By Ron Chernow

(Penguin Books, 2018)

The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age 1865-1896
By Richard White

(Oxford University Press, 2018)

Times Literary Supplement, January 26, 2018

The Civil War and the decades that followed form the pivotal era of American history, laying the foundation for the modern nation. The war destroyed the institution of slavery, ensured the survival of the Union, and set in motion economic and political changes that led to the country's emergence as the world's foremost industrial power. Some of the problems of that era seem eerily contemporary – enormous inequalities of wealth and power, terrorist violence, aggressive racism and hostility to immigrants.

A vast historical literature addresses these years, but it has long been divided into two historiographies that often ignore each another. One deals with Reconstruction (generally dated from the end of the war in 1865 to 1877), when former slaves attempted to breathe substantive meaning into the freedom they had acquired and northern Republicans in Congress sought to construct an interracial democracy in the South, with black men for the first time enjoying civil and political rights equal to those of whites. The second, spanning the period from 1865 to 1896 – the Gilded Age, as Mark Twain called it – centres on the emergence of the industrial economy and its con-sequences for politics, labour relations and social life. Scholarship on Reconstruction deals primarily with developments in Washington and the South; that on the Gilded Age focuses on the North and West. Two lengthy, quite different, but impressive recent works confront the daunting challenge of combining these histories into a single narrative.

Few American presidents have seen their reputations ebb and flow so dramatically as Ulysses S. Grant, who served in office from 1869 to 1877. Historians long derided him as a military "butcher" who triumphed in the Civil War not by virtue of superior generalship but because of a willingness to incur enormous casualties in a war of attrition, and whose presidency was marked by corruption and political ineptitude. More recently, a series of biographers – H. W. Brands, Brooks Simpson, Jean Edward Smith and Ronald C. White, among others – have offered a more sympathetic portrait. Ron Chernow's new book is the latest and most far-reaching of these reassessments. Grant, Chernow tells us at the outset, was a "sensitive, complex, and misunderstood man", an "adept politician" and a great general.

Chernow has already produced highly regarded biographies of George Washington, John D. Rockefeller and Alexander Hamilton (the last the inspiration for the immensely popular Broadway musical). His latest book has shot up the bestseller lists, and it is not difficult to understand why. He is an indefatigable researcher with a wonderfully readable narrative style. Chernow is able to convey with clarity the complex details of military campaigns and political developments.

Grant, Edmund Wilson observed in Patriotic Gore, his study of Civil War-era literature, was the oddest choice for greatness thrown up by that conflict. His early life offered few hints of later success. His father, a successful businessman, had extremely high hopes for his son, while his mother lacked "maternal warmth" – a combination, according to Chernow, that produced in Grant an introverted personality, seemingly incapable of empathy or deep emotion. (Somehow, though, at the end of his life this reticent man managed to write one of the most compelling memoirs in American literature.) Thanks to his father, Grant attended the US Military Academy at West Point, where his performance was "lackluster" and he then served in the US–Mexican War, of which he strongly disapproved. Forced to resign from the army in the 1850s because of a drinking problem, Grant struggled to provide for his family. At one stage he was reduced to selling firewood on the streets of St Louis.

Of course, the Civil War elevated Grant to a heroic status second only to Abraham Lincoln's (at least among northerners). Chernow's account of Grant's military career, which takes up nearly half the book, is well done but, as numerous footnotes to Shelby Foote's classic three-volume narrative of the war and to Grant's own memoirs attest, it is hard to say anything new about the war's military history. Chernow, like other recent writers, makes the case that Grant had a strategic vision that his great antagonist Robert E. Lee lacked, and that unlike most other Union generals he possessed a resolve, forged in prewar adversity, that led him to take risks where other generals would not.

Chernow admits that this quality produced not only celebrated victories but also mistakes, including Grant's failure to anticipate a Confederate assault on his troops at Shiloh in 1862 and his disastrous attack at Cold Harbor two years later, where he suffered 7,000 casualties in an hour. Chernow also takes him to task for his notorious order of December 1862 (quickly countermanded by Lincoln) expelling all Jews from his command in the West. Grant blamed Jewish merchants for illicit cotton dealings with the enemy, although plenty of non-Jewish traders were also involved. Chernow attributes Grant's action to "a fit of Oedipal rage", since his father had sought to deal in cotton with three Jewish partners (a not entirely persuasive explanation). More forthrightly than most recent biographers, Chernow acknowledges Grant's alcoholism, portraying him as a binge drinker who managed to stay away from temptation for months at a time, only to succumb, especially when separated from his ever-vigilant wife.

The re-evaluation of Grant as a military leader has been going on for some time. What is new in Chernow's account is the attention he devotes to Grant's policies towards African Americans. Grant grew up in an "ardent abolitionist" household. During the Civil War, while other Union generals like George B. McClellan were openly racist, Grant enthusiastically supported Lincoln's emancipation policy and the raising of black troops. Unlike his predecessor as President, Andrew Johnson, whom Chernow rightly condemns for his "benighted view of black people", Grant in office embraced Reconstruction. He appointed numerous blacks to public office (as well as a considerable number of Jews, perhaps in atonement for his Civil War order). Most importantly, he used all the resources at his disposal, including federal troops, to protect Southern blacks against racist violence. The "imperishable story" of Grant's presidency, Chernow writes, was his campaign in 1871–2 that crushed the Ku Klux Klan, "the largest wave of domestic terrorism in American history". And Grant's greatest failure lay in "shamefully" not intervening to protect black voters during the violent electoral campaigns in Mississippi in 1875 and South Carolina the following year.

Grant, Chernow insists, was "the single most important figure behind Reconstruction". This is a considerable overstatement, but the very fact that Chernow makes Reconstruction and, more broadly, the rights of the freed people, the yardstick for judging Grant's presidency reflects the recent sea change in historians' views of that complex period. Once dismissed as a sordid period of corruption and misgovernment brought about by the unpardonable mistake of granting voting rights to black men, Reconstruction is now seen as a noble experiment, a precursor to the modern civil rights revolution (sometimes called the Second Reconstruction). Chernow's book will bring this outlook to a broad audience, where it has not yet fully penetrated. He pays a price for this focus, however, in slighting the economic revolution underway during Grant's presidency, and the severe depression that began in 1873. For in-depth treatment of these developments and their political and social consequences one must turn to Richard White's The Republic for Which It Stands.

White, who recently retired from Stanford University, is one of the outstanding historians of his generation. It is difficult to think of many others who can match the range, depth, originality and influence of his writings, which include a prize-winning account of the construction of the transcontinental railroads, an environmental history of the Columbia River Valley, a general history of the American West, and even a memoir of his mother's life as an emigrant from Ireland. Probably his most influential book, The Middle Ground (1991), almost single-handedly transformed the study of encounters between European empires and Native Americans, rejecting the familiar linear narrative of conquest in favour of a far more complex set of interactions, negotiations and shifting power relations.

The Republic for Which It Stands is part of the Oxford History of the United States, a project originally launched in the early 1960s with the aim that all the volumes would be published by the bicentennial of American independence. Books in the series are syntheses, relying on existing scholarship. Assimilating existing literature and placing an individual stamp on it is easier said than done. When 1976 rolled around, only one volume had appeared and over forty years later, completion of the series lies far in the future. White is to be commended for assuming responsibility for this part of the series after more than one historian had abandoned it. His footnotes and bibliography reveal a remarkable command of the historical literature, which he uses to construct a vast, sprawling and often original panorama of the American economy, politics and society between 1865 and 1896.

The Republic for Which It Stands introduces a compelling cast of characters, from the anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells to the land reformer Henry George, the inventor Thomas Edison, the anti-immigrant activist Josiah Strong, the "brilliant Lakota war leader Crazy Horse", and capitalist buccaneers such as Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. White has interesting things to say about any number of subjects, many of them ignored in most books on the period. For example, despite the era's rapid economic growth, Americans, he writes, were "a sickly people". During this period, their lifespans declined, death rates rose, and even their average height fell. This stemmed directly from the expansion of industrial cities plagued by inadequate sewage systems, overcrowded housing and periodic epidemics. "Americans knew that their built environment was killing and stunting them," he writes, "but they did not know how." The large-scale movement from farms to cities, where living space was scarce and raising children expensive, also led to a dramatic decline in the American birth rate. In 1800 this stood at seven children per adult woman, a rate considerably higher than that of any European country. A century later it had fallen to half that figure. Women achieved the decline by marrying later, spacing births via contraception and abortion, and, it seems, abstaining from sex for long intervals.

If a book this capacious can be said to have a single theme it is how the Republican social vision that emerged from the Civil War, based on the principles of free labour and "homogeneous citizenship" ran aground on the shoals of economic change, rising inequality and the persistence of racism. Republicans emerged from the war committed to remaking the entire nation in the image of Lincoln's America – a society of small farms, small shops and widespread economic opportunity. By the time the book ends, "the world of Lincoln . . . had vanished". Workers complained they were being denied the promise of economic independence and a share in the benefits of economic change. The result was some of the most violent labour conflict any nation has ever experienced, as well as the rise of political insurgencies from anti-monopoly movements to the People's Party, or Populists. After Reconstruction, moreover, the ideal of equal citizenship regardless of race was superseded by an exclusionary definition that relegated blacks to second-class status, excluded Chinese would-be immigrants from entering the country, and confined Native Americans to reservations. Another persistent theme is the limited power and general ineptitude of the national state, which proved incapable of defending racial equality in the South or imposing stability on the rapidly changing economy.

To integrate Reconstruction and the Gilded Age into a single historical narrative, White introduces the idea of a Greater Reconstruction that encompassed the South and the West. In both regions, the federal government sought to impose its authority on recalcitrant groups used to enjoying local power (ex-Confederates in the South, Native Americans in the West). "Republican programs for the South and West were of a piece", White writes, and they were "a variant of a larger pattern of state building" simultaneously taking place in Germany, Italy, Japan and elsewhere. White's approach has the virtue of linking events in two areas usually studied in isolation and incorporating them into a national story. But it runs the risk of homogenizing two very different historical processes. In the South, consolidating national power meant protecting a vulnerable population against violent repression emanating from local white elites. In the West, it meant subduing peoples seeking to maintain their traditional way of life, while opening most of their land to exploitation by mining companies and white settlers. Moving one's point of view to the national level may lead to losing sight of what made events in the South unique and important – the struggle of former slaves, at ground level, not against national authority (which they welcomed), but against bitter local resistance.

White makes clear that the presence of the Union army in the South was essential to enabling blacks to exercise their new rights. He is less enamoured than Chernow of Grant's record in this regard, chiding him for delay in suppressing the Klan. (He also notes that Grant appointed a series of mediocrities to the Supreme Court, who went on to undermine the constitutional amendments intended to protect black citizens' rights.) But the focus on violence during Reconstruction and the ultimate defeat of the nation-building project in the South also comes with a cost – it can reduce blacks simply to victims. In a book replete with sketches of Americans of all backgrounds and social statuses, the black leaders of Reconstruction receive remarkably little attention. There is no entry in the index for Hiram Revels or Blanche K. Bruce, the nation's first black United States senators; for Robert Smalls, a South Carolina slave who became a Civil War hero and major political leader after the war; or the talented black Congressman Robert B. Elliott, whose speech in favour of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 electrified supporters of African American rights.

White's book really comes into its own when Reconstruction ends in 1877, the same year that the great railroad strike, put down by federal troops and local militias, heralded the collapse of the promise of free labour and the alignment of the federal government with the interests of capital. From here, White turns his attention to the economic and social transformations in the North and West and the complex struggles they unleashed. Economic issues of the day – the gold standard, tariff policy, how to pay off Civil War bonds, railroad land grants – receive lucid explanations, as do the machinations of the era's industrial magnates. In this society, White demonstrates, riches more often derived from manipulating stock prices, driving out competitors, and feeding at the public trough, than from entrepreneurial genius. After leaving the presidency, Grant himself was ruined by a typical Gilded Age scam cooked up by a Wall Street speculator who induced the retired President to lend his name and his life savings to a Ponzi scheme. When it came crashing down, Grant was wiped out. Terminally ill, he agreed to write his memoirs in order to ensure that his wife would not end her days in poverty.

White does not hesitate to make clear where his sympathies lie, often in provocative, aphoristic sentences. After recounting how Andrew Carnegie destroyed the steelworkers' union in the Homestead strike of 1892, he writes: "Carnegie imposed work rules that deprived his employees of virtually all their leisure time; he then built a library and lectured them on how to spend time they did not have". Or, commenting on an ex-slave's eloquent testimony before a congressional committee about the persecution of black people in the post-Reconstruction South: "He made those questioning him seem lesser men, as indeed they were".

The era's self-styled liberals – liberal in the nineteenth-century sense of favouring limited government and laissez-faire economics – also elicit his disdain. They promoted a model of society based on rational individuals pursuing self-interest in an unfettered market that bore little resemblance to the actual workings of the economy. They extolled the labour contract as the essence of freedom, ignoring the vast disparities in power between employer and employee. Restraints on the rights of property, such as state laws regulating railroad rates and factory conditions, were, in their view, attacks on freedom, akin to slavery itself. These ideas had little purchase among ordinary Americans, but strongly influenced the Supreme Court, "the least democratic sector of government". Even as they eviscerated the constitutional protections for black rights, the Justices systematically promoted the interests of the era's capitalists. Like its descendant, modern-day neoliberalism, nineteenth-century liberalism, White writes, offered a "virtually incoherent" picture of the actual workings of an economy suffering from recurrent crises, but "still retained life in Washington".

One finishes White's account with a gnawing sense of familiarity. It was Henry George, during his campaign to become mayor of New York in 1886, who first spoke of the economic gap between "most of us – 99 per cent at least" and "the other 1 per cent". At the end of the book, in 1896, native-born Americans rail against immigrants for bringing crime and dangerous political ideas to American cities, states enact laws to restrict the right to vote, money flows in unprecedented amounts into political campaigns, and populism is on the march (not the faux populism of today but a movement that proposed to use the democratic state to curb the power of economic elites). Richard White quotes the theologian Lyman Abbott as identifying the contradiction at the heart of the Gilded Age: "politically America is a democracy; industrially America is an aristocracy". The dilemma is still with us.