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How the West Was Really Won – A Book Review

July 5, 2018

A History of the Rise and Fall of the American Democracy

Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands(New York: Oxford, 2017).

Western historian Richard White has long provided us with insights into why the United States are the way they are. In Railroaded, he described the role of the railway barons in bettering and worsening the western United States. In The Organic Machine, he revisited the destructive history of the Columbia River. In“It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”he delved deep into the many struggles for survival that marked the Wild West. Now he has focused on a specific period of historical development: Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. It is neither a pretty nor a proud story.

In this, probably his lengthiest work to date at more than 1,000 pages, White paints an honest picture of why the United States is what it is today. Beginning with the post-Civil War period, he explodes any remaining myths about Abraham Lincoln’s vice-president and successor, Andrew Johnson, and his disastrous one-term presidency.

He unpacks the many failings of Reconstruction, revealing southerner Johnson’s collaboration with the former Confederate states in holding onto the remnants of slavery. Things did not improve when General Ulysses S. Grant took over from Johnson. Indeed, none of the presidents after Lincoln came even close to matching Honest Abe. Corruption, racism, and self-aggrandizement seem to have been the driving forces for most of them.

From 1865 to the early 20th century White exposes the many flaws in the state of the union. And while there are some clear overlaps with his early works – Railroaded, for example – this new work provides even more historical context for understanding the misguided policies of successive Administrations.

This is a giant book both in length and quality, providing readers with many hints as to why the U.S. is now a fully operative plutocracy. As White illustrates, wealthy industrialists like Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan nurtured that plutocracy.

Other lesser-known capitalists continued to build the power of the few. Today, billionaires like the Koch brothers and Donald Trump perpetuate that power in the hands of a few very wealthy corporate owners. They are following a well-worn historical path, one that White’s work suggests is even more dishonourable than we knew.

He explains some of the events that marked western development using a home theme wherein settlers and plunders acted with an eye to building and protecting their homes. This involved the slaughter of the American Indian populations, the suckering of countless immigrants, and the encouragement of fast-buck artists and get-rich-quick gold diggers.

Although this is not a presentist history, I could not help but see the results of what White recounts as it is manifested now. Every day, newspapers of record and quality magazines are full of examples of how the Republican Party is steadily eroding the American democracy.

The GOP-controlled Congress, and the ever-more-embarrassing Trump White House, are undoing long-established laws and removing rights from the people. Previously protected public services are undermined and the planned privatization of those services threatens to destroy them, creating a burden on the poor, working class, and increasingly the middle class. Tax cuts benefit the rich leaving trickle down crumbs for everyone else.

And then there is the insanity of pouring more tax money into the military. U.S. troops continue to invade other nations under the pretext of being peacekeepers but are in reality uninvited corporate property protectors. They occupy nations with the false intention of making them safe for American democracy when we all know it is connected to American business interests. Drone attacks destroy unsuspecting communities. Land in foreign nations is stolen for resettlement as in Palestine and elsewhere.

Corporations and their well-paid lobbyists dominate the political system in Washington, D.C., and state legislatures to such an extent that the U.S. is in danger of becoming a full-fledged plutocracy. Its democracy deteriorates with hourly White House tweets.

White’s book tells us how present government policies designed to benefit the rich are part of a continuum. The American past is also its present and if America was once great, it cannot be discerned from 1865 to the end of the Gilded Age in the early 20th century.

White points up deep historical flaws in the American system. With Republicwe see clearly that those flaws are being repeatedly revisited on the American people some of whom are being hoodwinked into embracing a false image of the country’s past.

White’s history has much to teach about what went wrong and continues to go wrong with the American democracy. Sadly, it is not a history that Americans can be proud of.

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