A closely argued account of how various constituencies—women, farmers, African Americans, workers—vied for a place at the table in the reunited republic.
As Bancroft Prize–winning historian Postel (San Francisco State Univ.; The Populist Vision, 2007) recounts, the Civil War brought newfound demands for equality in unexpected ways. At the beginning of the narrative, the author chronicles how logisticians responsible for burying the Union dead at Gettysburg struggled to devise a way to represent each contributing state equally, “a challenge given that more bodies came from some states than from others and given the sloping and uneven terrain of the grounds.” Other interest groups would find the terrain even rougher. The Grange movement, for instance, sought to represent the interests of small farmers in a time of federal consolidation and the growth of great railroad and manufacturing corporations. The press of the agrarians for a Cabinet-level secretary of agriculture led to some uncomfortable accommodations, including making common cause with Southern farmers opposed to Reconstruction. As a result, African Americans were often excluded, though sometimes not, in influential visions of the postwar nation. The Grangers and radical labor movement alike saw their enemy as the “monopolists,” a category that “included bankers, lawyers, grain elevator and cotton gin operators, insurance agents, grain and cotton purchasers, farm machinery dealers, and local merchants.” The women’s temperance movement took similar views: The enemy was not just alcohol, but also inequality, which yielded a movement to outlaw booze and, as well, grant women the right to vote, to say nothing of demanding equal pay for equal work. Postel has a keen eye for unlikely juxtapositions. For instance, as he writes, the leader of the hard-charging Knights of Labor became not just a close ally and protector of the radical activist Mother Jones, but also, and simultaneously, “an official in the federal bureaucracy enforcing the Chinese exclusion laws and other restrictive policies.”
Of much use in understanding the course of late-19th-century American history, a time of turmoil that resembles our own in many respects.