'Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920' by Jackson Lears
Protestors outside the temporary prison that held the Pinkerton detectives after the 1892 Homestead Steel Strike in this engraving from Harper's Weekly.
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Much of the popular history of America written these days focuses on three wars -- the Revolutionary, the Civil and World War II -- and the trend shows no sign of flagging.
Stirring stories of heroic patriots and self-sacrifice never grow old. Consider, though, a time in the United States when the banking system triggered economic collapse, corporations were merging into bigger corporations, the military was struggling to fight insurgents in occupied territory, immigration issues sparked congressional action, fundamentalist Christianity was influencing politics and the federal government was playing a larger role in business and personal affairs.
Despite their topical nature, these and a handful of other cultural and social concerns are not the heady stuff of adventure, to be sure, but they matter a lot. As Rutgers University historian Jackson Lears argues in his fascinating study of America after the Civil War, their emergence at that time shaped the country we live in now as they continue to occupy the national debate.
His subject is how America remade itself after the devastating war between the states, first by achieving an economic and political union between North and South -- at the expense of African-Americans -- to develop as a world leader in exports of both food and steel.
The expansion proceeded abroad following the war with Spain in 1898, a military adventure pictured as "morally just, it was short and it was conveniently timed" -- the same arguments used to justify our Iraqi interlude. Despite ingenuous denials from presidents from McKinley to Wilson, America was now an imperial power, an empire builder alongside European nations.
The human and moral costs of this rebirth were high, starting with the steady and bloody repression of blacks by Dixie's white power structure. The recessions of 1893 and 1907, lacking government relief, engendered national suffering on a scale greater than the Great Depression. When people found work in the nation's mines and factories, their pittance wages were wiped out by backbreaking labor, long hours in hazardous conditions and their grievances answered with clubs and bullets.
Mitigating forces were at work, however. Lears vividly recounts the rise of populism and its more sophisticated relative, progressivism, the union movement, from the conciliatory Samuel Gompers to the violent Big Bill Haywood of the Wobblies, and the American Socialist Party and its eloquent blue-collar candidate, Eugene V. Debs.
Other giant figures -- Theodore Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan, William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson -- stride under Lears' critical gaze to emerge as mere mortals, misguided by their vanity and rigid policies.
Despite his messianic certitude and political failures, Wilson paved the way for the international cooperation practiced, in fits and starts today, Lears argues. It's perhaps the most important legacy of that tumultuous era.
Peppered with lively language and sharp, at times harsh insights, "Rebirth of a Nation" warrants close reading around this observance of the Declaration of Independence.
First Published July 5, 2009 12:00 am