Prominent historians Daniel Walker Howe and Richard White delivered the keynote presentations at Humanities Texas's June 2014 teacher institutes on "America in the 1860s." Dr. Howe's lecture, "The Controversial Transformation of America, and the Consequent Transformation of Americans, in the 1850s," launched our institute at the University of North Texas. Dr. White's lecture, "The Nation in 1865," opened our program at The University of Texas at San Antonio. Together these stimulating presentations explored the technological, political, and social upheavals that influenced the country in the periods immediately preceding, during, and following the Civil War.
On the 24th of May, 1844, Professor Samuel F. B. Morse, seated in the chambers of the United States Supreme Court in Washington, tapped out a message on a funny-looking device of cogs and coiled wires. He used the code that he had recently devised, and he spelled out the words, "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT." It's a quotation from the King James Bible, of course. If you want to look it up, it's the Book of Numbers, chapter twenty-three, verse twenty-three. Forty miles away, in Baltimore, Morse's associate, Alfred Vail, received the electric signals and telegraphed the message back. As those who witnessed it understood, this demonstration would change the world. For thousands of years, messages had been limited by the speed that messengers could travel, and the distance eyes could see signals like flags or smoke. Neither Alexander the Great, nor Benjamin Franklin, two thousand years later, had known anything faster than a galloping horse, but now instant long-distance communication became possible for the first time.
The decades leading up to the Civil War witnessed many dramatic changes in the United States. To go back to the year 1815, America had been what we might call a third-world country. Most people then lived on isolated farmsteads. Their lives revolved around the weather and the hours of daylight. Many people grew their own food. Many wives made their clothes for their own family. It was the difficulty of transportation, communication, and manufacturing that kept their lives so primitive. Only people who lived near navigable waterways could easily market their crops and get the money that would enable them to buy commodities that were not produced locally, for which they could barter with their neighbors or the local storekeep. On the other hand, by 1860, the United States was no longer a third-world country—it had become a major transcontinental power. Revolutionary innovations in communications, transportation, [and] manufacturing facilitated this change. Americans were more and more integrated into a global economy. Improvements in transportation and communication liberated people from the tyranny of distance. That is, they liberated people from isolation—economic, intellectual, and yes, political isolation. Meanwhile, America was extending its territory, until it stretched from sea to sea, creating a transcontinental empire. So the America of 1860 was significantly more like the America of today than it had been in 1815.
The invention of the telegraph was one of the many technological innovations that were transforming Western civilization in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Mechanical textile looms and sewing machines enabled the mass production of clothing, dramatically lowering its price. Think about women's fashions in the mid-nineteenth century. All those clothes that they wore, all the way down to the ground. That was a manifestation of how much less expensive textiles were by that time. Women were rejoicing and frolicking in the cheapness of clothing that had been made possible by technology. Cheaper methods of manufacturing paper, and of printing mass copies of the same text, facilitated the multiplication of newspapers and magazines. Canals, steamboats, railroads: each of these wrought enormous changes in the country's transportation network. Canals with locks, like the famous Erie Canal, enabled barges laden with goods to move over high ground to reach potential customers on the other side. The steam engine enabled riverboats to sail upstream, against the current. Before steam power was harvested, you could only float downstream on rivers with strong currents, like the Mississippi and the Ohio. The steam-powered locomotive, facilitating overland travel and transportation, finally enabled goods to move across land almost as economically as across water.
. . .
Technological changes like these revolutionized American life in the mid-nineteenth century. Their impact went far beyond commerce. It impinged on every aspect of life. For example, the innovations in printing and the improvements in transportation facilitated the production and dissemination of books. This is what enabled the rise of the novel as a literary genre. Mass literacy and the institutions that fostered it acquired increased civic importance. Post offices were central to the political controversies of that day. The multiplication of local post offices expanded the federal bureaucracy. It became a great source of political patronage. In every little community, there was somebody who wanted to become, or remain, the postmaster—somebody who would get his friends and neighbors out to vote, and vote the right way.
The changes we've been describing were not only profound, but also controversial. Some people were more eager than others to encourage economic transformations. Of course, practically all Americans of this period wanted and expected their nation to change and grow. But some of the people thought of this primarily in terms of geographical expansion across the continent. Others, however, thought of progress not so much in terms of the quantity of land that the United States controlled, but in terms of enriching the quality of American life. They hoped to achieve their kind of progress through industrialization, better transportation and communications, and increased educational opportunities. Some reformers even sought to improve the treatment of women and racial minorities. Debates over these rival visions of the future dominated American politics into the decade of the 1850s.
. . .
Controversies over economic development were what led to the formation of the Second Party System. The First Party System, you remember, had been that of Washington's Federalists and Jefferson's Republicans. In the years between 1830 and 1860, the Second Party System of Democrats and Whigs flourished. The Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson became the party of territorial expansion, what it called "realizing America's 'Manifest Destiny.'" Manifest Destiny meaning plain, obvious destiny. That is, to expand. We might call such an attitude imperialism.
Jackson's opponents, the Whig Party, constituted the party encouraging economic development. Its leaders included John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and the future president Abraham Lincoln. The Whigs advocated a national bank, partly owned by the government, to perform central banking functions; also a protective tariff to encourage industrialization, government subsidies to transportation projects like canals and railroads, and state-supported public school systems. The Democrats preferred local control over public schools, and if the locals decided they didn't want to tax themselves to invest in schools, so be it. The Whigs called their program the "American System," to emphasize that they intended to make the nation strong and economically independent.
The transformations in American life produced by these nineteenth-century technological innovations led to the emergence of a new kind of person. Young people growing up in the early nineteenth-century United States lived in a world where, since time immemorial, boys had followed in their father's footsteps and pursued their father's occupational calling. Girls followed in their mother's footsteps and became housewives. But the revolutions in transportation, commerce, and industry during the nineteenth century multiplied the occupational options available. All these technological innovations created a host of new jobs—locomotive engineers and repairmen, telegraph operators, miners for the coal that often generated the steam, merchants distributing and vending the newly plentiful textiles, managers, stockbrokers, and insurance agents for the new publicly-held companies. America's open society was well adapted to accommodate new opportunities like this. More than ever before, it was now plausible for boys to leave home—often their father's farm—and seek to find themselves, as Abraham Lincoln left Thomas Lincoln's farm and pursued a vocation more in line with his own inclinations and talents. He became a lawyer, an occupation based on book learning and skill in argument.
Girls as well as boys began to have the chance to leave home, earn their own money, perhaps working in one of the new textile mills. These girls could enjoy a kind of personal independence they did not have in their father's household—at least until they married and became part of their husband's household. What made all this so exciting was not simply that young people had a wider variety of economic opportunities. What made it exciting was being able to choose what kind of person they wanted to be, and then, through conscious, serious effort, make themselves into the person they had chosen. And in this respect, the boys certainly had a wider range of options than the girls. Self-making, as Americans of this period understood it, was much more than a matter of vocational choice and training. They saw it as the proper realization and development of a young person's potential and character. In 1858, a person named Charles Seymour wrote a collection of biographical sketches entitled Self-Made Men. His book sums up very well what Americans of his generation meant by "self-made". When we say "self-made", we usually mean a businessperson who, starting from scratch, has made a lot of money. Charles Seymour did not mean that. Of his sixty subjects, very few were newly rich entrepreneurs. Instead, most of them were scientists, inventors, and statesmen. They represented the kind of individuals, Seymour believed, who were making the world anew during an era of industrial revolution, geographical expansion, and knowledge explosion. For the characters in Seymour's book, the creation of their own identities had been the first step in their energetic innovation and constructive accomplishments. They had been able to reshape their world, because they had first made themselves.
As we've seen, public education was a significant political issue at that time. Ever since the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, Protestants had emphasized the duty of Bible-reading, which of course implied the fundamental role of literacy in leading a good Christian life. In nineteenth-century America, this religious argument for public education was supplemented by secular arguments. Education could help prepare people for the rapidly multiplying job opportunities. But those advocates of public education, led by the remarkable Horace Mann, were not interested in simply creating automatons to serve a growing economy. They also wanted to provide enriched opportunity for citizens to broaden their horizons to develop an active awareness of public issues, and to develop their own personal potential. They wanted to nurture a responsible citizenry for a democratic republic. Besides schools, many other institutions reflected this broad-based desire for self-help and self-improvement: Chautauquas, Lyceums, Mechanics' Institutes.
One of the greatest exemplars of the new urge for self-development turned out to be the man whom a brand new political party elected president in 1860: Abraham Lincoln. It's ironic, because Lincoln had grown up on a frontier with practically no formal schooling available to him. Even though his family did not encourage him to do so, the young Lincoln set out on a quest for self-improvement, and undertook to shape his own character. One aspect of that character, for which Lincoln became justly famous, was honesty. Without the visual media of today, Lincoln developed himself through reading. Conscious as he was of the limitations of his rural environment, he might have read for escape—but he did not. Instead, he read for discipline. He read not only to learn what others had thought and said, but to find out how they did it. He read in order to learn how to think and speak and act for himself. Accordingly, he read classic accounts of individual struggle: Pilgrim's Progress, Robinson Crusoe, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. He sought out books about thinking, books about geometry and grammar, and the hard conundrums of free will and determinism. He read the same few books over and over, making a virtue of necessity, of course. But this way, he absorbed their lessons into his very being.
People like Lincoln venerated the ideal of improvement. They used the word "improvement" to describe purposeful changes in the material environment—digging canals, dredging harbors, and building lighthouses—those things were called "internal improvements." But people also used the term to apply to themselves as a goal of education. Here's a phrase: "she has improved herself by reading books." That's a characteristic expression of that era. May we today, following the example of people like Lincoln, apply the noble ideal of personal improvement in our own teaching, and in our own personal lives.
I'm choosing to begin not with the outbreak of the Civil War, and not really with the end of the Civil War, but instead in 1865, when Northerners and Southerners came to recognize that the United States was embarking on a second American Revolution. The revolution was not the Civil War itself. The Civil War, for all its vast changes—the conquest of the Confederacy, the end of slavery, the creation of a federal government, the so-called Yankee Leviathan of the size and power never before witnessed in this country—had only created the conditions for the revolution. The revolution will be legally contained in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, and the legislation that enabled them. Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois summarized the impact of that legislation by saying it guaranteed to all citizens the fundamental rights belonging to every man as a free man: the right to make contracts, to sue in court, to be sure that the state would protect their property and person. When the Fifteenth Amendment passed, the revolution secured, or supposedly secured, universal male suffrage. The revolution changed the relations of individual citizens to the federal government. What it sought to do was create a homogeneous citizenry—one where the basic rights and liberties of all citizens were the same no matter where you [were] in the United States, and the federal government would guarantee and enforce those rights. It would not eliminate discrimination—women could not vote—but it did outlaw discrimination on the basis of race and previous conditions of servitude.
These were the broad legal boundaries of the revolution, but the cultural and social intent of the revolution went way beyond this. It took its inspirations from the free labor vision of American society that was embodied in the antebellum Republican Party, but it radicalized that vision by relying on a powerful federal government to extend a social ideal that the country associated with the North, particularly the Midwest, and impose it by force, if necessary, on the South and on the West. The North had every intent to remake the entire country over in its own image. The paradox of all this was that the North wanted to change the country while it remained largely as it was, or imagined itself to be, and this would prove impossible.
The best way to get a sense of this situation is to turn to an iconic moment: Abraham Lincoln's funeral in the spring of 1865. This is Washington, DC [in] 1865 after Lincoln's assassination—the capital, the city is draped in black. It's a funeral that took fifteen days, and it's a good marker of what the Civil War changed, and what the immediate future would bring. John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln on Good Friday, April 15, 1865. It's the kind of event where Americans can't help but read deep meanings into this. The next Wednesday, April 19, the nation began what would be a funeral that stretched over 1700 miles. Its first phase is in Washington, DC, and it could be taken as a symbol of how much the country had changed in the four years of the Civil War. Preceding Lincoln's coffin along Pennsylvania Avenue was a detachment of African American soldiers. It was fitting that they were there for they would have been unimaginable four years earlier. It was equally fitting that they were there by accident. They'd just arrived and in the confusion of setting up the parade, they inadvertently went to the front of the line and marched first. The Army didn't put them there on purpose. In many ways, the nation was still unprepared for armed black men.
Among the dignitaries behind the hearse, carrying the coffin, was General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant would be elected president in 1868, and in some ways became the quintessential Gilded Age president. He was a man whom the war had made. Like many of the men who had fought in the war on both sides, the war would never leave him. And like many on both sides, the rest of his life would be a disappointing second act. The war had changed the American state that Grant served. In the vast funeral procession where column after column of Army detachments, among them wounded soldiers—some on crutches. Recent scholarship has increased our knowledge of the cost of this war. Two percent of the American population died in the Civil War. Twenty-five percent of military-aged men in the South were either dead or incapacitated at the end of the war. The next year, after Lincoln's funeral, 1866, Mississippi would spend twenty percent of its state revenues on artificial limbs.
There were thirty bands with their drums muffled. They were but a small detachment of a mighty state—the Yankee Leviathan—that had crushed the Confederacy. The republic had never seen its like before, and it instilled both pride and fear. But as militarily and legally powerful as the federal government was, it lacked effective administrative power. Its bureaucracies were small and often corrupt. It would have to have to find other means to enforce its policies. And in this procession, too, were tens of thousands of civilian mourners, among them, again, African Americans, no longer slaves, but not yet citizens—although soon to be. A portion of them forty abreast with silk hats and white gloves walked, but in all there were four thousand, line after line, holding hands as they marched. And this too was unimaginable before the war: freed slaves, African American troops, a mighty modern army, a newly-powerful state with paradoxically little administrative capacity, a generation touched by fire. This was the massive change brought by the war itself. The North had fought the war ultimately to end slavery and decide between two different versions of the Union—the North, and the South. In the face of resistance in the South to the end of slavery, the North pushed for a revolution to secure the fruits of victory. The country as a whole would become like the ideal North—a nation of free labor, contract freedom, largely laissez-faire economics, and rough equality.
To get a sense of the country they thought they secured, we need to follow the funeral train, because the funeral did not end in Washington, DC. It departed Washington, DC, on Friday, April 21, intentionally retracing Lincoln's original journey to the capital to become president, back to his hometown, Springfield, Illinois, which he departed on the verge of the Civil War. It was a touching trip, although hardly one without problems. The weather was often terrible, and there [were riots] as people sought to get a view of the body in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, and Chicago. Hundreds of thousands would turn out to see the martyred president. But the core of the trip was really through places where the train did not even stop, the smaller towns and rural areas where farmers halted their ploughs in the fields, took off their hats, and watched the train go by. Day and night, as the train went by, lines of people lined the track to watch, to mourn, and to stage what they used to do in the nineteenth century, these tableaux, which would be people dressed up as symbolic figures—in this case, it would be thirty-six young girls in white dresses with black sashes, symbolizing the thirty-six states, the nation, in mourning. The lilacs were in bloom in late April, and as his funeral train made its journey, and for years afterwards, many Americans would always associate the smell of lilacs with Lincoln's death. The journey inspired one of Walt Whitman's great poems, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd":
Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,/ Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,/ With the pomp of the inloop'd flags with the cities draped in black,/ With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil'd women standing. . .
The long funeral journey seemed a conscious effort to reverse time, to restore Lincoln to the world that had molded him and the values he had fought the war to maintain and to expand. The organizers went out of their way to find the relics of the original trip. In New York, they found the original engine, and throughout the trip they tried to get the original crews of the trains that had brought Lincoln to Washington, DC. As it was in the North in 1861, so it was to be in the nation as a whole in 1865. The people who flocked to see Lincoln's train were the template of the future Union: as it was in the North, so it would be in the South and the West. These farms, workshops, and stores the train passed were the hallmarks of free labor and contract freedom. And contract freedom and free labor were to be the ideological touchstones of much of the era that followed. The North saw itself as individualistic, egalitarian, and liberal—in opposition to a patriarchal, hierarchical, and traditional South that it had vanquished, and whose values it would erase and replace with its own. This was the goal of Reconstruction. Free labor was the antithesis of slave labor, but more than that, it assumed a society of independent producers, and a competitive economy. It seemed the logical corollary to Lincoln's Republicanism, who in his own words, the sheet anchor, he said the leading principle was that, "No man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent." This was Lincoln's world. This society of individualist, capitalist values, where free labor produced not supposedly a society of rich and poor, but a middling society.
Lincoln was coming home. And home was a word with incredible resonance in the nineteenth century. It might be the most powerful symbol of the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century. It shaped ideas of manhood—a man was not just a male, a man was somebody who could support a family and create a home. It shaped, too, ideas of womanhood—the home was gendered, the domestic space became a female space, but much of the nineteenth century would witness an expansion of the home, the imperial home, as more and more public space was seen as the logical extension of the home. It was what would make Frances Willard, of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, one of the most influential political figures of the late nineteenth century. Manhood was in the nineteenth century virtually always white manhood. One of the great struggles of Reconstruction was whether black men could be men. The Midwest embodied the idea of roughly equal white men maintaining homes and families.
One of the most mundane documents captures this idea of a free labor society. It comes, in this case, from the year before the Civil War. It is the manuscript census for Springfield, Illinois, in 1860. And there he was, Abraham Lincoln: fifty-one years old, lawyer, owner of a home worth $5,000, $12,000 dollars in personal property. Above Abraham Lincoln in the list was Lotus Niles, forty-year-old secretary, equivalent to a manager today, born in New York, worth $9,500. Edwards Biggs, forty-eight-year-old teamster from England, worth $4,300. Fifty-year old Harry Corrigan, born in Iowa, and the richest man in the neighborhood, with $30,000 in real estate. Next door to the Lincolns lived D. J. Snow and his wife Margaret. They had two sons, four and two. He had no occupation and no property. A few doors down was a bricklayer, Richard Ives, worth, like Lincoln, $12,000. Bricklayers, lawyers, livery stable owner, man with no profession and no wealth, all living near each other. Bricklayer and lawyer had equivalent wealth, although the lawyer was about to become President of the United States. Lincoln was one of the richest men in Springfield, but he wasn't very rich, and now he returned, the martyred president, to the world of the Midwest, particularly Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, that encapsulated the society that he, and most American soldiers, were fighting the Civil War to save. It had produced him, and he had come to symbolize it.
And this is what is so fascinating about the trip. The world that mourned Lincoln, the society that seemed so triumphant, was itself vanishing, vanishing as surely as the South that it had vanquished. In fighting a war against treason and slavery, they had ended the old plantation system, eradicated slavery, and settled the question about the nature of the Union, but in winning the war they had also set in motion and were accelerating changes that were going to transform the North. This world of free labor and small producers would partially endure over much of the Midwest and middle border into the late nineteenth century, but it was fading, and it was fading fast. It would endure more as an ideal, an iconic representation, of the United States.
The future was an industrial, urban America that these people had never, ever imagined. The Civil War was a triumph of the Republican Party, a sectional party with a very clear ideology: Lincoln's ideology. And here it is worth pausing to consider this is one of the few times where a section of the country has achieved such complete dominance over the rest of the country, and seems to have the ability to make its view of the world stand for an American view of the world. It is also one of the few times that a single political party has been so dominant—perhaps in 1804, perhaps in 1932. And it forms a kind of test case of the ability of both a section and a party to shape the country according to the view of the world. And they can't do it—not very easily.
The Republicans had already begun to put their ideology into practice during the Civil War through the Emancipation Proclamation, the Homestead Act, land grants for the transcontinental railroads, the Morrill Act to establish public universities, a new banking system, a high tariff to protect industry, and more. And now the Republicans wanted to carry these programs into the South as well as the West. They wanted to forge a homogenous American citizenry where black people would have homes that would replicate the same kind of ideal that we see in the Midwest. Most freedmen hoped that they would receive land and the means to work it. "Forty acres and a mule" is a small payment for their generations of unpaid labor in the South. They would not get it.
In the West, greater Reconstruction meant that Indian peoples would have to give up existing ways of life, adopt ways of life identical to whites immigrating into their lands, surrender their common lands to the United States, and in turn receive small farms and fee simple. This would be the aim of the Dawes Act, an absolute disaster passed in 1887. Indians would surrender their children to attend Indian schools. If they resisted, they would be subject to force, just as white Southerners who resisted would be subject to force. And exercising part of that force in both the South and the West would be African American soldiers, some of them Civil War veterans. The lands Indians gave up would be redistributed to both immigrants and American citizens.
John Gast's 1872 lithograph, American Progress, captures the link between technology, ideology, and ecology. Indians retreat, whites advance. Their vanguard comes on horseback and in covered wagons. In the middle ground, farmers plough the earth, and behind them came railroad trains, and then the telegraph. Floating above them all was a female figure draped in white, with a star of empire in her brow, telegraph wire in one hand, and a schoolbook in the other. And for years I've presented this as a succinct symbol of the free labor vision of the West. But I've realized that it was already outdated when Gast printed it in 1873. He captured antebellum ideas of American progress, not post-Civil War ideas of American progress that came out of the Civil War. There's no state, no federal government, in this picture. There's no Morrill Act, Homestead Act, and railroad land grants—the things that allowed the West to be settled so quickly. All of these things changed the order of the advance. Indians might still retreat, but they retreated in front of the armed might of the state, the American army. This is nowhere in this picture. And railroads don't bring up the rear after the Civil War; railroads come first.
The greater Reconstruction arose out of a coherent ideological system embracing democracy, contract theories of freedom, and an ideology of improvement, all of which depended on this newly powerful state. The state power is paradoxical. Even as the government gained power, it never gained the administrative capacity to exercise it. The Freedmen's Bureau was a beginning, but it was understaffed and its existence brief. The General Land Office and the Indian Office were corrupt, small, and inefficient. New Western bureaucracies would flower only later in the period. One reason the Army had to do so much in this period is that it's the only functioning and reasonably efficient hierarchical organization that the government possessed. So we find the Army officers serving as Indian agents, Freedmen's Bureau agents; they enforce land laws; they patrol national parks; and they do much more, because they are the only thing the United States can rely on to do anything reasonably efficiently. Without a functioning bureaucracy, federal government exercised power in two ways: subcontracting, as it did with the railroads or when it gave the Indian reservations to the churches, or through patronage. By patronage, I mean the Post Office, the collectors of customs, all the political plums that were given out. What patronage does is create things that look like bureaucracies but really run on a set of political connections, obligations, and reciprocity. When governments set up organizations that seem to have significant power, but are really underfunded, then the only way to make them work is to play politics with favors and obligations. The result is the corruption of the 1860s and 1870s, probably the most notoriously corrupt period of American history.
The revolution imagined in 1865 and 1866 would prove partial. The South would remain the great exception. It did not become like the North. Indians would not be peacefully assimilated and turned into small property holders. African Americans would be stripped of most of their liberties and the vote. The homogenous citizenry hoped for would not happen. And the North, with mass immigration and industrialization, would not be a series of Springfields. But how the Civil War produced a country no one ever imagined in 1865, 1866, is the story of the late nineteenth century.