Stanford historian Richard White, a former star teacher and scholar at the University of Washington, has completed a 10-year odyssey: a history of the United States during 30 tumultuous 19th-century years, from Reconstruction to the Gilded Age.
Imagine you’re at your favorite tavern. It’s trivia night. Match the following statements to the era they refer to:
“The president referred to himself 210 times in a speech of little more than an hour, or three times every minute.”
“Since other liberals wrote virtually everything liberals read, they lived in a kind of echo chamber in which they mistook their own voice for the sound of America.”
The author will discuss his new book, “The Republic for Which It Stands,” at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Summit on Pike, 420 E. Pike St., Seattle; $5; (townhallseattle.org).
“He regarded the nation as a transcendent ideal that rose from the racial genius of a people … polluting the United States with non-Aryans was a ‘sin against American civilization.’”
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“Most of us — 99 percent at least — must pay the other 1 percent by week or month or quarter for the privilege of staying here and working like slaves.”
If you guessed the 21st or even the 20th century, you would lose. The first statement refers to President Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s successor. The second characterizes liberals of the 19th century. The third summarizes the beliefs of a founder of the field of political science, and the fourth is straight from the lips of 19th century social reformer Henry George (1839-1897). They all lived in the tumult of America’s Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, an era as chaotic as our own, as vividly portrayed in Stanford historian Richard White’s new work of history, “The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896” (Oxford University Press, 941 pp., $33). Horrific violence against black people, white supremacy, a yawning chasm between the haves and have nots — all this was afoot in the 19th century, and it all haunts us still.
White is permanently lodged in Seattle’s memory for his career at the University of Washington. A much-honored historian of the West, he was a star teacher and scholar at the UW until Stanford lured him away in 1998. He will discuss his book, a 10-year project, in Seattle on Sept. 29. He answered some questions on how he came to write the story of this era and what we can learn from it:
Q. This book is part of Oxford University Press’ prestigious multivolume “Oxford History of the United States” series. How did you come to write it?
A. Partially it was opportunity, partially bad luck … Three other people attempted it and never finished it. Sometimes the books were rejected, sometimes people died. I began to think there was a curse attached to it.
My mother has dementia. I took it on for the money. I became deeply immersed in it … there is an immense amount of literature you have to master. You can’t just turn your class notes into a book. I had to make it into a single story, stretching over 35 years.
Q. I was impressed with your range of sources — among others you mined, you seem to have read every major novel published in that era.
A. The novels turned out to be the best guides for me. It was the golden age of American realism … what (authors) really wanted to do was ground their fiction in the conditions of the time. William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, Henry James, Edith Wharton … Reading Hamlin Garland (“A Son of the Middle Border”) gave me an increased appreciation for him. He’s usually dismissed as a novelist, but he was a really good reporter.
Q. You’ve written about this period before in several books, notably in “Railroaded.” It seems like it was a very hard time for the country, to see the noble goals achieved during the Civil War, including the abolition of slavery, dissolve into the horrors of Reconstruction. How did writing this book change your perspective?
A. Before I’d written about the West, about corporations, but because those are narrow topics I had never considered the era as a whole. I had never considered how hopeful Americans were in 1865. The Republicans had the political power to make change. They had such great hopes, and almost nothing they had wanted was what was actually achieved.
Q.I was horrified by the violence of Reconstruction, the wanton murder of black people and anyone who tried to help them — blacks lynched and murdered for standing up for their rights, soldiers murdered for trying to defend them … What, if anything, could be done to prevent it?
A. If the United States (government) had not so quickly disbanded the Union army and pulled it out of the South, a lot of the terror and violence would have been avoided. There would have been more time for freedmen to adjust. Some very good younger scholars of Reconstruction have begun to look at what happens in the wake of the war. … Sometimes the power of the state is necessary to cement gains.
Q. The violence against black people continued into the end of the century and beyond. Here’s a sentence from the book: “Between 78 and 161 black men and boys died at the hands of mobs every year during the 1890s.” Why did it persist?
A. What happens is that the violence doesn’t abate, it changes. The hard-fought battles, like the Colfax (Louisiana) massacre, the New Orleans riots … by the 1890s, with the Jim Crow laws in place, it becomes focused on individual black men. Usually young men. It was incredibly brutal, and incredibly theatrical.
Q. I was struck by the dominance of the belief that the U.S. was a white man’s country, and this belief persists today in some quarters of American society. Why, in our multicultural nation, does it hang on?
A.These things are challenged but the old ideas won’t go away. I did not expect in 2017 that I would proudly see people in swastikas marching for white supremacy.
I think, for a lot of people, there’s this identity … a sense of belonging, a sense of superiority. You are superior and chosen. Anything bad that’s happening to you must be because the right order of the world has been perverted.
Q.We’ve just gone through an enormous amount of conflict centering on Confederate memorial statues and their removal. Explain why this remains such a flash point.
A. I’m hardly the first historian to say this — look at the time they were erected, in the 1890s and the early 20th century, and also during the civil-rights era. Some of these statues didn’t go up until the late 1950s and 1960s. They are statements of white supremacy. It’s: “We can put up these monuments, we can do what we want.”
Q. There’s a lot of tough material in this book — what was fun to research and write about?
A. The stuff I liked the most was the sports stuff, partially because I’m a guy and a baseball fan. The way people talked about sports said a lot about society … for all the divisions, there was the power of games to engage the whole country.