The Republic for Which It Stands, the Best Book about the Gilded Age:
I recently read The Republic for which It Stands, and wow is it an excellent book. In fact, I think it is the best book about the Gilded Age that I have read or will read. In it, Richard White, the author, describes every facet of American life throughout Reconstruction and the Gilded Age from a relatively unbiased perspective. He describes Gilded Age politics, race relations in the South, railroads and industrialization, capitalists and unions, and Native Americans. Everything in it is excellently written , thoroughly researched, and fun to read.
However, White’s attention to detail is not the only thing that is great about The Republic for which It Stands. What is truly excellent about the book is that it and the lessons in it apply so well to the modern day. In fact, many of the themes in the book are ones that seem like they come from modern America.
Debates over topics like race relations, corporate profits, prohibition, socialism or capitalism, a reliance on the courts to govern, and immigration are all topics that we are struggling with today. Because of the similar nature of many topics in The Republic for which It Stands to the modern day, it is a book that I think everyone should read. Our past political leaders were able to chart a way through the same problems that we are now facing. That experience is crucial to learn, and you can learn it by reading The Republic for which It Stands.
In this review I will describe what White writes about in The Republic for which It Stands and how those topics are relevant lessons for modern Americans.
White discusses a wide variety of aspects of Gilded Age America in The Republic for which It Stands, which is one of the reasons that it is the best book about the Gilded Age. The main topics he focuses on are Gilded Age politics, race relations in the South, railroads and industrialization, capitalists and unions, and Native Americans.
Gilded Age Politics:
Based on The Republic for which It Stands, if I were to use one word to describe Gilded Age politics it would be corruption. Many of the politicians and political systems revolved around corruption.
One reason for the hyper-prevalent corruption in Gilded Age politics was that political bosses ruled the day. Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall, New York politics was probably the best example of the political boss system. He was able to rule New York politics and enrich himself through his use of pull and “friendships.” For example, whenever there was a new construction project in New York, Tweed’s friends got it. And he got a cut of it. That made construction and corruption incredibly profitable ventures.
But, Boss Tweed was far from the only corrupt politician. Other leaders, such as President Ulysses Grant, were renowned for their corrupt administrations. They used their influence and government power to create mutually beneficial deals that enriched themselves and their friends in private industry. For example, many railroads received huge land grants. Those land grants allowed them to be successful. And, many politicians owned railroad stock; they used their power to enrich themselves.
However, not all Gilded Age politicians were corrupt. Some, such as Theodore Roosevelt, used their power to try and make America a better place. They fought for equal rights in the South. Or they fought to ensure that the treaties with Native American tribes were observed. Sadly, on both of those issues they were unsuccessful.
However, on other issues such as worker rights, good legislators had positive results. They were slowly able to make American factories better places to work and to make working life marginally less miserable. Those politicians deserve our praise; unlike many of their compatriots, they stayed honest and didn’t give in to the allure of corruption.
Because a large portion of The Republic for which It Stands is focused on Reconstruction, race relations between blacks and whites are a major part of the book. The relationship between white Southerners and black freed- people were acrimonious and awful.
Many whites ruled through violence and terror in order to stay politically powerful. That violence and hatred poised black-white race relations around the country for a long time. In short, Reconstruction failed. Racism remained a powerful institution in the South that held back both groups and helped make the region an economic basket case for the next 50 years.
But, white-black race relations were not the only racial interactions of importance in the Gilded Age. Other races also interacted in meaningful ways. For example, in California many politicians were biased against the Chinese. Those Chinese immigrants were mainly male and built the transcontinental railroads.
Most Californians, and thus California politicians, were extremely biased against the Chinese immigrants and wanted them gone because of the view that Chinese immigrants were depressing wages for American workers. That fear is still present in America, but now manifests itself as a fear of illegal immigrants.
Finally, whites from different regions of Europe battled each other in the Midwest and Northeast. New immigrants, such as the Irish, Italians, and Eastern Europeans, were looked down upon by the more established American whites from England, France, and Germany. Those tensions mainly manifested in fights between unions and militias, factory workers and factory owners. Battles between European ethnicities in the North were almost as hateful and acrimonious as black-white race relations in the south.
Across the board, Gilded Age race relations were awful. Hatred manifested itself in open displays of violence and bigotry, and some of those prejudices have haunted us till the modern day. Hopefully we can soon work past Gilded Age era race relations.
Railroads and Industrialization:
Some of White’s most poignant writing in The Republic for which It Stands is about railroads and industrialization. No book about the era, much less the best book about the Gilded Age, could be complete without mentioning the railroads and robber barons.
Changing technologies, subsidies to encourage settlement of the West, and booming populations with which the West could be filled meant that railroads were very important to Gilded Age America. Without them we would not have been able to settle the West.
As the Civil War wound down and ended, the US government began looking to the West. It wanted that land to be settled, but the challenges were formidable. Huge bands of Native Americans roamed the land, and they were generally hostile to white encroachment on their lands. Furthermore, the Midwest wasn’t good farming territory. It received infrequent rainfall and successful farmers had few ways to transport and sell their cops. Few people could mover there, and even fewer desired to.
Railroads changed that. While the rainfall question could not be easily solved, advances in technology meant that railroads could solve the selling produce problem.
New, mass produced steel made engines and tracks that could stand up to the harsh elements and transport goods quickly. Telegraphs meant that settlers had at least some way to communicate with their relatives and families. Settlement of the west through homesteading or ranching became possible in the Gilded Age and hundreds of thousands of settlers streamed West. They faced challenges, but because of railroads they were able to succeed.
So how were those railroads built? Through subsidies and financiers. Northeastern banks poured huge amounts of money into railroads in the hope that they would pay off. Government officials granted huge tracts of land, some tracts as large as small states, to transcontinental railroads. Some railroads were successful; others weren’t. In a validation of capitalism, generally the lines that didn’t receive subsidies were more successful than those that didn’t.
In the end, the transcontinental railroads were built and settlement of the west could proceed. But it took a lot of money and a lot of corruption.
The Gilded Age is perhaps best known for industrialization and robber barons. Titans of industry, such as those shown in Atlas Shrugged, were able to build vast fortunes and huge corporations. But they did so in sometimes inhumane or unjust ways.
For example, Andrew Carnegie was an excellent businessman and contributed a great deal to this country. But he also owned steel mills that had some of the toughest working conditions in the nation. In Carnegie’s mills, men worked for 12 hours in backbreaking conditions to make a pittance. Their awful conditions and poor wages made them despise Carnegie.
Other industrialists were just as bad as Carnegie, if not worse. Industries from coal mines to large farms relied on prison labor and starving laborers to be successful. But as with all things, capitalism proved successful. Eventually, conditions became better and corporations made money. Both parties were happy. Like I showed in my “Capitalism will Save Us” post, eventually the invisible hand of a capitalist economy helps right wrongs and fix conditions. As in the Gilded Age, we just have to let it.
The Gilded Age industrialists were able to build huge fortunes and companies and in doing so turned America into an economic powerhouse. While their means may seem harsh, the end was the industrialization of America.
Capitalists and Unions:
Because of the harsh conditions in many factories, factory owners and their unionized workers were constantly fighting. The owners needed to make substantial profits to recoup their initial investment, but the factory workers wanted better conditions. That conflict led to innumerable fights between unions and factory owners.
Until the supreme court intervened and made a number of rulings in favor of the capitalist factory owners, every industry struggled with strikes. Railroads were shut down by striking unions and industries across the nation were damaged. Similarly, industries like coal mines and factories were shut down by union strikes.
Those strikes weren’t always peaceful. Sometimes unions, militias, Pinkertons, and federal troops battled in the streets. Neither state militias nor federal troops could solve the problem. Strikes kept starting and having to be put down. As in the modern day, the Supreme Court had to step in to solve the pressing social issues that the country was facing. The legislature was unable to.
Native American Policy:
The final issue that White covers in depth in The Republic for which It Stands is American government Native American policy. That policy was marked by tragedy. Some politicians hoped to make serious treaties with the Native Americans so that settlers could move into the land, but Native Americans could also keep some of their home territory.
However, not all politicians behaved as honorably. Instead, most focused on signing treaties they knew that they would break. Signing treaties of that kind allowed politicians to enrich themselves and find ways to keep blaming the Native Americans. That meant that there would be continuous wars and slaughters for decades to come.
As the railroads and settlers moved West, they came into increased contact with the Native Americans. Unfortunately, do to the slaughter of the buffalo and the mass movement of white settlers, that contact turned into conflict.
How The Republic for Which It Stands Relates to the Modern Day:
Because it was a time period in which so much happened, there are many parallels between the Gilded Age and the modern day. What I think makes The Republic for which It Stands the best book about the Gilded Age is that White seems to focus mainly on issues that still divide us today. For example, race relations are still a huge problem. So are topics such as corporate profits, prohibition, socialism or capitalism, a reliance on the courts to govern, debates over the gold standard, and immigration.
I don’t need to say much on this topic, we all know that America has struggled with the topic of race recently.
What I do think is important to recognize is that the Gilded Age politicians were not able to solve the issue. Other than the 13th and 14th Amendments, which were hotly debated, what policies they did implement were regressionary.
We current Americans need to do better than they did. If we don’t, the country will continue to be torn apart by identity politics. That won’t end well.
High corporate profits became a fixture of the Gilded Age and are one of the driving themes in The Republic for which It Stands. Gilded Age corporations were able to sell their wares to a huge American population due to advances in the railroads, and they were able to sell to an increasingly global consumer base because of expansions in trade. Those profits created problems, especially the dividends paid to investors.
That situation is eerily reminiscent to today. Our corporations are selling to the whole world. Spurred by advances in globalization and free trade, they have been able to dominate the whole world. In doing so, they have raked in huge profits. Like in the Gilded Age, that has left many Americans that are struggling unhappy. In the Gilded Age, the problem was dividends. In the modern day, the problem is stock buybacks. Politicians as diverse as AOC and Marco Rubio have criticized corporate stock buybacks.
So what is the solution? To keep making profits and to not apologize. Gilded Age corporations eventually won. The benefits brought by capitalism were too great to debate. Those same benefits are even more pronounced now. We just have to describe and defend them.
Gilded Age and modern American politicians pushed for prohibition. In the Gilded Age they pushed for banning liquor. In the modern day, they push for banning marijuana and other drugs. There is some truth in saying that those substances are harmful.
But as many in the modern day and Gilded Age realized, it is not the government’s place to say what is harmful and therefore banned. In my “the Role of Government” post, I described what the government should be doing. Prohibition of supposedly dangerous substances is not one of those roles.
Citizens in the Gilded Age pushed back against prohibitionists and fought them back until the 20th Century. We haven’t been so forceful in our demands that the government repeal ridiculous legislation. We should look at what opponents of Prohibition did and emulate their actions. The role of government is not to determine what substances citizens can imbibe.
Socialism and Capitalism:
Socialism in America first reared its ugly head during the Gilded Age. Socialist politicians like Eugene Debs were able to capitalize on popular discontent and make socialism a popular force in America.
Similarly, politicians like AOC and Bernie Sanders have been able to do the same thing today. Socialism had faded from the American mind until far-left politicians capitalized on our other current problems such as race relations and anger over high corporate profits to bring socialism back into vogue and turn the Democratic Party towards Marxism.
So, what should we do? The same thing that Americans in the Gilded Age did. Fight back against the socialists in every way possible. Argue with them and prove them wrong. Show how capitalism is a winning agenda. It is possible to use rhetoric to defeat socialism. We just have to be willing to always stand up against it.
The Republic for which It Stands is the best book about the Gilded Age in part because it shows how to solve problems like an emergence of socialism. Read it to see how to in more detail. Learning how to defeat socialism is incredibly important
A Reliance on the Courts to Govern:
In The Republic for which It Stands, White clearly shows one of the huge problems of the Gilded Age that is incredibly obvious in the modern day. That problem is judges being forced to legislate from the bench. Because of the inability of the legislative branch to govern, the Supreme Court was forced to.
Especially in issues like labor disputes and labor legislation, the court was called upon to develop a workable solution. Its decisions mainly favored the capitalists, although it claimed to be only working to preserve the sanctity of contract. In any case, Supreme Court rulings were respected and limited the spread of problems.
The same thing has happened today. Gridlock in Congress has created a situation where the Supreme Court judges are essentially forced to legislate from the bench, which has led to the “lost Constitution” problem. Congress hasn’t been able to solve gun control or abortion issues, so the Supreme Court must attempt to.
The Republic for which It Stands shows how Gilded Age citizens and legislators dealt with that problem; they gradually let the Supreme Court sort out the problems in society, and society accepted the court’s decisions. That solution obviously isn’t idea. But it worked. Society gradually became better and the problems in it were fixed. Perhaps today we should take a similar wait and see approach. As long as we listen to the courts and the courts rule justly, society will gradually be fixed. Courts and capitalism will ensure it.
Debates over The Gold Standard:
In the same way that railroads were an integral part of the Gilded Age, no discussion of it would be complete without discussing the gold versus silver debate.
That debate, shown in The Wizard of Oz, almost tore apart the nation. Bankers and Northeasterners preferred the gold standard. It was stable and benefited them because of the ease with which it let them trade with the outside world. However, farmers and Midwesterners thought that silver should also have a place in American currency. Because silver was more common than gold, it would help balance out gold’s deflationary nature. That deflation was a huge problem.
How does this relate to the modern day? Because we still haven’t figured out currency. In some ways, it is better now. In others, such as the lack of any gold standard, it is much worse. I recently discussed why we should have a gold standard in my article “The Gold Standard.”
No system is perfect. It is good that our currency is no longer deflationary. But our currency should have some intrinsic value. Without one, it is meaningless. The Gold Standard debate is nowhere near as acrimonious now as it once was. Only a few still recognize why it is important. But, the lesson shown by the debate over it is an important one; we need to make sure our currency and banking system benefits all Americans, not just one group.
I have written a lot about immigration. My “Border Security is Crucial for National Security” and “Merit Based Immigration Reform” articles show what the problems with our current immigration system are.
However, these problems are not new ones. As The Republic for which It Stands shows, immigration concerns have long been a part of the American psyche. Additionally, many of their concerns were the same as ours. We worry about masses of unskilled immigrants that our system can’t handle. So did Gilded Age Americans. We worry about criminal influences entering America through immigrants. . So did Gilded Age Americans, especially those in New York.
Many immigrants today are fleeing from danger or a crippling lack of opportunity in their countries. So were many immigrants in the Gilded Age
Also, many of the benefits of immigration are the same today. We need immigrants to fill the less desirable jobs. So did Gilded Age Americans. We need immigrants to fill our ever expanding workforce, bring innovation, and bring different perspectives on life and governance. So did Gilded Age America.
So what is the lesson to be learned? That immigration is complex, and requires a thorough understanding of everything at play to be successful. As in the Gilded Age, we need immigrants and they need America. But also, there are potential dangers to immigration that we have to watch out for. A balance must be struck between concerns and optimism for the system to be successful.
Without a doubt, The Republic for which It Stands is the best book about the Gilded Age. Why do I think so? How could I possibly have the audacity to label a book “the best book about the Gilded Age?” Because in it, White fulfills two objectives and does so excellently.
Objective 1: History
One objective he fulfills is informing his readers about the Gilded Age. He describes many of the trials and tribulations faced by America, but also many of its great successes throughout the time period. It is informative about both the positive and negative aspects of Gilded Age America. And White does not shy away from thoroughly and passionately describing either of those sides of America.
When speaking about the daily horrors faced by African-Americans during Reconstruction, he does so with a fervor that made me think he personally experienced it. Similarly, when describing the triumph of industrialism or building the transcontinental railroads, he perfectly captures the triumph and euphoria of those moments. The Republic for which It Stands is, in part because of how well it encapsulates and describes the time period, the best book about the Gilded Age.
Objective 2: Informing the Modern Day
The second reason The Republic for which It Stands is the best book about the Gilded Age is that in it, White shows the readers that the trials we face aren’t new ones. We are struggling with many difficult problems today, they are all problems that America has faced before.
In The Republic for which It Stands, we can see that Americans managed to overcome them and triumph. Their achievements, however painfully made, built modern America into the economic and military powerhouse that it is.
And they did so despite a horrible Civil War and a wide range of problems. We can learn from that. Much of the messaging put out by the media today is apocalyptic in nature. It’s not easy to see that America will survive its current issues if you only listen to what cable news talking heads have to say. But by reading The Republic for which It Stands, you can see that America will overcome its problems and you will see why it is the best book about the Gilded Age.
As long as we hold true to our ideals, we will solve our issues and ensure our continued prosperity. We just need to follow in the footsteps of those who came before us; especially those who lived through the Gilded Age. Find out how to do so by buying and reading The Republic for which It Stands, the best book about the Gilded Age!
By: Gen Z Conservative
Read about free trade here: https://genzconservative.com/a-free-trade-analogy/
Capitalism will save us, like it saved America during the Gilded Age: https://genzconservative.com/capitalism-will-save-us/
The proper role of government, then and now: https://genzconservative.com/the-role-of-government/
Border Security is crucial for national security: https://genzconservative.com/border-security-is-crucial-for-national-security/
Merit based immigration reform: https://genzconservative.com/merit-based-immigration-reform