by Brian Taylor
The authors of Unit 4 of The American Vision call their section on the latter half of the nineteenth century “The Birth of Modern America,” and their three chapters focus on the post-war history of the American West, the rise of American industry, and the growth of the American city. There is a great deal to praise in these chapters’ presentation of these topics. The authors have composed them in energetic, active prose, foregrounding issues of agency and responsibility. The authors’ coverage is impressive in both breadth and depth. While attending to familiar topics like civil service reform, innovations in corporate structure, and the rise of labor unions, the authors devote significant space to topics and people this reviewer has rarely seen mentioned in general US history texts, such as Mary Church Terrell, the Exoduster movement, and Nevada silver’s role in financing the Union war effort. The authors also provide a level of specifics not often seen in high-school textbook histories—they include frequent graphics detailing, for instance, the steps involved in forging steel or explaining how technological innovations changed the nature of Plains farming, and take pains to explain precisely how landmark legislation, such as the Homestead Act of 1862, actually worked. In an interpretive sense, the authors maintain an admirable focus on the history of technological innovation and its environmental impact, and include substantive discussions of economic principles and theories; their willingness to discuss the influence of Communism and Socialism on American history is particularly impressive.
The authors balance political, economic and social approaches to the history of this period judiciously and, if anything, give pride of place to economic and social processes. Many US textbooks treat war and politics as the “main story,” and the rest as background noise, but these chapters make clear that national politics were only one, and not necessarily the most important, factor shaping the daily lives of late nineteenth-century Americans. A student perusing these chapters would likely get the sense that the price of bread in the nearest street market was, on a day-to-day basis, relatively more important to the average turn-of-the-century Italian immigrant New Yorker than was, say, the outcome of the most recent presidential election—which, of course, it almost certainly was. The authors also treat the period with welcome nuance. They deploy the term “robber barons” to talk about the tight-fisted, exploitative ways of nineteenth-century industrialists like Carnegie and Rockefeller, but do not present the period as a simple story of amoral capitalists exploiting helpless workers. They acknowledge that industrialization improved the overall quality of life for nineteenth-century workers, and explain that this is a truth easier to see for us looking back than it was for those workers at the time. It was difficult for steel forgers working twelve-hour shifts to look at the opulence of their bosses and focus on the steadily improving quality of life rather than the degrading conditions of their work life and the yawning gap between rich and poor. That human perceptions can differ from cold statistical reality is an important historical insight, and one that is not often made in high-school history textbooks.
There are missteps, of course. Sometimes, the authors give little context for the primary sources they quote. The chapter on Native Americans largely follows the familiar textbook pattern of reducing late nineteenth-century interactions between Euro-Americans and Native Americans to a recounting of the largest clashes on the western plains. This segment also contains the problematic, poorly-contextualized claim that Native Americans of the Plains were “doomed” because of their dependence on the buffalo. The authors also tend to treat the regions they cover in isolation from one another—Jim Crow’s rise in the South happens separately from the clashes on the Plains, which are a world away from the booming cities of the industrializing Northeast. This regional isolation simplifies a complex national story: while by the dawn of the twentieth century de jure segregation had come into its own across the South, de facto segregation dominated in most of the North—and the South’s Jim Crow system had its own de facto component as well. The authors nod here and there to the fact that the developments they cover were not limited to one region or another but, especially, considering the recent historiographical emphasis on tying the various regional histories of the late nineteenth-century US together, they could have done more to explain how developments in one region reverberated out. The final chapter, 13, feels thrown together, with minimal interpretive effort put into tying its various sections together. This chapter starts with a focus on the immigration-fueled growth of Northern cities, then abruptly switches gears, first to a discussion of Washington politics in the Gilded Age, then to Populism, and finally to the rise of the Jim Crow South. Given how white Southern Democrats used racism to defeat attempts at biracial third-partyism, one would think it would not have been too hard to make a natural transition between agrarian politics and the growing segregation of Southern life. As it is, the transition feels sharp, leaving the reader wondering whether the Jim Crow section might have been better off appended to the end of the book’s chapter on Reconstruction, and whether a reconfiguration of themes and topic groupings might have better served the overall narrative.
They acknowledge that industrialization improved the overall quality of life for nineteenth-century workers, and explain that this is a truth easier to see for us looking back than it was for those workers at the time. It was difficult for steel forgers working twelve-hour shifts to look at the opulence of their bosses and focus on the steadily improving quality of life rather than the degrading conditions of their work life and the yawning gap between rich and poor.
That said, these chapters convey history’s immediacy and modern-day relevance — an obvious point, perhaps, but important when considering that the audience for this work is high school students, who are quick to dismiss history as past politics to be memorized, rather than as an active, dynamic discipline to be engaged. The authors achieve this goal through a variety of techniques. They include color graphics, such as a striking rendering of an early 1900s street market in New York’s Little Italy, alongside the familiar black-and-white textbook fare. They also ask students to use the past to make insights about the present. What, they ask, can the history of the expansion of mining operations throughout the American West tell us about today’s mining industry? How does an 1896 electoral map compare to modern-day electoral configurations, and what do any similarities or differences mean? Textbook history can often feel removed or anodyne, leaving students little to relate to. These chapters stand a better chance than most of reminding students that the past impacts the present, that history was lived in color, and that its meaning and present-day ramifications are a subject of urgent importance.
Dubofsky, Melvyn. Industrialism and the American Worker: 1865-1920. Arlington Heights, IL: Davidson, 1989.
Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. New York: ACLS History E-Book Project, 2005.
Richardson, Heather Cox. West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.
West, Elliott. The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, & the Rush to Colorado. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Brian Taylor is a historian of the nineteenth-century United States whose research focuses on issues of citizenship, military service and race during the Civil War era. He received his doctorate from Georgetown University in May 2015, and has taught a variety of courses on US history in Georgetown’s History Department over the past two years. His dissertation, “‘To Make the Union What It Ought to Be’” focuses on African Americans in the Civil War North and their debate about whether and how black men should fight for the United States. He can be contacted here.
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