Crédit Mobilier

The Union Pacific Railroad at the 100th Meridian in 1866. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

Americans’ trust in their government has always ebbed and flowed, and those ebbs and flows have largely depended on whether the government and its officers have acted in ways that earned the trust of its citizens or in ways that led the government to be mired in scandal—therefore sullying its reputation. Some of the largest ebbs in trust have come after officials in the top echelon of government—Senators, Representatives, Presidents and their cabinets—have used their offices for their own benefit. Two months before the election of 1872, news broke of a scandal that would extend well into 1873 and implicate politicians as prominent as the Vice President, and that scandal foreshadowed the ways in which big business and politics would intertwine in not only the Nineteenth Century but the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries.

Read more

The Rise of Wage Labor

Chicago in the Late 1800s.

During the Gilded Age, millions of Americans saw their work lives transform: no longer would it be so common for the working man or woman to survive based on what he or she produced; rather, that worker would receive payment—from an employer or a contractor—for the time worked. That change allowed for the possibility during the Gilded Age for the older generation to reflect on their younger years, before the Civil War, and how they had sold most of what they had grown or made (and how they had then needed a wide variety of skills to not only grow or make those goods but to bring those goods to market and actually sell them). During the Gilded Age, that same generation could have been working the last years of their working lives reporting to a factory for work; work that likely had a significant element of danger and that may have required them to use a fraction of the skills that had served as their saving grace during their younger years. For the generations of Americans that have come after the Gilded Age, the system of wage labor has been no oddity. It became a substantial part of the modern way of life and not only in America. What would have struck and should strike subsequent generations, however, were the mechanics of the American economy in which wage labor was born and how the wage labor system in its rawest form did not extend even some of the most basic protections to workers.

Read more

The Nineteenth Century Liberal

View from the Capitol 01 detail
Washington, DC in 1870.

The two dominant American political parties of the late 1860s, the Republicans and the Democrats, are the parties that continue to dominate the political landscape into the early Twenty-First Century. Although they are the same parties in name, many of the policies they espouse—and the place on the political spectrum their supporters find themselves—have almost entirely reversed in the intervening century and a half. In modern parlance, a liberal is one that finds himself or herself on the left side of the political spectrum and is more likely to be a member of the Democratic Party. In the late Nineteenth Century, the term had an entirely different meaning. Read more

The Election of 1868

GrantColfax1868
A Campaign Poster for Ulysses S. Grant and Schuyler Colfax. M.B. Brown & Co., New York. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

In 1864, as the election neared, President Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, wagered that his re-election prospects depended on having a unity ticket: rather than choose a fellow Republican for the nomination for Vice President, he opted for a War Democrat and southerner, Andrew Johnson. With Johnson being from the South, condemning the Confederacy, and supporting the prosecution of the Civil War without negotiated peace—unlike the faction in his party known as the Copperheads (which called for immediate peace negotiations with the Confederacy)—he served as a useful balance to the Republican, Lincoln, whose party was increasingly vocal about abolition and subjugating the South, political issues that chilled some parts of the electorate to Lincoln. By 1868, much had changed. Lincoln had been assassinated, Johnson had poorly navigated Washington politics (and had come to within one vote of the Senate removing him from the presidency), and Ulysses S. Grant had continued his meteoric rise in popularity. There was little doubt that Grant would be the Republican nominee; he was one of the most popular Americans of the 1860s and would remain so for the duration of the 19th Century. The bigger questions were who the Democratic Party would choose as its nominee and whether that nominee would have a chance at becoming the first Democrat elected to the Presidency in twelve years—when James Buchanan won the election of 1856. Read more

America in 1870

Although America, by 1870, was still not one hundred years into its life as a country, it had the blessings and curses of an industrialized nation—some inherited from the British but others uniquely American.[i] Among the blessings was widespread prosperity: the United States then had “74 percent of British and 128 percent of German per-capita income.”[ii] Although many Europeans had come to see America as a country filled with “little more than amiable backwoods-men not yet ready for unsupervised outings on the world stage,” those Europeans had erred in reaching that conclusion as was evident at the London Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851 when Americans showed their latest inventions in their “outpost of wizardry and wonder” with machines that “did things that the world earnestly wished machines to do—stamp out nails, cut stone, mold candles—but with a neatness, dispatch, and tireless reliability that left other nations blinking.”[iii] But that presentation of the United States to the world lacked the nuance that was evident to those who toured the country; prosperity may have been widespread, but it was not equally distributed and it was not without hardship.

Read more

A Nation Reborn

President Andrew Johnson. By: Mathew Brady.

In the same way that the Second World War would reshape the globe in the Twentieth Century, the Civil War reshaped America for the remainder of the Nineteenth Century. Veterans of both wars came to define their respective generations and rise to positions of power: just as Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s meteoric rise culminated in him becoming President three years after the war, General Dwight D. Eisenhower would find himself being elected President seven years after the war of his generation. Lesser generals also worked their way into office—some of those offices being elected and others being executive offices of companies in the emerging industries following the wars—but that would occur over the course of decades: the last Civil War veteran to reach the presidency, William McKinley, occupied the White House as the Nineteenth Century faded into the Twentieth. As ever, those who held power determined the direction of the country’s future. In the weeks and months following the end of the Civil War, and President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, people in power would be sketching out the contours of a post-war America; and it was then, at that nascent stage of the newly reborn nation’s life, that new factions emerged—factions that would vie for weeks, months, and even years to cast the die of America in their own image and either keep, or make, the nation they wished to have.

Read more