A Moment of Insight or Confusion?

1877_6thregimentI’ve always struggled to understand what I’ve assumed to be a radical transformation that took place within the Republican Party between Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.  As the story goes various pressures within the Republican Party caused them to abandon their Reconstruction agenda along with black civil rights, which allowed white “Redeemers” to reestablish white supremacy.  The emphasis on abandonment implies fundamental change with a moral twist; it doesn’t help that much of what I know about the Gilded Age and industrial revolution comes from the textbooks that I use in my AP classes. Most textbooks divide chapters between Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, which works to reinforce a sharp distinction between the Republican Party of Reconstruction and beyond.

I had one of those rare insights last week when it finally dawned on me that it is my preoccupation and interest in race and emancipation that has clouded my ability to more fully understand the history of the Republican Party beginning in 1855 and through the rest of the nineteenth century.  We tend to forget that the Republican Party was organized primarily around an economic agenda following the demise of the Whig Party and in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  The Party initially took shape around the Great Lakes, which pushed hard for internal improvements and a federal government that would encourage and protect the development of industry.   Most Republicans had little interest in racial issues and insisted on preventing slavery from moving into the western territories so as to encourage white Americans to settle and free labor to thrive.  I recently finished reading Marc Egnal’s fine study of the economic origins of the Civil War.  He spends a great deal of time on the formation and evolution of the Republican Party’s platform through the war and into the early 1880s.  The book has helped me to place the focus back on the core pieces of the Party’s economic philosophy and the way in which their position on slavery reinforced it.

My aha moment occured when I realized that in the same year that federal troops were ordered back to their barracks in Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana as part of the Compromise of 1877, they were ordered by Repubican President Rutherford B. Hayes into the North.  This was in response to what one politican called “the overwhelming labor question” which could be seen in the country’s first national walkout–the Great Railroad Strike.  In the aftermath of 1877, the federal government constructed armories in major cities to ensure that troops would be on hand in the event of further labor difficulties.  In 1892 the governor of Idaho declared martial law and sent militia units and federal troops into the mining region of Coeur d’Alene to break a strike, and in 1894 federal troops were sent to Chicago to help suppress the Pullman Strike led by the American Railway Union, whose 150,000 members included both skilled and unskilled railroad laborers.    Rather than see the abandonment of the South as a betrayal of Republican values it now seems more accurate to suggest that their movement of federal troops north reflected a continued commitment to the protection of the new engines of economic expansion: Carnegie Steel, Standard Oil, and the railroads.  By 1880 foreign workers and unions constituted more of a threat to the future of capitalism than unreconstructed white Southerners.  In short, the Republican Party was carrying out the policies that had defined it from the beginning.

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25 comments… add one
  • Sherree Tannen Feb 14, 2009 @ 4:39

    Thanks, Kevin. What you have said is true. And, again, the point is not to neutralize the responsibility of white Southerners in perpetuating racism, but to help raise awareness for the rest of the nation that one of the premises upon which our nation was founded was the premise of white supremacy, so that we can overcome that history. I see this as positive, as strange as that may sound. You have to see a problem before you can fix it.

    I just caught part of an interview with Diane Sawyer concerning a documentary she is involved in. It is entitled “A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains”. I haven’t seen the documentary yet, so I can’t vouch for its quality, but Sawyer, who is from Kentucky, had some interesting observations. Also, she ended the interview by rather plaintively asking the interviewer not to forget the children of the mountains, and that air of having to plead a case that ought to be obvious troubles me. There is true poverty in Appalachia, and there has been for generations, and I bring this up in this context because the children of Appalachia have been left with nowhere to go. What was good about Appalachian culture has been more or less gutted over the past thirty years, until I can’t even recognize my own culture anymore, and this was done, it seems, with the idea that doing so would help to achieve racial equality. I have to confess that the idea that racial equality could be achieved by demeaning the men and women of an entire area is not an idea that I can fully grasp. The results of this type of thinking are being seen now. If the goal is to help black men and women in the South and in Appalachia–which is certainly one of my goals and a goal of my family, and has been through several generations–then you have to help both black men and women and white men and women in these areas out of poverty. Bobby Kennedy knew that. Reverend Jackson knew that in the 1980s when he came to West Virginia to speak to both the black and white citizens of the area. President Obama knows it, too. It is the Democratic party that forgot it, and let the old coalitions dissolve.

    Thanks again, Kevin. I am including a link to the website of a group of Indigenous men and women who are circulating a petition asking that a formal apology be issued by the government to the Native descendants of the boarding schools that I referenced above. This is a very painful issue for Indigenous men and women. The goal is 5,000 signatures. There will also be a “Journey of Forgiveness” this year, that will cover thousands of miles and end in Washington, as the sites of the old boarding schools are visited, and revisited. It is an oppotunity for tremendous healing for everyone, and again, I thank you for letting your readers know about it.

    The site is the following:


  • Kevin Levin Feb 14, 2009 @ 3:22

    Eric, — I would have to go back to see if Republicans in the 1850s were talking about the kind of consolidation that took place during the post-war period. Much of what I’ve read tends to concentrate on the role of government in encouraging internal improvements as well as free labor for white Americans. Clearly, these are the fundamental building blocks for the aggressive economic expansion that soon took place.

    Sherree, — Our collective memory is clearly biased against white Southerners when it comes to race and violence. We tend to overlook the fact, for example, that some of the worst racial riots occurred in northern cities following various migrations from the South, which led to job competition in urban centers.

  • Sherree Tannen Feb 14, 2009 @ 1:15

    Thanks for your comment, Toby.

    To clarify: when I said that black men and women were “pawns” for the North and the South, what I meant was that, in many respects, both white Northerners (outside of the abolitionists) and white Southerners saw black men and women as pawns to further their own goals. Black men and women themselves never were, are not now, and never will be pawns for anyone, and that is my point, in essence. White Northerners and white Southerners, then and now, seem much more interested in promoting themselves and their preferred view of history, than they do in understanding that the Civil War was a national tragedy that involved everyone, and a tragedy that can only be resolved when we finally realize that everyone was involved. As far as the impact of the Civil War on the nations indigenous to this land? With the slavery question “settled”, the nation looked West, and Indigenous men and women were in the way of westward expansion. Yes, this is the history of our nation from the beginning, and there were “uprisings” during the Civil War itself. (I put the word uprising in quotes, because the use of this word depends upon your point of view. To an Indigenous man or woman, taking back land that was taken from them was not an uprising, but an act of justice) But after the war, the idea of possibly exterminating Indigenous men and women seemed to take hold and gain ground. That is not to say that before the war that the idea of the extermination of Indigenous men and women was not prevalent as well, because it obviously was. It is just that after the war, the possibility of actually implementing that idea presented itself, and the US army was ruthless in that pursuit. In addition, outside of the efforts of brave individuals who spoke out against the treatment of Indigenous men and women, the nation seemed quite content to let the army do whatever it had to do to open the West for expansion. The descendants of the Indigenous men and women who faced the army before and after the Civil War are quite clear on this point, and they have their own history to tell–a history that does not simply include the history of their ancestors as an “event” in the white man’s history, as one historian phrased it.

    My point is that racism was not confined to the South, then or now, and the emancipationist view of history often seems to imply that it was, thus absolving the nation of responsibility for our racist past, outside of white Southerners–an underlying assumption that informs our entire national narrative. The abuse of black men and women in the South is well documented. The abuse of black men and women in other areas of the country, less so (by white men and women, that is) The abuse of Indigenous men and women in the US and in Canada has been almost completely hidden, until now. Just as the NAACP and the men and women who worked in the civil rights movement–and often died because of it–brought to national attention the abuses of black men and women in the South, and thus helped to stop those abuses, murders, and humiliations, now, we will soon have a chance as a nation to support the descendants of Indigenous men and women in bringing the abuses they have suffered to light, and in asking our government for a formal apology for the policy that led to the sending of Indigenous children to boarding schools that were established after the “Indian” wars were “won”, and the last Native American was shipped off to a reservation. The prototype for boarding schools in the US and Canada was the Carlisle Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In these boarding schools (known as residential schools in Canada) Indigenous children were forced to give up their language and their culture and many were physically and sexually abused. This abuse is intergenerational and contributes today to alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide in Native communities. The Canadian government recently issued a formal apology to First Nations’ men and women. I hope everyone will support Native men and women in the US in this effort, as it is time now to face yet another national tragedy and seek justice for the victims of it. I feel confident that President Obama will understand this. I hope this helps to clarify my position. Thanks, Kevin.

  • Eric Roy Feb 13, 2009 @ 15:52

    Although I hesitate to do so, I am going to disagree with you on this point. My understanding is that the antebellum commercial philosophy of Abraham Lincoln and like-minded Republicans envisioned an industrial prosperity that included family farmers as well as big railroads, small merchants as well as large distributors, factory workers as well as factory owners, etc. If that’s true, then it would seem that post-Reconstruction Republican presidents’ use of federal troops to violently break up labor strikes was not quite so much a return to original GOP economic principles as it was a mutation into a new stage of unqualified government support for and illegal intervention on behalf of monopoly capitalists, at the expense of the laborers who were originally supposed to have a full share in the Republican vision of all-American prosperity. If I’m wrong, please enlighten me.

    FYI, on a semi-related note, there is a thoroughly enjoyable, informative and surprising article in the February 12 issue of Salon.com, titled “How Would Lincoln Vote Today?”

  • Toby Feb 13, 2009 @ 8:26

    “In essence, when all is said and done, the Civil War was about money, and black men and women were pawns for both the North and the South. That is what makes the abolitionist movement so heroic. ”

    This is at best only half-true. I agree regarding the Abolitionists. But when William Garrison closed the “Liberator” in 1865, he felt it had completed its mission.

    The black men who joined the Union army played a role in gaining their own liberty. And, while Jim Crow laws were horribly oppressive, it is quite easy to see that black people had far more power over their own lives (in terms of having better educational opportunity, ownership of property and stable families) than before the war.

    The view that the Civil War was just about a bunch of Yankee capitalists trying to centralise government and enrich themselves is an old trope, and quite discredited.

    There were Indian Wars before, during and after the Civil War and I do not see what connection Sherree is trying to make. The “Trail of Tears” preceded the war by 30 years, and one of the largest Inidan uprisings (in Minnesota) happened in 1863.

    The only book I have read about the Republican party is Foner’s “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men”, and it always puzzled me how the Republicans so quickly lost the middle one. It seems to me to be a complex question, but I always felt that the Great Depression of the 1870s was decisive, and Kevin is on to something. I must read some of the other books mentioned.

  • Ethan S. Rafuse Feb 11, 2009 @ 8:26

    What happened was a simple matter of changing time. The true radicals were rooted in or at least shared common views with the antebellum reform movements that criticized the existing order. Once the Republican Party became the existing order, concerns about perpetuating power (best achieved by working hand in glove with business interests) became paramount, especially in the second generation of party leadership. Hence the Liberal Republican revolt of 1872. I am sure Brooks would characterize this as a gross oversimplification–and with no little justification.

  • Sherree Tannen Feb 11, 2009 @ 2:41

    Hi Kevin,

    It doesn’t matter which university you attended, or even if you never went to a university. You are a true intellectual, seeking the truth.

    I would like to expand upon my comment yesterday, with your continued patience, because I believe you are onto something that could help break the gridlock of discussions within the academic community concerning the Civil War–discussions that are truly important, since what happens in academia ends up in the streets, sooner or later, and affects everyone’s life.

    Parts of the emancipationist theory of the Civil War did indeed become a myth in order to counter the lost cause myth of the South. This was a necessary myth, though, that was needed to dislodge the nation from over a century’s worth of living a false history that had disastrous results for black men and women. The lost cause myth does not hold up under inspection. It is simply false. The emancipationist theory does hold up, and could arguably continue to hold up, if the history of the Civil War stopped in 1865, say. It is what happened after the war and Reconstruction that seems to prove that the Civil War was indeed a brother’s war, and that those brothers–and the women who were their wives, sisters, and daughters–were concerned about the history and progress of the white man and little more, except for the courage and bravery of individuals on either side. The problem with discussing this, is that some lost cause adherent always seems to pop up and shut the conversation down. I agree with a comment that you made some time ago. Proponents of the lost cause have had their say, now it is time for others to speak. I am including a quote from quite an eloquent speaker concerning what the decimation of the buffalo really meant–an eye witness to that destruction, Sitting Bull of the Lakota, great Hunkpapa medicine man and warrior–a destruction and legacy that led to the descendants of the nations indigenous to this land, living to this day on reservations that a Cherokee friend of mine, who was born on a reservation and who served two tours in Vietnam to serve his country, calls, “POW camps”. Thanks, Kevin, for all that you do.

    From a documentary by Galafilms, Montreal:

    “If the American Army understood one thing about the Plains Indians, it was their dependence on the buffalo. Physically and spiritually, the buffalo sustained Sioux tribes. The supply seemed endless. By the first half of the 19th century, there were millions upon millions of buffalo roaming the Plains. The herds were so massive that observers often remarked they had seen a dark solid mass of buffalo as far as the eye could see.”

    War on the Buffalo

    “By the mid-1880s the U.S. government was determined to drive all native peoples onto reservations and open up the west for U.S. expansion and settlement. Military attacks on tribal encampments had been going on for years, but the Plains Indians were not easily defeated in battle. It became clear that as long as millions of buffalo roamed the Plains, the U.S. government would not be able to control the warrior tribes of the west. The government needed no official documents to outline its national policy: exterminate the buffalo. ”

    “A cold wind blew across the prairie when the last buffalo fell … a death-wind for my people.”

    Sitting Bull

    A cold wind that was a death wind. It is time to listen. The great voices from the past know the story. Truly, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were the experts on the Civil War, as were Sitting Bull, and all of the great warrior chiefs who faced the US army–Sitting Bull of the Lakota, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perces, Geronimo of the Chiricahua Apache–the experts on its aftermath.

  • Rebecca Feb 10, 2009 @ 19:03

    Ah! I have fond memories of talking Republicans (historical and present-day) with Professor Gienapp. He was a wonderful man, and I still grieve for him. I’m always on the lookout for other former students for reminiscing. Sorry to have bothered you!

  • Craig the Marker Hunter Feb 10, 2009 @ 11:54


    No I did not have the pleasure of studying under Dr. Gienapp. I attended the less prestigious institutions of higher learning 🙂

  • Rebecca Feb 10, 2009 @ 10:44

    Craig, was your graduate professor by any chance one Bill Gienapp?

  • Sherree Tannen Feb 10, 2009 @ 5:38

    Hi Kevin,

    Now we are getting down to it, and this is where the hope for the future lies. In essence, when all is said and done, the Civil War was about money, and black men and women were pawns for both the North and the South. That is what makes the abolitionist movement so heroic. True abolitionists stood for moral clarity, in a country–and in a time–when there was no moral clarity.

    I just read an interview with Toni Morrison concerning her new novel, A Mercy. In the interview, Morrison basically says that the conversation about race that President Obama said we need to have in this nation, has to begin with white men and women talking to white men and women, and that she–Morrison–and other black men and women cannot be both the patient and the doctor.

    This nation–and the entire “New World”, which was certainly not “new” to the Indigenous men and women who lived for tens of thousands of years in what is now Canada, the United States, and Mexico–was founded upon the premise of white supremacy. The European descended settlers of our nation and of Canada and Mexico, brought with them deeply embedded notions of race, and they acted accordingly. There are entire nations of Indigenous peoples that no longer exist, because of European conquest and the diseases brought by the Europeans. I understand the rehabilitation of Sherman and why that is necessary, since without Sherman, the Civil War might have been lost and slavery might not have been abolished, nor the Union saved. As far as Sherman being a great humanitarian, though? That is a far reach. Unless recent research indicates otherwise, Sherman used techniques he employed in the Civil War against Indigenous nations as the nation looked West for more land. Again, please correct me if I am wrong, but what is the morally defensible position in a policy that involved killing the buffalo in order to starve to death men and women of the Indigenous Nations that were in the way of westward expansion? White men and women and white men and women, we are looking in the mirror at one another. Only those outside of white history and victimized by white history can see this. It is our turn to listen now. We have much to learn. And in listening and learning, comes the saving of our nation. This is a great nation, in spite of all of our mighty flaws. It is time now to come to terms with the past and to redress past injustices. And in doing so, we will find our future. Thanks, Kevin.

  • Will Keene Feb 10, 2009 @ 5:16

    I’m with Peter on this: “Civil War was about the institution of slavery, instead of the enslaved”. What led to the rise of the Republican party was the intrusion of the ‘slave power’ into the north. There had been some level of political organization against slavery like the Liberty Party of the 1840s but in general the typical northerner was ambivalent about slavery as long as it seemed to have no effect on his day-to-day life. Then in the mid-1850s a combination of events–such as the Kansas-Nebraska act, the rendition of Anthony Burns, and the Dred Scott case–made it appear that the ‘slave power’ was reaching into the lives of northerners. The reaction was a political revolution that changed the balance of power in congress and brought Lincoln to the White House. The political and legal changes wrought by the war removed the concern of northerners about the ‘slave power’. Thus after the civil war, the general public in the north drifted back to a kind of provincialism where the concerns of the emancipated slaves in distant states were of little importance.

  • Kevin Levin Feb 10, 2009 @ 3:21


    This is not a Beardian interpretation of the coming of the war. In fact, Egnal spends quite a bit of time discussing the place of slavery in the overall Republican platform. What he sets out to do is understand how their position on slavery functioned within a party that was commited to free labor, expansion, and internal improvements. Egnal does not minimize the importance of Republicans such as Stevens and Sumner, but he does make it a point to say that w/o the war most members of the party would not have moved so far on the question of emancipation and other forms of black equality. In the end, this was not an anti-slavery party, but an organization commited to the social and economic advancement of white Americans.

  • Bob Pollock Feb 9, 2009 @ 21:43


    Do you really think it is accurate to say “the Republican Party was organized primarily around an economic agenda ” ? I have not read the book you refer to. ( Didn’t the Beards argue the war was all about economics years ago?) I think your overall point is good, but I still think the issue that brought the party together was slavery. To be sure, pure abolitionists may have been a minority and anti-slavery folks were anti-slavery for a number of reasons, many of which related to economics (free labor), but the Republican Party included more than just former Whigs. Certainly Southerners believed the Republicans were all about opposition to their peculiar institution. And, by the time Grant left office in 1877, the leading Radicals like Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner were no longer around and the country was tired of dealing with the “negro problem.” Its one thing to put down a labor dispute, and quite another to police the elections and local governments of eleven states.

  • Peter Feb 9, 2009 @ 21:35

    I think you are entirely correct about the thrust of current scholarship about the Republican Party. Too often we think that because the Civil War was about slavery, that means that somehow it was about race and equality. Some northern abolitionists, and African Americans, thought it was about equality, but for the bulk of the population, it was not. So many apparent contradictions in the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction fall away if you take racial equality out of the picture. If we think about David Blight for a moment here, does it really seem so mysterious that equal rights and equal rights for blacks fell so quickly out of the picture? The primary war aim of the North was reconciliation (restoration of the Union). Slavery had to be ended not out of concern for African Americans, but because of the 3/5 clause that gave undue strength to southerners. If we take as our starting point that the Civil War was about the institution of slavery, instead of the enslaved themselves, how much more sense does the history of Reconstruction, and subsequently Civil Rights, make? If we think about popular support for the Civil War in the North, think about Leonard Richards’s “The Slave Power” and Adam I.P. Smith’s “No Party Now.” These works demonstrate a popular coalition in the North for the Civil War coalesced around the goal of crushing unequal representation for the Slave Power, a conspiracy of vast proportions that proved it aimed at destroying the American republican experiment through secession. Toss in a dash of the work of Michael Les Benedict and even the very notion of a “Radical Reconstruction” begins to fall away. In short, the North fought against slaveholders.

  • Tom Thompson Feb 9, 2009 @ 20:21

    When I asked one of America’s great labor leaders 35 years ago why he thought the party of Lincoln had turned into the rabid labor hating party that fought every progressive idea since before the New Deal, he opined that the party slipped away from the common people after Lincoln because the American Labor Movement was too weak to keep the party progressive.

    With little legal status to shore it up, labor was subject to the swings of the boom and bust economic cycles that typified the era. The industrial revolution provided obscene amounts of money to manipulate the political process and buy influence for big business in both parties. Blacks were further victimized by industry as they were commonly used as strikebreakers. The collateral damage of those fights created divisions between the races, and provided a rationale for military action against strikers.

  • davenoon Feb 9, 2009 @ 16:31

    Kevin, you should also look at Nancy Cohen, The Reconstruction of American Liberalism. She has a great couple of chapters about this very question. Essentially, most Republicans tended to believe that a level playing field existed in the so-called “free North,” and their view of reconstruction was simply that their duty included merely introducing a level playing field in the South. This meant that blacks would very quickly be viewed as “on their own.” When reconstruction failed to produce substantive equality at a fast pace, many republicans simply threw up their hands, blamed freedmen and women for their own subordination, and moved on with a traditional version of minimal-state liberalism…

    Cohen’s book is fantastic and makes this argument much better than I am here….

    • Kevin Levin Feb 9, 2009 @ 17:17

      Thanks for the recommendation Dave. That book was sent to me by the publisher when it was first released, but I never found the time to read it. Now I have a reason to dig it up.

  • Jason Phillips Feb 9, 2009 @ 15:01

    Good points Kevin. I just submitted a review essay of Egnal to Reviews in American History. They’re planning two reviews and a response from Egnal for the September issue. The idea that Republicans abandoned African Americans after Reconstruction implies that the party embraced them in the first place. Blacks had plenty of friends in the party who seized the initiative during Radical Reconstruction, but the radicals were always a minority of the party. They certainly didn’t speak for most Republican voters. Egnal’s focus on economic consistency within the party reinforces a point that Amy Dru Stanley articulated in From Bondage to Contract.

    I could say a lot more about this book, but I promised RAH that my critique will appear in their journal first!

    • Kevin Levin Feb 9, 2009 @ 15:13

      Hi Jason,

      Nice to hear from you. I should take some time to write up my thoughts about Egnal’s new book since I learned quite a bit from reading it.

  • Chris Feb 9, 2009 @ 14:06

    Kevin, excellent post! I commend your self-reflection, not an easy thing to do! I struggle with it myself.

    I have to ask, what is your opinion of the Democrat Party after Reconstruction and through this same time period in terms of race and black civil rights?


  • Craig the Marker Hunter Feb 9, 2009 @ 10:55

    In grad school I was prodded down a similar path by a truly gifted professor (who is unfortunately no longer with us). Required reading was a sampling of speeches from the party conventions ranged from pre-war to the early 1900s. The “planks” practically beat the reader in the head – expansion, industrialization, free markets (domestic). Over and over. One might argue that the abolition movement was in perspective one nail that held the plank of expansion in the party platform. Once the war was over, it was supplanted by a solid solution to the “Indian problem.” Or perhaps as you allude to, a strong labor policy became more important.

    Another way to look at the evolution of the party, consider the activities of the abolitionists after the Civil War. I’ve never studied the subject in detail outside the classroom, but I don’t recall many of them active in the Bureau of Indian affairs, where logically they might have been drawn. Where not many active in the prohibition movements? Regardless, they were not vocal as John B. Gordon and associates came back to power.

    Please, you make me long for the days spent reading Woodward’s “Tom Watson”….

  • Kevin Levin Feb 9, 2009 @ 10:35

    What a great question Andrew. It completely changes the focus when we ask the what-if question regarding Lincoln and Reconstruction. The question isn’t whether he would have stood by the newly-freed slaves, but whether he was a Republican committed to their core ideas. Thanks for that.

  • Drew Wagenhoffer Feb 9, 2009 @ 10:23

    I recently started my reading of Egnal, and was very much struck by the same point. It makes one wonder how much in step with evolving Republican values Lincoln would have remained had he lived into his 70s.


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