‘The Republic for Which it Stands’

 Richard White, 941 pages, $35.

“The Republic for Which It Stands: During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896,” is a capacious and forceful book with a dull title. White, who teaches at Stanford, is one of the nation’s most gifted historians, the author of several important studies of the American West, including a scathing exposé of the giant post-Civil War transcontinental railroads. Like that book, this one, the latest installment in the multivolume Oxford History of the United States, is handsomely written and dense in detail. It is also laced with an irony that sometimes focuses and sometimes plays lightly off White’s outrage at the spoliation he finds almost everywhere he looks. The age was cynical, but White’s book, allowing for a lapse or two, is not. This is because he is drawn to the striving middle- and working-class America. In mostly unsung ways, they expanded the public good, driven by the promise of a free-labor democracy purged of the oligarchic slavery that died with the Confederacy. But that promise, White demonstrates, turned out to be treacherous. The ambiguous liberal ideals of contract freedom and self-regulation became instruments for brute and chaotic corporate power. An “uncommon” America emerged, characterized by extravagance, mismanagement and predatory flimflam. Risk-taking and rugged individualism, big business’ eternally self-proclaimed virtues, were in extremely short supply at the top; Gilded Age fortunes sprang from government subsidies, insider tips and, above all, the corruption required to get these favors.