Looking back at my notes, one theme jumps out. I spent a lot of time reading about late nineteenth century America. How did we go from ending slavery to starting Jim Crow? From Radical Republicans to Imperialism? What role did industrialization and technology development play?
I wouldn't attempt to answer those questions here, but I'd offer some quotes I found meaningful.
C Van Woodward describes the agreement giving Rutherford Hayes the presidency as a watershed moment comparable with the development of the constitution. To Woodward, both acts were to some extent betrayals of the revolutions that preceded them, and that wasn't a bad thing:
… the year 1877 was not attuned to the revolutionary fervors of the years 1861 and 1866. The Men of 1877 were rather like the Men of 1787. They were of smaller stature than the great Federalists, to be sure, and their work was less celebrated and certainly less known. But if the Men of 1787 made the Thermidor of the First American Revolution, the Men of 1877 fulfilled a corresponding part in the Second American Revolution. They were the men who come at the end of periods of revolutionary upheaval, when the great hopes and soaring ideals have lagged and failed, and the fervors have burned themselves out. They come to say that disorder has gone too far and the extremists must be got in hand, that order and peace must be established at any price. And in their deliberations they generally have been more concerned with preserving the pragmatic and practical gains and ends of revolutions than the more idealistic aims. In this respect the Men of 1877 were not unlike those who had been cast in the same historical role before them.Woodward cites 1787 approvingly, as a means of legitimizing politicians a century later. Lawrence Goldstone inverts that relationship, blaming the founding fathers for creating an arbitrary and unaccountable Supreme Court. The court's perverted interpretation of the 14th amendment in those years had horrific consequences for African Americans, and still troubles us today:
If the Court's complicity in the subversion of equal rights had been due to rogue justices, or was an aberration of jurisprudence, Americans of the current day might merely shake their heads, deplore a shameful episode in their history, and congratulate themselves that the United States was no longer that nation. If, however, the Court's actions were not aberrant at all, but simply examples of ongoing practice, in which justices subordinate the role that Hamilton espoused for them to the exigencies of popular politics- or worse, their own personal beliefs and prejudices- the equal rights decisions of the latter decades of the nineteenth century become expressions of issues deeper, more disturbing. For then the United States Supreme Court would have, in a very real sense, eschewed the dispassion that the Founders thought so vital and become merely a third political arm of government. The long-maligned and discredited Brutus then becomes the more effective prognosticator of the pitfalls inherent in Article III, which allows Supreme Court justices to serve for life, virtually without oversight or supervision. Lack of accountability does not, as Hamilton insisted, constitute a bedrock of liberty, but rather a profound defect in our constitutional fabric.If politically the nation was ossifying, culturally (for whites) it was liquefying under the influence of industrialization. Cities offered an alternative to the farm or home town, factories offered work that didn't depend on skill, technology and mass production provided a new world of consumer goods. TJ Jackson Lears describes it in terms of money:
The alchemical promise of sudden self-transformation gave money a centrifugal force and a corrosive edge. It could dissolve settled communities and social bonds, send young men spinning off from ancestral seats in search of fresh possibilities, clothe reprobates and rakes in raiments of respectability. A universal standard of value, money was also a universal solvent of other standards of value. Custom, tradition, morality - all dissolved, as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels said, "in the icy waters of egotistical calculation."What lead me to look at this era? I'm not sure. Maybe it's because inequality is rising to levels not seen since the gilded age. Maybe it's because I think information technology can alter society as radically as industrialization did before it. And maybe it's because I'm looking for reassurance that as messed up as the nation seems these days, it's not the first time this has been so and it's possible for things to get better. We'll see what we see in 2015.