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.

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The Nineteenth Century Liberal

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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 1864

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Abraham Lincoln in 1864.

The summer of 1864 was one of dismay for President Abraham Lincoln and his administration: throughout the Union, the appetite for war had rapidly shrunk; particularly as compared to the heady days of 1860 that ushered Lincoln into the White House. While some voters in the North saw the continued prosecution of the war as nothing more than an attempt to manifest Lincoln’s wish to abolish slavery—and therefore a war not worth fighting—others had naturally, in view of the mounting casualties, developed a fatigue for war and, if they had a choice in the matter, would have opted for a negotiated peace. If Lincoln were to lose the election—so the argument ran—then families could be reunited and the violence could come to an end. For Confederates, northern voter despair was precisely the ingredient that was needed in the giant pot that was political discourse in the Union, but it was not all that was needed: the rebels had dreamt of forcing a negotiated peace, and now, with the election in sight, they had hope that Lincoln would be voted out and the war could be brought to a favorable end. Read more

The Battle of Gettysburg

By the spring of 1863, the Union had given the Confederacy every reason to remain defensive: for the duration of the war, federal troops had invaded points throughout the south forcing the rebels to shift to the location of each incision. Allowing this dynamic to continue to play out meant the only way for a Confederate success was a negotiated peace. On May 15, the southern brain trust, including General Robert E. Lee and President Jefferson Davis, convened in Richmond to discuss strategy. Lee proposed that he lead an effort that would remove the threat to Richmond, throw the Yankees on their heels, spell political doom for the Republicans (led by Abraham Lincoln in the White House), open up the possibility of Britain or France recognizing the Confederacy, and, at worst, an armistice that resulted in the Confederate States of America coexisting with the United States.[i] While Postmaster-General John Reagan and other Confederates felt that Lee should have sent troops to protect Vicksburg and the west from the trouble Ulysses S. Grant and his men were causing, Lee did not want to oblige the Confederacy to remain on the defensive but instead introduce the “prospect of an advance” as it would change “the aspect of affairs.”[ii] Read more

The North’s Attempt at Salvation

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Aerial Perspective of Washington DC in 1861.

The Deep South’s animating of a Second American Revolution, by seceding from the Union and laying the foundation for an operational Confederate government, forced the North to either suppress the South’s uprising or craft a resolution. The likelihood of war would deter any widespread northern suppression, leaving the question: What compromise could the North propose that appeased the South and put both sections of the country on a path of coexistence? While variations of this question had been posed in the years leading up to 1860, at no prior point were states seceding from the Union en masse to form a rival government. Read more

The Precursor to the Winter of Secession

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Washington in 1860. Photographer Unknown.

Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the Election of 1860 was disconcerting news for the South. It was the most recent event in a string of events that seemingly endangered the southern way of life and the future of the country. At a time when many northerners suspected southern threats of secession were but a bluff, there was evidence that the country had already split and the formalities were soon to follow. Read more

The Election of 1860

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The United States Capitol in 1860. Courtesy: Library of Congress

Every presidential election is consequential, but the Election of 1860 would play a significant role in whether the United States would remain one nation. The division of the North and South on the issue of slavery threatened to cause a secession of the South. The result of the election would determine whether that threat would materialize and cause a Second American Revolution. Read more

The Obstinacy of the North and South

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Construction on the Capitol in 1859. Courtesy: William England, Getty Images.

By 1859, the northern and southern sections of America had developed different economic systems, cultural norms, and approaches to permitting slavery. Congress and the political parties had been able to overlook those differences for the sake of self-preservation and advancement of the collective agenda. As 1859 concluded and 1860 sprang, Americans understood that the status quo of compromise was not to continue much longer. Read more