Monday, May 30, 2011


A review of John A. Garraty's The New Commonwealth: 1877-1890 (1968)

(Rating 4 of 5)

Continuing my march across the ages of American history, the next stop was The New Commonwealth by John A. Garraty. Garraty's book covers the United States of America after the period of Reconstruction and before the Imperialist Age of the 1890s. It was a time where the Industrial Revolution had come into full bloom in America. A new nation was emerging that was turning away from the Jeffersonian ideals—while still singing his praises—and embracing the ideals of Alexander Hamilton. It was during this time period the giant corporations were to plant their big feet into the heart of American politics.

Garraty breaks his book up into eight simple chapters that explore the different aspects of this particular time period. The books chapters cover industrialization, urbanization, workers, and many other aspects of American society. I found the chapter covering the political system and the political events of the industrial America to be the most interesting part of book. Garraty, when discussing the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, made a comparison between President Hayes and the other presidents during this period to that of King George III. Like the last American monarch, these presidents had come into office where their powers had been reduced by precedent due to the actions of their predecessors. An interesting observation but I disagree with Garraty about President Grant.

(President Hayes, a chosen one-termer)

(President Arthur, probably the most important president of the forgotten era. It President Arthur who signed the Civil Service Reform.)

The most incredible change was the industrialization of the United States. For most of this nation's history, the country had been an agricultural nation. Even the earlier phases of industrialization did not change that, but America began to embrace this new way of doing things and the face of the nation complexly changed.

“Truly, American industrial technology was the wonder of the world, far in advance of Europe's in most fields, despite the fact that Europeans made most of the key scientific discoveries on which it was based. The relatively high cost of labor provides a partial explanation of American technological leadership, for it encouraged manufactures to invest their capital and energy in mechanizing their operations to reduce labor costs. The rapidity of American expansion also simulated technological innovation. So, in many subtle ways, did the structure of society. Americans, far less bound than most Europeans by a respect for tradition, adopted new methods more willing. Workingmen saw the relationship between productivity and wages more clearly than their European counterparts, and manufacturers were less reluctant to share the results of increased productivity with their workers.”(p.89)

There was also the dark side of this era. The end of Reconstruction was a betrayal to those who had been enslaved. African-Americans saw their rights take a huge plunge backward. Garraty pointed out strongly that African-Americans were held back not just by those who hated them, but were also facing racial prejudice from those who might have felt no ill will towards them.

“Even the shabby treatment afforded American Negroes after the end of Reconstruction was not entirely a product of prejudice and selfishness. The best-intentioned white citizens, trying to evaluate the potential of Negroes in the climate of those times, found it hard to avoid the conclusion that they were inherently inferior to Caucasians. Interpreting lack of achievement as lack of ability, confusing effect with cause, he saw in their poverty, ignorance, and degradation evidence of inherent stupidity and moral laxity. If he turned to authority for enlightenment, his conclusions were only reinforced. The superficial knowledge of African history available to an anthropologically na├»ve generation suggested that Negroes, when left to their own devices, would remain in a state of savagery. Highly regarded 'scientific experts' insisted that the Negro and Caucasian were of separate origin, the former inferior in native ability to the latter. Professor Louis Agassiz of Harvard, for example, although opposed to slavery and to legal discriminations against Negroes, stated flatly that the race was 'indolent' and 'submissive' and 'imitative' by nature. He considered it 'mock philanthropy' to treat them as equal to whites. Agassiz was the leading American critic of Darwin's theory of evolution, but in the 1870's and 1880's many Darwinians also believed that the Negroes were an inferior race.” (p.21)

John Garraty opens a window into a very important, but at the same time, forgotten time period. Surrounded by the American Civil War and Reconstruction on one end, and the restless 1890s followed by the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt on the other, this period is understandably overlooked. It nevertheless was an important phase in the development of the modern nation.

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