We are coming up on America's Independence Day celebration, which has me thinking about the difference between the red, white, and blue cardboard history that is pushed on the public, and the real history of the period. The real history is, of course, a lot more interesting. And it is never taught in school, and history professors rarely write books about it.
The most plausible explanation for this is that the American Narrative as taught is a morality play, one that leads to ever more progress. Indeed, to look at the motto of New York State is to see this emblazoned on the very flag: excelsior, ever onward and upward.
History, of course - even American history - does not work that way. I've written before that the history of what is vulgarly known as the "Civil War"* is nothing that would be recognized by those who lived through it. The interesting actual history has been twisted, pulled into an excelsior upward arc of morality play. Twisted beyond recognition, actually.
Because you can't know where you are without knowing where you came from, and so the 1865-1890 gap in American History as taught today is an interesting puzzle. There's actually a lot that's important that happened then, a lot that historians of today don't really want to dwell on. And the midpoint of this "there be dragons" region on our historical map was the first centennial, 1876.
There was a lot that was going wrong in the American Republic. Reconstruction was a failure, and seen as such by both its supporters and opponents. Corruption in government was the norm - you hear vague echoes of this in the standard history (typically a brief passage about scandals in the Grant Administration), but the whole age (and basically each administration) was mired in this. Boom times rapidly alternated with recessions or depressions as the great transcontinental railroads repeatedly went out of business.
I highly recommend the following podcast which goes into a lot of detail - detail that you very likely never were taught - about all these topics. The only dispute that I have is the brief mention of the lack of a Grover Cleveland fan club. He's the only post-war President who actually took a run at governmental corruption. This is an extended interview, so you might want to find it on your podcast app and listen in the car or some such. Podcast aficionados will recognize Patrick Wyman from the excellent Fall Of Rome Podcast, now hosting the very interesting Tides of History.
Tides of History: The Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Gilded Age: An Interview with Stanford's Professor Richard White
1876 was interesting because of the Indian Wars. Most famous is the disaster of Custer's 7th Cavalry at Little Bighorn - which started on this day in 1876. The news of the disaster arrived just as the Centennial celebrations were starting. The American public was shocked that hundreds of US Cavalry troopers were killed by "naked savages". More bad news followed in 1877, when the Nez Perce stood toe to toe with the Army at the Big Hole and bloodied the Army's nose. These setbacks would not have been a surprise to anyone paying attention: way back in 1866, Crazy Horse and nine other braves completely wiped out a force of 81 soldiers at the Fetterman Fight.
While Phil Sheridan may or may not have said "The only good indian is a dead indian", it's a True Fact that William T. Sherman ended the Indian Wars in the good old fashioned Roman way, making a desert and calling it "peace". His December 18, 1890 letter to the New York Times makes it clear that Congressional interference was the only reason he didn't kill every indian, down to women and children. Par for the course for American's first War Criminal.
None of this is taught in history class. It is violently anti-excelsior.
So why bring this up, especially at this time of the year? It's not to harsh your Independence Day celebration**, it's because all of this is still relevant to events of our day. Crony capitalism has still corrupted government beyond recognition (just look at the Trillion dollar "stimulus" that built nothing, or the F-35 program). Congressmen are still handsomely compensated for sponsoring the right legislation. The Progressive era (approvingly referenced in the podcast above in one of the few mistakes in their discussion) co-opted the segregationist Democrats for seven decades - today's Democrats simply don't seem to know that it was their party (and not the Republicans) who kept the Coloreds in their place. Gun control continues to be pushed to get firearms away from minorities.
Excelsior isn't how things happened, but that sure is how teachers want you to think. If you don't understand the past, there's a very good chance that you'll keep making the same mistakes. Dad (who was a history professor) liked to say that history keeps repeating itself because nobody listened the first time. I mean, how can we excelsior if we keep making the same dumb mistakes?
Like I said, I highly recommend the podcast. Listen to that, and read the links and you'll know more about how America became how it is than just about anyone.
* It wasn't a Civil War because the Confederate States did not want to take over the north. "War Between the States" is ambiguous, losing the underlying motivations. "The War of Yankee Aggression" misses the point that a lot of folks on both sides were spoiling for a fight in 1860. I like the term "American War of Southern Independence" because it describes the rationale for the conflict precisely.
** Indeed, the Queen Of The World and I are quite looking forward to the celebration.