‘The Republic for Which It Stands’


Richard White, Oxford University Press, 928 pages, $35. “The Oxford History of the United States” is one of the great achievements of modern historical scholarship. Fans of the series, which has won three Pulitzer Prizes, have been waiting for the latest volume — “Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896” — with particular eagerness. The era is interesting in its own right: It takes America from the end of the Civil War, when the South lay shattered, to the point at which America was taking over from Britain as the world’s mightiest economy. It is also interesting because of the parallels with our own times. This era saw the rise of great entrepreneurs who refashioned the material basis of civilization with the discovery of efficient methods of producing steel and oil. It also saw a growing tension between the country’s egalitarian and individualistic traditions on the one hand, and its emerging business empires on the other. This tension gave rise to radical new political movements. Richard White is well qualified to cover this tumultuous era as both author of the fine “Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America” and a professor at Stanford University. One criticism: White is so keen at times on exposing the destructive side of capitalism that he downplays the creative side. But make no mistake, the book should be read — not just because it has so much to say about the latter part of the 19th century, but also because it casts light on America’s current problems with giant companies and roiling populism.