The Magazine

America When Young

The birthing pains of an earlier republic.

Dec 3, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 12 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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The fact was that legal, political, and economic reversals went hand in hand. One telling statistic speaks volumes: In 1860 there were 41 American millionaires, most of them southern planters. Ten years later there were 545, most of them northeasterners, presumably business tycoons, some only barely civilized. For obvious reasons, an agrarian nation had been less vulnerable to business cycles and the dislocations that go with them than the industrial America that mushroomed in the postwar era. Free laborers, concentrated in urban centers, were more inclined to unite and battle their bosses than a subdued slave population in the South or isolated homesteaders in the old Northwest and the Mississippi Valley.

Inevitably, chronic distress came, commencing with the Panic of 1873 and lasting, by Burton's reckoning, well into the 1890s. It produced, among sober effects, the Populist insurgency, with its pleas for railroad regulation and the monetization of silver. It also produced the pathetic Ohio-Washington march of Jacob Coxey's "army" of 500 jobless vagabonds. For Coxey, as for many of the theorists of that time, the remedy for distress was the endless printing of paper money. (The American Civil War, Burton says in one of many arresting formulations, was the first to be fought by "armies financed by paper money.") Coxey named his son Legal Tender, a name as symptomatic as that of Praise-God Barebones, for whom one 17th-century Cromwellian parliament is remembered.

But more significant politically was the ruthless overthrow of biracial governments in the South by the misnamed "Redemption" movement, which had nothing in common with its biblical namesake. It featured murder, night-riding, lynch law, and the transformation of the Democratic party into a vehicle of white supremacy. As president, Ulysses Grant struggled for a time to contain this counterrevolution; but his power was undercut by financial scandal, and after a final federal intervention in Louisiana in 1876-77, the federal government threw in its hand. Add to this other conflicts--over federal finance, railroad funding, land giveaways, Indian removal, etc.--and you have a wild, nonconsensus mix.

All this Burton narrates with a command of detail and sources that is reminiscent of Herbert Agar's forgotten classic The Price of Union, and of Burton's paragon, Alan Nevins. The Age of Lincoln, marked by a genius for piquant detail, amusing anecdote, and fluent, trenchant writing--and above all, by Lincoln's words and spirit--may be for some a depressing read. But again, it is a necessary read, a timely antidote to our tendency to swathe the conflicts of our past in self-flattering myths of brotherly love--as if we really were, all along, that sinless "city on the hill" erected by Heaven to instruct miscreant mankind.

One is, however, tempted to say that the story Burton tells witnesses against his title. An Age of Lincoln? If only it had been. If only it had shown more of Lincoln's generosity and political guile and less of the bumbling and cramped vision of smaller men. Rightly does Burton write, at midpoint of this fine book, that Lincoln's assassination was "a blow from which [America] has never recovered."

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., a former editor and columnist in Washington, is the author, most recently, of Lions at Lamb House.