality whose clean-up had eventually to be socialised. In the same city, an 1871 fire spread four and a half miles and only burned out once it had run out of fuel. Other hazards to health and life included the doctoring of off-colour milk with a variety of substances to make it white.
By the end of the Gilded Age, some things had improved, but others had not. By 1880, for example, most US cities had a modern water infrastructure in place. The emergence of firms such as Marshall Field, Montgomery Ward and Sears saw a shift from self-made to ready-made clothing. But the Great Depression of 1893 was followed by soaring unemployment, declining wages and trains swamped by people roaming the country in search of work, a sudden surge in numbers of a new class of scapegoat, the tramp, reviled for being yet another challenge to the apotheosis of Home. As was the growing cadre of women seeking to chart an independent course through life via having work of their own.
By 1897, America had a long way to go. Notwithstanding the advances achieved through LBJ’s Great Society project of the sixties - which finally, formally at least, did away with segregation and brought down many of the barriers to black enfranchisement - and the election of the first black president almost half a century later, it still has.