General History XVII: The History of the United States since 1863
It may be useful, albeit problematic, to view the end of American Civil War in 1865 as marking a second beginning for the American nation. At the least, the years that followed saw America wrestling in new ways with old dilemmas and controversies. With the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the federal government embarked on an effort to reconstruct relations between the races, hitherto defined by the institution of slavery, and to define the elusive concept of ‘freedom’. This, together with the war that had led to emancipation, had powerful implications for the American system of government. The immutability of the Union was newly established, and the previous pattern of federalism would never be fully re-established. That said, federal Reconstruction lasted for only a dozen years, and by the turn of the 20th century the formal freedoms that it had granted to African Americans counted for little, as a system of rigid racial segregation and repression known as ‘Jim Crow’ took hold in the South (where nearly all blacks lived at this time). As W.E.B. DuBois had predicted at its beginning, the existence of the ‘colour line’ helped to define the political struggles of the 20th century, which climaxed with the post-World War II civil rights movement.
Relations between the races provide one of the central theme of this course, in part because of their intrinsic significance and interest, but in part also because they had such dramatic knock-on effects (in terms of the rights of other Americans, for example, or in terms of governmental power). A second major theme, anticipated in the first paragraph, is war. Starting with the Revolutionary War, the history of the United States has been punctuated by wars that have had powerful, and often unintended, impacts on the development of the American economy, on the distribution of wealth (between individual, races, and regions), on the political system, and on the rights of women. The civil war, the Spanish-American war, the two world wars, and post-1945 conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East will all be covered in GHXVII, both in terms of the development of foreign policy (a third theme), and in terms of those domestic impacts.
Recent historians of the United States have been much interested in the rise of the State, and also in the limits to the expansion (compared to other western industrial societies). In the late 19th century, the projection of federal power took the form mainly of Indian fighting and the disposal of public land, but – starting in the late 19th century – growing calls were heard for a stronger federal role in regulating the national economy, and in ameliorating the great inequalities of wealth and power that had emerged during the massive economic expansion of the period. (Two manifestations of this impulse were Populism, and Progressivism.) That expansion provides a leitmotiv of national development between 1865 and 1929, and another theme of this paper. Among its manifestations and consequences were mass immigration (until the 1920s), urbanization (since 1920, the United States has been a predominantly urban nation), environmentalism (the first national park was created in the 1870s), and radical political protest movements (including a promising socialist movement and enormous labour unrest). The period was also marked both by a strong evangelical awakening (sometimes termed the Third Great Awakening, to distinguish it from those of the 18th and early 19th centuries), and by a more humanist faith in the power of experts and new knowledge to solve hitherto unyielding problems such as poverty, alcoholism, and disease. There were obvious tensions between these two developments, but both were apparent in the Progressive Movement (for example in the ‘social gospel’ movement), which – accordingly – has resisted easy categorization by historians.
Some historians have conceived of the 20th century in terms of cycles of reaction and reform, with the Progressive Era (c.1900-1914), the New Deal (1930s), and the Great Society (1960s) marking the high points of an intermittently strong liberal reforming impulse that has greatly expanded the size of the American state, but which has been checked by a persistent strain of anti-statist conservatism. More recently, however, this version of events had been challenged both by social historians emphasizing the agency of ‘ordinary people’ in shaping their own lives, and downplaying the role of élites, and by political historian preoccupied by the autonomy of ‘the State’ and the way that its expansion has persisted during periods of ostensible reaction. The lecture course that accompanies GH XVII is attentive to all of these historiographical tendencies, assessing them with thematic reference to struggles for racial, economic, and gender equality, for example.