Making the Nation in the Gilded Age: A Conversation with Richard White

The story of the Gilded Age is really a story of how Americans conceived of “home” following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, according to historian Richard White in The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896. As the latest offering in the Oxford History of the United States, White’s book suggests that to understand the making of modern America, the sagas of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age must be told together in a way that links the North American spaces and resources they routinely brought into collision.

I spoke on the phone with Professor White on November 17. In addition to discussing the place of Lincoln’s antebellum hometown—Springfield, Illinois—in the American imagination, our conversation turned to the nation’s nineteenth-century environmental crisis, one that White depicts as deepening with the Civil War and its aftermath. As the United States grew richer, more powerful, and more inegalitarian, it also became deadlier. Life spans shortened, the nation’s physical well-being diminished all while disease, filth, and poor working conditions spread. Perhaps few cities better represented these changes than Chicago—where Lincoln accepted the Republican Party’s Presidential nomination in 1860—a city that represented the hopes of the North’s small, independent producers. By the turn of the century, their world had yielded to a very different vision of home, one where the thick smoke of bituminous coal clouds and the long shadows cast by skyscrapers and tenements obscured the struggles of the industrial wage earners toiling below.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Jesse Gant: Could you give us the bare-bones introduction to the story The Republic for Which It Stands tells?

Richard White: This is a book that takes the story of the United States from the end of the Civil War to 1896. This is a point in which American ideology—the idea that Americans have of what they want their country to be—meets a recalcitrant reality. It’s an attempt to forge a free-labor republic, which is going to be based on a homogeneous citizenship and enforced by the federal government, in which the United States will essentially be a series of Springfields, Abraham Lincoln’s hometown. And instead, what they get is an industrial nation that is more and more diverse: diverse ethnically, diverse religiously, diverse racially. And it is not going to be the world that they imagined; it’s going to be an industrial society. In many ways, what I see taking shape is our modern world. And it’s taking shape in a way that nobody ever anticipated in 1865.

Portrait of Richard White. He is standing in front of a bookshelf and is wearing a light-blue shirt.

Richard White, author. Photo courtesy of Jesse White.

JG: There were parts in the book where you talked about the limits of the transnational, can you say more about that?

RW: One of the things that has fascinated me for the last 20 years has been the issue of scale. What scale do we write? Local, regional, national, transnational? One of the frustrating things in a lot of American historiography is that people adopt a scale as if it’s a kind of conversion experience. The national, the transnational, or the regional become a religion. But in fact, they are tools; and they’re useful for certain problems, and not so useful for others.

We’re in the midst right now of a great transnational moment where historians are emphasizing the transnational and the globe. Well, the transnational and the global are really important when you look at certain kinds of issues, but when I’m looking at the late nineteenth century United States, certainly there are transnational influences, but much of what happens to the United States is going to be a reaction to some tariff, for example. The tariff is an attempt to seal off American industry from competition from abroad. But at the same time, we don’t seal ourselves off from immigration from abroad, and we don’t seal ourselves from ideas from aboard. Some things go through, other things go out. Some things are largely going to be national developments, others are going to be transnational developments.

JG: We also have this turn early on in the book toward home. Can you comment on Springfield’s place in this book a little more and on Springfield’s houses and how they function?

RW: The book opens with Lincoln’s funeral, and Lincoln’s funeral is about going home. It’s about going home to Springfield. At first, I thought of Springfield as a place, a small town in Illinois. But I began to realize that Springfield was much more important, that it symbolized a set of ideas which occur over and over again in all kinds of discussion in the Gilded Age: the importance of “home.” Home is the site of the American republic.

In this black-and white photograph there is two-story corner-house with funeral bunting in the background. In the foreground, bystanders gather on the corner and a horse waits at the curb.

An 1865 photograph of Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois with funeral bunting decorating the front. Photo via Wikipedia Commons.

I began to think that the United States in the Gilded Age was a collection of homes. Americans conceived of the republic, not as a collection of individuals, but as a collection of homes. And if you’re put outside of the home, you’re on very dangerous ground in the United Sates. It’s a place where you could begin to lose rights very quickly. So, Springfield becomes a site of the American imagination.

JG: Edge Effects listeners are going to be interested in the environmental aspects of this story, and the stories of environmental crisis that you draw out. One idea that really emerges in the book is the notion of the nineteenth century as a kind of broad environmental crisis. Can you say more about this idea?

RW: As I wrote the book, I came to the environment obliquely. I’m an environmental historian, but my initial concern was trying to establish something as mundane as: did real wages increase during the nineteenth century? I found that it’s impossible to say whether they did or not. I became very disillusioned with the kind of usual economic measures to measure American well-being. But I came across another set of literature which is pretty robust and pretty well developed on the health of Americans. And it turns out that during the nineteenth century as a whole Americans are getting shorter, they’re getting sicker, they’re living less long, and their children continue to die at uniformly high rates. And I tried to figure out why this is happening and it turns out to be a quite complicated story.

The easy answer for before the Civil War is tuberculosis. But tuberculosis is gradually being brought under more control, although never under complete control. After the Civil War, the argument seems to be that what is happening is not only urbanization, but in other parts of the United States, there is a decline in water quality. The spread of diseases (particularly water-borne diseases) is having an immense effect on American health and American well-being. This is going to be true whether you’re an immigrant or whether you’re native-born. One of the nice things is that many of the statistics measure only the native born. Their lives are getting worse; it’s not just immigrants. I began to conceive of the whole period as a sustained environmental crisis—an environmental crisis which is affecting human health and the health of other species with whom we share the country and the planet.

I began to conceive of the whole period as a sustained environmental crisis—an environmental crisis which is affecting human health and the health of other species with whom we share the country and the planet.

JG: Let’s talk a little more about the water-centric stories that you tell. How did the nineteenth century, in particular on questions of water, help configure the stories you tell?

RW: Water is central to the late nineteenth century in the most basic sense. People need water to drink and people need water to dispose of their waste. At a really simple level, you can’t do both in the same body of water, but Americans tried. You can’t really defecate in and then drink out of the same place; it doesn’t really work out that way.

So part of the engineering in a place like Chicago is going to be to draw water in from Lake Michigan from far enough out to be able to bring in pure water while disposing of water in other places. But as you begin to do that you realize you’re facing some real basic political problems. Under the old Jacksonian liberal version, those who created waste were responsible for dealing with the consequences of it. That really doesn’t work when you have Chicago slaughterhouses (which are the main industry in Chicago) polluting the Chicago river. You can’t force them to clean up, so what you do—and Robin Einhorn has developed this brilliantly—is you make it a matter of public good and public health. But by defining it as public, you’re taking over private costs and putting them on the public as a whole: slaughterhouses don’t have to pay for the clean-up, everybody pays for the clean-up. At the same time, you’re creating a tax burden that’s going to favor the polluters over those who are bearing the effects of pollution.

The same kind of thing will happen when you try bringing in clean water. Well, how do you distribute it? It goes first to those who are willing to pay the hook-up cost and to pay the taxes necessary to bring the water in, so that those who bring the water in and get the benefits of the water tend to be the middle and upper classes and not the poor.

So, what you’re finding is the environmental consequences and the environmental costs are going to be allocated in a very unfair manner.

So, what you’re finding is the environmental consequences and the environmental costs are going to be allocated in a very unfair manner. It becomes not just a question of environment, it becomes a question of political economy.

JG: Can you talk a little bit about the role of the coal industry in your account?

RW: By the 1880s, coal replaced wood as the major energy source in the United States. Coal provided a much more efficient source of energy, but the cost was pollution on an absolutely amazing scale. It led to places like Pittsburgh where the lights were on in the middle of the day because you couldn’t see in the middle of the day. It’s the kind of thing people talked about as a change that came in their lifetime: this sense of a dim, grey, and dismal America. By changing their energy source, people changed all kinds of things about their lives. And this too, of course, had an effect on human health.

The perspective of this image is from Mt. Washington. A river cuts through the landscape and factories with smoke curling to the sky and buildings dot the riverbanks.

Lithograph of Pittsburgh from 1874 including the Monongahela and the Allegheny Rivers. Steamboats and factories appear throughout. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

JG: You’ve spent a lot of time studying the American West. How did places further West play out in the story of the environmental crisis?

RW: I’m a western historian. And in some ways putting the West into context in the Gilded Age was a little sobering. The West is certainly ideologically important to how Americans think of themselves. One of the things that happens by the end of the century is that American westering tries to replace the Civil War as the great event in American history through which we understand country. The American West is going to be important, but it’s not going to be important because huge numbers of people are going there; more people are going to the cities, some of which are western cities, than are going to the West. And in terms of resources, I found out that, well, western resources are important, but not all that important.

The United States has plenty of copper, coal, and trees until late in the century, so the drawing down of western resources is really going to come at the end of my story. And it’s one of the reasons why I argue here, and in other books, that the American expansion into the West was, in many senses, premature.

JG: What are some of the things that surprised you in researching and writing this book?

RW: One, and we’ve mentioned this, is the centrality of the home. The home is hiding in plain sight. I looked at this word over and over again: people say “home” and people talk about the home. And I paid no attention to home. When I started paying attention to home it became the key that unlocked the whole period: that’s how Americans judged whether change was good or bad; that’s how people judged whether people were Americans or not Americans, whether they in fact lived in what dominant society considers a suitable home. This becomes the key for me for understanding a whole section of American values throughout this whole period. So one of the things that surprised me was the centrality of the home, which I regard as one of the central themes of the book.

Featured image: A factory outside of Springfield, Illinois proudly announces its proximity to Abraham Lincoln’s home. Photo courtesy of Jesse Gant, 2017.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Jesse Gant is a Ph.D. candidate in United States history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He divides his time between Madison, Wisconsin, and Saint Louis, Missouri, as he completes his dissertation, At Freedom’s Edge: Black Activism and the Old Northwest in the Civil War Era. Website. Twitter. Contact.

Richard White is the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History in the Department of History at Stanford University. He is the author of numerous books including Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (W.W. Norton and Company, 2011), The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge University Press, 2010), and has contributed to the Spatial History Project at Stanford University. Professor White’s most recent book, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, was published as part of the multi-volume series, the Oxford History of the United States. He is a MacArthur Fellow and two of his books have been finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. Website. Contact.

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