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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Colonial resolve
The new nation
Civil War
     The shattered south
     Congressional Reconstruction
     Land of liberty
     Railways and the west
     Boom and bust
     Indian Territory and Oklahoma
     An American empire
     Men of action

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The shattered south: 1865

The cost of four years of war has been massive on both sides, in men and money alike. The north has more of each and loses more of each: about 360,000 Union soldiers killed compared to 260,000 Confederates; some $5 billion spent as opposed to $3 billion.

But this is money spent on the war, not the cost of the destruction of buildings and of industrial and agricultural capacity. These other costs fall almost entirely on the south, where nearly all the fighting takes place (even before the devastation caused by Sherman in 1864). By contrast the industries of the north go through a boom period, servicing the war effort at government expense.


Both sides introduce income tax for the first time to pay for the war. Other forms of tax, tariff and duty are raised to unprecedented heights. Government bonds are issued to bring in money.

But there is more private wealth in the north for the government to borrow. The south has to resort more recklessly to printing money. The result is crippling inflation. By the end of the war a Confederate dollar is worth 1.5 cents in Union money. To buy a pair of boots in Richmond in 1864 costs $200. Butter is $15 a pound.


Inflation, starvation and physical ruin are frequently the aftermath of a major war. But in the south in 1865 there are other unprecedented problems. The whole economic basis of southern life has been transformed.

Some four million slaves have been freed. For the small minority of the white population who owned slaves (less than 5% of the total) this represents a major financial loss; in 1860 the price of a healthy young male African American in New Orleans was $1800. In addition the planters now have to pay wages to the former slaves working their plantations, and the amount of work which can be extracted from them is much reduced. Previously they slaved from dawn to dusk. Now they work a labourer's day of nine or ten hours.


This change in itself reduces by as much as a third the productivity of the great cotton plantations. Meanwhile the world price of cotton has been falling, with rival supplies from India and elsewhere undercutting the southern product. For all these reasons 'king cotton' no longer reigns. The riches which once supported the life style of the southern planters are no longer available.

The rest of the whites, many of them poor, suffer in the economic depression. For them a large free black labour force also represents an economic threat. Add deeply ingrained racial prejudice and an enhanced resentment of the north, and it is clear that the south is a somewhat intractable problem for the federal government.


Reconstruction: 1865-1867

At the political level the immediate problem is the return of southern representives to Washington. On what terms and with what status are the secessionist states to be readmitted to congress?

President Lincoln, more concerned with reconstructing the union than reforming the south, proposes as early as 1863 that states should be readmitted as soon as 10% of the 1860 electorate takes an oath of loyalty to the union, accepts the emancipation of the slaves and elects a like-minded state government. Congress considers this too lenient and passes in 1864 the Wade-Davis bill, setting the necessary threshold at 50% of the electorate. Lincoln refuses to accept this. At the time of his death the issue is unresolved.


The vice-president, Andrew Johnson, succeeding to the office of president on Lincoln's assassination, is immediately confronted with the problems of peace. He accepts the Wade-Davis level of 50% for the oath of loyalty and says that state governments elected on this basis will be recognized once they repudiate all debts run up by their predecessors and accept the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment, passed by congresss early in 1865, outlaws slavery in the USA.

By the end of the year nearly all the southern states have fulfilled these terms. On paper the situation looks promising. But a crisis erupts when congress reconvenes, in December 1865, with the newly elected southern representatives.


The immediate shock for the Republicans of the northern states is seeing the delegates now returned to congress from the south. They look very much like the old guard from before the war, and are described derisively as 'Confederate Brigadiers'. The Republican majority in congress refuses to let them take their seats and immediately sets up a Joint Committee on Reconstruction - in a direct challenge to the president's management of the process.

If there is moral outrage in the section of the party known as the Radical Republicans, there is also sound political sense. The Republicans have no support as yet in the south. After winning the war, they do not now intend to lose their control of congress to southern Democrats.


The moral element in the Republican response has considerable justification. To protect white supremacy, southern state governments have been passing measures which negate in almost every practical sense the emancipation of the slaves.

These measures, known as the Black Codes, are designed to keep African-Americans in a state of servitude as close as is legally possible to slavery. Laws are passed which apply only to African-Americans in relation to employment, possession of alcohol or firearms, penalties for vagrancy or insolence, and even the imposition of curfews. Terror to reinforce the message is never far away. The first branch of the Ku Klux Klan is founded in Tennessee on Christmas Eve 1865.


There are corresponding moves by congress on behalf of the African-Americans. The Freedmen's Bureau is set up in 1865, at first to support slaves escaping from the south and then to protect the interests of the freed slaves in the southern states. To counter the Black Codes, a Civil Rights Act is passed in 1866 guaranteeing the legal rights of African-Americans. In the same year congress proposes the 14th Amendment (ratified in 1868) which declares that all people born or naturalized in the United States have equal rights as citizens.

By this time the Radical Republicans in congress are at loggerheads with their Republican president. To try and keep members of their faction in the administration, they pass in 1867 a Tenure of Office Act.


This act (declared unconstitutional in 1926) states that a president needs senate approval to dismiss certain senior office-holders. When President Johnson defies congress in 1868 by sacking his secretary of war (Edwin M. Stanton), the house of representatives votes within three days to impeach him.

Johnson escapes impeachment by just one vote in the senate, where a two-thirds majority is required, but he is by now completely at odds with his own Republican party. In the 1868 presidential election the Republican candidate is the north's military hero of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant. (He wins and is president for two terms, from 1869 to 1877.)


Congressional Reconstruction: 1867-1877

A significant step in the worsening relation between congress and President Johnson is the passing by congress, in March 1867 and against the presidential veto, of the first of the Reconstruction Acts. The effect of these acts is to impose belated military rule on the defeated south, in marked contrast to the mood of reconciliation offered by Johnson in 1865. The secessionist states are divided into five military districts, each commanded by a major-general from the federal army.

The political aim of the Radical Republicans, who push through these measures, is to keep control of congress by ensuring a sufficiently strong Republican vote in the south. Crucial to this scheme is the African American franchise.


From the first drafting of the Constitution it has been an accepted principle that the extent of the franchise is the concern of each individual state. Originally this meant setting the property qualification to become an elector. From the early 19th century new states admitted to the union have tended to opt for universal white male suffrage. But no state, including even northern states during the Civil War with a significant population of free African-Americans, has shown any inclination to extend the suffrage beyond the white electorate.

Now, in the hope of creating a Republican south, congress alters this situation at a stroke.


In any southern state, now seeking admission to the union, African-Americans are to be eligible to vote (a condition applied to the whole nation from 1870, when the 15th Amendment is added to the Constitution decreeing that no male citizen shall be denied a vote 'on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude'). In addition, in the south, anyone who voluntarily took up arms in the Confederate cause during the Civil War is now disenfranchised.

The resulting state governments during the 1870s are made up of three groups: leaders of the African-American community; northerners who have moved south to take part in reconstruction; and southerners loyal to the union.


The southern establishment, deeply resentful of what is happening, quickly finds abusive names for the two white groups in this new power structure. The northerners become known as 'carpetbaggers', implying that they are adventurers with no more stake in the south than the contents of the light bag made of carpet with which they arrive. And the collaborating southerners are abused as 'scalawags' or 'scallywags', a general term for a ruffian of which the origin is not known.

During the 1870s African-Americans play for the first time a part in US politics, though not yet a large one. For a while in South Carolina they have a majority in the lower house. And sixteen serve in congress in Washington, two of them as senators.


Segregation: from the 1870s

The overall effect of reconstruction in the south is precisely the opposite of what the Radical Republicans of the north intend. Economic power remains in the hands of disenfranchised Confederate planters, burning with resentment at the artificial Republican state governments foisted upon them by congressional measures. They continue to do everything they can to ensure that the freed slaves remain in what they consider their proper place, regardless of the contrary efforts made in the north.

In 1870 a Massachusetts senator introduces a bill in congress to outlaw segregation in public transport, in public places such as hotels and restaurants, and in schools. After much opposition it is passed in 1875, but without the provision concerning schools.


This act is largely ignored in the south, particularly after 1877 when the last federal troops of the military occupation are withdrawn. The experiment in radical reconstruction is over. Democrats regain control of every southern state government. Far from the Republicans establishing a strong presence in the region, the south becomes an area of one-party politics until the second half of the 20th century.

With power back in traditional hands, steps are soon taken to restore as far as possible the old status quo. To supplement the illicit methods of organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, legal restrictions are enacted to keep the African-American in his place.


In 1883 the US Supreme Court declares the 1875 act against segregation to be unconstitutional. This gives state governments in the south all they need.

By the end of the century legislation has been passed requiring segregation of African-Americans and whites in hospitals, gaols and cemeteries, on public transport and in nearly all places of public assembly. Even the 15th Amendment is cunningly subverted. Each state can set its own requirements for the franchise, but the Amendment outlaws discrimination by colour or race. A device introduced in Louisiana in 1898 achieves the difficult task of giving the vote even to illiterate whites while denying it to all who are black.


Literacy tests have by this time been introduced in several states. A typical example requires would-be voters to be able to read and explain any part of the state constitution. But this has the effect of also excluding large sections of the white population.

Louisiana's subtle ploy is the 'grandfather clause'. Anyone whose grandfather was on the electoral register in January 1867 is now excused the literary test. This simple device enfranchises many illiterate whites. But no African-American anywhere, and therefore no black citizen's grandfather, had the vote by the start of 1867.


Whether a less racially divided south could be achieved after the trauma of the Civil War is debatable. But the policy of radical reconstruction during the 1870s, followed by the effective abandonment of the southern African-Americans to their fate, plunges the American south into a century of resentful misery and poverty - and stokes up the fires of the civil rights and desegregation struggles of the later 20th century.

Martin Luther King, when his time comes, is a martyr to the dark history of the southern states.


Land of liberty: 1845-1900

From the mid-19th century the population of the United States has been increased by unprecedented numbers of immigrants arriving across the Atlantic. In times of famine, political unrest, pogrom or persecution, America seems to shine like a beacon of liberty - a place in which Europe's oppressed and unfortunate can start a new life. And this large-scale movement of people is of an entirely new kind.

It is not only that the reason now is primarily economic. When ethnic groups have migrated in the past, whether they be Celts or Goths or Huns, the underlying motive has also been economic; they are looking for places where food or wealth is more easily available. But for the most part they have moved as a group rather than on individual impulse.


The difference in the 19th century is that the migration is an economic decision made separately by thousands of young men or married couples, seeking a better life for themselves or their families in another place. (A founding father in this tradition is surely the Viking who sets off with his family in874 to settle in Iceland.)

The Irish are the first in this new stream of people across the Atlantic, escaping the devastation of the Great Famine of 1845-7. They are soon followed by large numbers of migrants from Germany, where reactionary regimes threatened by revolution (as seen in the turmoil of 1848) give the ambitious and the prudent a double motive to leave.


Once the first wave of immigrant families is established, their success encourages others to follow them. So the Irish and the Germans soon become a significant proportion of the American population. The figures are striking. In 1860 approximately 4 million residents in the United States have been born elsewhere - some 1.6 million in Ireland and 1.3 million in Germany (compared to about half a million in England, Scotland and Wales).

When combined with their children born in the States, these figures suggest that the new Irish and German communities are each already about 3 million strong - perhaps as much as 10% of the population (31 million in 1860). And these figures are in addition to older Irish and German groups already present in colonial times.


These statistics are from the period just before the Civil War which finally frees America's slaves. The beacon of liberty encouraging the immigrants is thereafter untarnished, and it soon stands as a physical symbol to greet the shiploads arriving from Europe.

Victory for the north in the Civil War prompts a French historian, Edouard de Laboulaye, to propose that France (much associated with Liberté) should present an appropriate statue to the American nation. Paid for by the contributions of the French people, and sculpted by Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, the gigantic copper-sheathed lady with a lamp is first assembled in Paris in 1885.


The statue, just over 150 feet high, is then dismantled and is shipped across the Atlantic (like so many other immigrants). Reassembled on Bedloe's Island, in the channel approaching New York harbour, the statue is ready to be dedicated by President Grover Cleveland in 1886. Its official title is Liberty Enlightening the World, but it soon becomes known simply as the Statue of Liberty.

Close to Bedloe's Island is Ellis Island, used from 1892 to 1943 as the immigration station for ships arriving from Europe. So Liberty herself becomes the first glimpse of a new life for the swelling stream of immigrants. In a census of 1900 as many as 1.7 million Americans have been born in Ireland, and 2.7 million in Germany.


The railways and the west: 1862-1887

While the Irish are arriving on the east coast, Chinese immigrants are landing in much smaller numbers from the Pacific (some 36,000 of them by 1860). Their presence in California prompts a mounting clamour of indignation from settlers of European origin. In 1882 congress passes a Chinese Exclusion Act, banning any further Chinese immigration for ten years. Renewed in 1892 and made permanent in 1902, this is the first retreat from America's policy of extending a warm welcome to all.

By the mid-1860s the Chinese are sufficiently numerous to play a crucial part - together with the Irish - in the most dramatic project of the decade.


During the Civil War, in 1862, the federal government passes legislation to set up two great railway ventures - the Union Pacific building westwards from Omaha, Nebraska, and the Central Pacific, pressing east from Sacramento, California.

To encourage investment, grants of valuable land on either side of the route are made to the railway companies. Speculation and profiteering is rife, but there is also a great boost to northern industry in the manufacture of so much railway track. About 12,000 labourers on each side (mainly Irish in the east and Chinese in the west) work steadily towards a meeting point. There are financial bonuses for whichever railway company moves faster.


The lines finally meet, in May 1869, west of the Rockies at Promontory in Utah. It is a moment of vast symbolic significance. With this transcontinental link completed, the nation is in a real sense now a single unit from coast to coast.

Railway building continues apace (in one year alone, 1882, more than 11,000 miles of track are laid), bringing ever greater prosperity to the midwest. Among the first to benefit are the cowboys, on plains being cleared of buffalo (or bison in their scientific name) by hunters more efficient and more ruthless than the Indians. Buffalo Bill, employed in 1867-8 to feed workers building the railways, personally shoots 4280 of these splendid wild animals in eight months.


The Indians too, deprived of their buffalo prey, are steadily pushed off the plains (often in violent clashes). In their place come the cowboys, with the great herds of cattle which they drive to the nearest point on a railway for transport to the slaughter houses of Kansas City and Chicago.

Soon the cowboys themselves are under pressure, from settlers in Kansas and Nebraska who fence in the plains for their own cattle (using the recent American invention of barbed wire for this purpose, first patented in 1867), and who discover that the earth here can also be made to yield vast crops of wheat. Whatever the particular source of the wealth, and whoever the beneficiary, money abounds in the midwest thanks to the railways during the 1870s and early 1880s.


There are several results of this western boom. One is that the railway companies begin to make shameless use of their economic power in the region, using it unscrupulously for both political and commercial ends. Their actions prompt a significant new step on the part of the federal government. Congress passes in 1887 the Interstate Commerce Act, regulating the prices charged by the companies and thus intervening for the first time to avoid the excesses of unrestrained capitalism.

The other result of the boom years, which have seemed as if they need never end, is an inability to cope with anything different. In the year of the Interstate Commerce Act, 1887, boom turns very suddenly to bust.


Boom and bust: 1877-1893

The pattern of boom and bust in late 19th-century America is a dramatic example of what has since come to seem an endemic aspect of capitalism. This pattern is different from speculative mania of a purely financial kind (as in the South Sea Bubble, where investors are the only losers).

An almost invariable ingredient in each cycle is too much credit extended by banks. Sometimes a sudden collapse in market prices triggers the panic which ends the boom (a drop in the price of cotton has this effect in the USA in 1819 and 1837). A natural disaster can have the same result. So can a single event of mainly symbolic importance in the financial markets. All these characteristics are seen in America between 1877 and 1893, in a saga beginning in the midwest.


It is a misfortune that during the boom years in the midwest, from 1877, there is an unusually high level of rainfall on the plains. Growing crops here seems easy. And land on which to grow them is easily come by, thanks to the Homestead Act of 1862 (granting 160 acres of public land in the west to any family farming it for five years) and the lavish allocations of territory to the railway companies.

In practice land is often acquired from middlemen and speculators, but this does not deter the streams of immigrants coming west on the railways (among them now Scandinavians, Germans, Hungarians and Poles). In this mood of optimism mortgages are easily available. Financiers on Wall Street also see profit in the west.


Loans are needed too for the livestock and seeds and implements and rolls of barbed wire which a pioneer farmer needs before he can get to work (the family house is a lesser priority - the 'sod cabin', cut from turf, becomes a feature of the plains). Agents of eastern banks travel through Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and western Texas offering attractive terms.

The new towns borrow money too, for streets and buildings appropriate to their growing wealth. Next year's crop will enable the pioneer families to pay their local taxes and to service their debts, while the value of their land goes steadily up. And for the ten years of good rainfall, from 1877, the crop duly plays its part.


A double disaster strikes in 1887. In January an unprecedented blizzard sweeps the plains, piling up vast snowdrifts against the barbed wire fences. Cattle perish in their thousands. In the spring the open range seems empty of life.

This is followed by a summer of drought, which proves to be the pattern for the next ten years. The harvest is a fraction of its usual amount, at a time when the international price of wheat is falling (by 30% during the 1880s). Interest on loans cannot be met. With confidence gone, the supply of easy credit dries up. For the first time convoys of Conestoga wagons head eastwards, bearing slogans such as 'In God We Trusted, In Kansas We Busted'.


Though money has been lost, these faraway events are as yet more painful on the plains than in the offices of Wall Street (established by now as the nation's main financial centre). Recognizing a potential crisis, financiers and politicians focus their concern on whether the nation's currency is sound. This soon develops into a disagreement about the relative roles of gold and silver in the management of the economy. But there is a general consensus that the government must hold a minimum reserve of $100 million in gold.

In April 1893, shortly after President Cleveland enters office for the second time, the reserve falls below this magic figure. This turns out to be the symbolic moment which provokes the crash.


Investors rush to turn their assets into gold, and panic feeds on panic. By the end of 1893 the federal gold reserve is $80 million and the shutters have come down on 600 banks, 74 railway companies and more than 15,000 other commercial enterprises. The collapse in the economy brings widespread unemployment and hardship. In 1895 the banker J.P. Morgan provides the government with $62,000 to bring the still falling reserves back to $100,000.

The next presidential election, in 1896, is fought on the issue of gold versus silver. The Republican candidate, William McKinley, is on the side of gold. He wins, but the tide is probably turning anyway. In the summer of 1896 gold is found in the Klondike. Confidence slowly recovers.


The Indian Territory and Oklahoma: 1872-1907

The midwestern gloom of the late 1880s has not dampened everyone's enthusiasm, as is shown in what becomes Oklahoma. This is reserved territory for Indians, but the arrival of the railway in 1872 brings a rush of would-be settlers known as 'boomers'. The government in Washington prevents their establishing homesteads until Indian rights have been formally removed from the part of the territory as yet unassigned to any particular tribe. This is achieved by 1889.

There is then launched the first example of an extraordinary method by which settlers are allowed to compete for homesteads in the newly opened region. This is the dramatic event known as the 'run'.


The starting time for the first run is declared to be noon on 22 April 1889. The competing settlers line up on horseback. When the gun is fired at noon, they gallop into the territory to seek out the best plot of land on which to stake their claim for a homestead. Thousands select their site in this way on this opening day. By nightfall, arriving to register their claim at a government office in a railway siding, they establish the tented town which develops into Oklahoma City.

The success of this first run soon prompts others, but now there remain only regions already allocated to tribes - most of whom have recently been moved here. This is not allowed to dampen enthusiasm for this new form of settlement.


There are runs in 1891, 1893 and 1895. Subsequently it is considered better to adopt a less chaotic method of distributing the land. Homestead plots of 160 acres are marked out and are assigned to owners by lottery in 1901 and by auction in 1906. By now the only part of the original territory still reserved for Indians is the east, an area occupied ever since the Great Removal by the Cherokees and others of the Five Civilized Tribes.

In 1907 the entire region, including the diminished Indian Territory in the east, is admitted to the union as Oklahoma, the forty-sixth state.


An American empire: 1867-1900

By the time the first rail link to the Pacific is completed (in 1869), with America's 'Manifest destiny' now assured, a start has already been made in acquiring territories far removed from the central slice of the continent which now forms the nation.

The first such acquisition is Alaska in 1867. It is bought from Russia for $7.2 million largely on the initiative of the secretary of state William H. Seward (a purchase sufficiently unpopular at the time to be mocked as Seward's Folly). At first its tiny American population is limited to fur traders and missionaries. But the discovery of gold in Juneau in 1880 brings prospectors. And they arrive in great numbers after the far larger finds on the Klondike.


Gold is first reported in 1896 in a tributary of the Klondike river (Rabbit Creek, soon renamed Bonanza Creek). Other finds in the region lead to a massive gold rush in 1897-8. The precious grains of dust are nearly all in Canada's part of the Yukon territory, east of the 141° meridian, but the easiest routes to this inaccessible region are from the Alaskan coast. The majority of the gold-diggers come from the USA, and much of the $100 million panned in 1897-1904 returns there with them.

During this same period the USA has almost accidentally been acquiring extensive overseas responsibilities, transforming a nation into something more akin to an empire.


Part of this is the culmination of a long and gradual American involvement with Hawaii, which is annexed as a US territory in 1900. But a far more dramatic increase in the US presence overseas is a result of the brief Spanish-American War of 1898.

This conflict, undertaken with extreme reluctance by the American government, is prompted by popular outrage at reports of Spanish atrocities in Cuba. But it results in Spain ceding Puerto Rico and the Philippines, together with responsibility for guiding Cuba to independence. With these new territories, and a navy which has excelled in the war, the USA. is now clearly a world power. And it soon has a president in keeping with this new role.


Men of action: 1898-1899

Theodore Roosevelt, the key figure in American history during the first decade of the 20th century, has much in common with another charismatic leader of our combative era, Winston Churchill.

Both men love the excitement of dramatic physical action. Both are prolific writers with a vivid style (a valuable gift in spreading news of their achievements). Roosevelt compares himself to a bull moose; Churchill is admired by his countrymen for his bulldog qualities. By an extraordinary coincidence, both charge into battle on foreign soil during 1898 - and both publish books about their experiences during 1899.


Roosevelt is in Cuba that summer with the Rough Riders, the regiment of volunteer cavalrymen which he has helped to form. Many of them have to fight on foot in Cuba because their horses have not been embarked in Florida. But Roosevelt's impetuous charge against a Spanish hill post defending Santiago is the stuff of heroism. His illustrated book about the regiment's exploits is on sale in 1899, entitled The Rough Riders.

In October 1898 Churchill gallops with the 21st Lancers against the dervishes at Omdurman, brandishing a pistol rather than a lance because of a wound to his arm. The River War, his dramatic two-volume account of these events, is also on the book stalls in 1899.


At the time of these adventures Churchill is in his early twenties with his political career still ahead of him. But Roosevelt, just turning forty, has already made a name for himself as a reforming Republican in the often corrupt world of New York politics.

On his return as a war hero in November 1898 Roosevelt is elected governor of New York. His policies prove so irksome to the local party bosses that they get rid of him by securing his nomination as vice-presidential candidate in the election of 1900.


President McKinley wins a second term and Roosevelt is elevated to vice-presidential inactivity. He is bored and frustrated, and talks even of seeking a post as a university professor. But in September 1901 the situation is dramatically transformed.

McKinley is visiting the Pan-American exhibition in Buffalo, NY. Unusual security precautions have been taken as he walks among the crowd, because there are reports that anarchists plan to assassinate heads of state. One such anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, gets near to the president. The scarf around his hand conceals a revolver with which he shoots McKinley. Roosevelt, the bored vice-president, suddenly has a more interesting job.


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