STARRED REVIEW
September 2017

An era of legends and excess

By Richard White
Review by

White’s masterful book offers a treasure trove of information about a pivotal time in American history, crafted with a compelling combination of well-written recreations of events and careful analysis based on the latest historical research. The Republic for Which It Stands is the best available guide to the period.

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Between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of a new century, a great transformation—technological, economic, social, cultural, religious and political—took place in the United States. The rise of wage labor led to bitter union and management confrontations. Reformers crusaded for women’s suffrage and Prohibition. Reconstruction brought official gains against slavery, but racism continued against black, Native American and Chinese populations. Contemporaneous historian of the time Henry Adams, from the family of early Adams presidents, believed that by the 1870s, American governance and even democracy itself had failed. The war had extended the role of the federal government, and there was widespread corruption in business and government, while capitalism thrived.

The latest title in the Oxford History of the United States series is the superb The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 by acclaimed historian Richard White. His brilliant and sweeping exploration focuses on the big picture as well as on individuals, including the true stories behind legends like John Henry, Buffalo Bill and another courageous and very impressive Henry Adams, a freed slave who fought racism in Louisiana. White touches on some deeply ingrained myths. “There is probably no greater irony than the emergence of the cowboy as the epitome of American individualism because cattle raising quickly became corporate.” The American West, often regarded as the heartland of individualism, was where some of the first government bureaucracies began. Railroads also were a symbol of the age, but they proved to be dangerous workplaces where a high number of fatalities occurred in the course of routine work. Railroads were often in financial distress, and by 1895, 25 percent of them were in receivership.

White’s masterful book offers a treasure trove of information about a pivotal time in American history, crafted with a compelling combination of well-written recreations of events and careful analysis based on the latest historical research. The Republic for Which It Stands is the best available guide to the period.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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The Republic for Which It Stands

The Republic for Which It Stands

By Richard White
Oxford University
ISBN 9780199735815

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