Book Review – The Republic for Which It Stands by Richard White

It seemed as though Richard White wrote The Republic for Which It Stands for an unorthodox reason. From my perception, he utilized it to raise awareness regarding the vilest villain in American History. As the book covered the period from the beginning of Reconstruction through the Gilded Age’s conclusion, the choice surprised me. I’d expected a monopolist, a Klansman or even John Wilkes Booth to claim that title. The impact of the malign monster in question impeded our nation’s progress towards a more perfect union and set it back for generations; destroying the “free labor” dream of the post-Civil War generation in the process. And what is the identity of this individual who belongs among the ranks of Judas, Crassus and Brutus in the Ninth Circle of Hell? Stephen J. Field. Now who reading this can honestly say they guessed that?

The volumes comprising the Oxford History of the United States tend to be rather compendious. In this one, Dr. White pushed the envelope. He chose to present an overview of the period from the end of the Civil War through the election of 1896. Many historians have approached Reconstruction and the Gilded Age as two distinct periods in American history. In this sense, Dr. White isn’t the typical historian. He explained it appropriate to group the two together. The latter era served as a logical resolution of the first.

Reconstruction witnessed the beginnings of the “free labor” system in the United States. During the years that bridged the time period, the nation transitioned from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Small producers gave way to monopolies. Labor’s role in this transition became unsettled. Strikes and violence ensued. And here enters the Snidley Whiplash of American history.

Stephen J. Field served as an associate justice of the US Supreme Court. Ironically, the most revered figure of the era, Abraham Lincoln, appointed him. The legal concept of substantive due process served as his major contribution to the annals of American juris prudence. His views inspired other judges to adopt his original application of the due process clause enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment. While not well defined in the book, in essence, substantive due process allows judges to prohibit the government from infringing on rights not mentioned in the Constitution. Gilded Age judges did so in detrimental ways. As the author summarized:

The judicial imposition of liberal free labor and contract freedom in regard to workers and their unions had a large and surprising caveat. The courts continued to appeal to common law doctrines of “masters” and “servants,” which flew in the face of freedom of contract. The contradictions gave judges even greater leeway to pick and choose among doctrines so that workers and their unions often faced “tails I win, heads you lose” situations. On the one hand, the courts granted workers property in their labor, but on the other, they also granted employers a property interest in their employees’ labor. Actions by workers that deprived employers of this labor illegally stripped them of property. The courts assumed that companies were entitled to their “servants” loyalty and obedience; actions by workers that threatened this entitlement could be ruled illegal. The courts sanctioned the employers’ right to petition the courts and unleash state violence against workers’ organizing efforts. (Page 819)

Dr. White added:

The Sherman Antitrust Act became virtually a dead letter against corporations for much of the 1890s, but unions, which were not the original concern of the legislation, became its targets. The courts would empty laws of content and fill them with new meaning. Of the thirteen decisions invoking antitrust law between 1890 and 1897, twelve involved labor unions. (Page 819)

That’s a disturbing ending to an historical epoch that began with the eradication of slavery and the advent of a “free labor” system. While troubling, the professor proved his thesis very well.

The Republic contained A LOT of detail regarding this thirty year period. It covered political events, social history and the increasing conflict between industrialists and labor. That’s a broad array of topics for a single book. At times the abundance of information became overwhelming. Still, it made for a good general overview of the era.

In 1879, reformer Lyman Abbott observed,

“Politically America is a democracy; industrially, America is an aristocracy.” The worker might make political laws, but “he is under industrial laws. At the ballot box he is a king; in the factory he is a servant, sometimes a slave.” (Page 674)

Substantive due process ignited the process through which this enigma occurred.

White, Richard. The Republic for Which It Stands. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. Print.

 

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