Inventing the American Mainstream

By Reviewed by Edward L. Ayers
Sunday, April 15, 2007


The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War

By Heather Cox Richardson

Yale Univ. 396 pp. $30

The 50 years following the American Civil War often come to us as a blur of disconnected images from old Westerns and "Gone With the Wind," a hiatus between the drama of the Civil War and World War I. The presidents seem faceless, the political issues bland. Our eyes glaze over at the mere mention of the word "tariff," not to mention "civil service reform."

But in her ambitious West From Appomattox, Heather Cox Richardson argues that these years, far from being uneventful or insignificant, saw nothing less than the reconstruction of America, a recasting of the relationship between the government and the people. It was in late 19th century, she believes, that the fundamental issues that divide us today -- between those who want to keep government small and those who want to use government to create opportunity and justice -- took shape across a newly expanded and consolidated nation.

To make space for her argument, Richardson casts aside the conventional understanding of "the Reconstruction of America after the Civil War." Reconstruction usually focuses on the defeated South, on the effort of the U.S. government to create equality and freedom for the 4 million people who had been held as slaves for more than two centuries. Richardson, a historian at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, thinks this approach misses the larger point. For her, the three generations after the Civil War saw all of America transformed -- but with the South transformed least of all.

The real action lay on the wide-open plains of the West and in the energetic cities of the North. Nineteenth-century readers grew weary of the endless and bloody Reconstruction struggles in the South, Richardson shows us, and preferred instead to read exciting stories of cattle drives, transcontinental railroads, silver mines, and wars against the Comanche, Apache and Sioux.

She tells her story as a collective biography, focusing on people who left autobiographies of successful strivings. Individuals stand in for millions. (The cast here could be labeled: starring Wade Hampton as "The White Southerner," with Jane Addams as "The Feminist" and Quanah Parker as "The American Indian.")

The real stars of the story are the people Richardson calls "mainstream" Americans. These mainstreamers wanted everyone to get along without help from the government. They talked a great deal about respectability, independence, responsibility, energy and opportunity. They worried a great deal about labor unions, Southern blacks, Southern whites, American Indians, populists, feminists -- anyone who wanted anything more from the federal government than to be left to rise or fall on their own. The mainstream voters of the Gilded Age, in other words, look a great deal like the broad center of the electorate today, for whose affections and attention the Republicans and Democrats still compete.

Richardson's perspective is engaging and reveals much that is fresh. But the continuity of American politics may be even greater than she thinks. The broadest and most enduring division between red states and blue states grew out of slavery and the war it created. The fundamental arguments about the role of government were around since the days of Andrew Jackson, a half-century before Reconstruction. And the levers of party, profit, policy and patronage -- hidden in Richardson's placid portrait of mainstream voters -- moved American politics throughout the 19th century no less than now. ยท

Edward L. Ayers is dean of arts and sciences and professor of history at the University of Virginia. He is the author, most recently, of "What Caused the Civil War? Reflections on the South and Southern History."

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