1877 America’s Year of Living Violently, Michael A. Bellesiles (The New Press, N.Y., 2010)
Hoot, mon, get yourself in the bloody parlor and read this interesting account of the year 1877. I would be tempted to say if you think things are bad now, look to 1877. Perhaps things were worse 1877, perhaps not, depending upon what “things” you have in mind. There is one striking difference today from that unsettled time, the violence, the subject of this book.
I confess I thought it unusual for an author to select one particular year to write about. But it is true, 1877 was a year of almost unremitting, and seemingly acceptable violence. In the aftermath of the Civil War the South did not want to accept the newly acquired freedom of the ex-slaves, and they certainly did not want them to have a voice in government. They resisted any and all attempts by Blacks to better themselves or engage in politics, and they did this through the systematic use of intimidation and violence. Of course I knew there had been violence, what with the KKK, lynchings, and Jim Crow, but I had no idea how widespread, virtually universal this became in the South. Nor did I have an idea of how institutionalized and acceptable it became. The North, tired of hearing or thinking any more about the war, or about the problems of Blacks, and determined to get on with business, turned a blind eye to what was occurring in the South, basically sacrificing Blacks in favor of order and life as usual. As we know, this resulted in the South becoming and staying Democratic until not very long ago (remember, it was the Republican Party of Lincoln that was anti-slavery in those days). This book offers a definitive, if depressing, description of how violence was deliberately, even officially, used to keep Blacks in their place, force them into sharecropping and continued poverty, and thwart their supposedly new-found civil rights.
It was not only in the South where violence reigned. The year 1877 also saw the end of the Indian wars, the campaigns to destroy them, again by using the most violent means, and the ultimate success allowing Whites to complete the theft of their ancestral lands. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and his raggedy band made fools of the U.S. forces for a time but inevitably succumbed. The Sioux, too, were finally overcome, Sitting Bull was commercialized and stereotyped, Crazy Horse was betrayed and murdered, and the bloody mess that had been going on in the West for so long more or less came to a violent end. Bellesiles describes this well, but in this case I was not at all surprised.
To me, the most interesting part of the book, was the situation in our country in general during this period of time. I knew about the depression of the 1870’s, and I also knew there were unemployed tramps and homeless people and poverty and hunger and despair. I did not know how extensive this really was, not aware of the almost unbelievable “Tramp Scare,” and not aware of the almost complete indifference and ignorance of what was actually occurring. It simply did not even occur to people that tramps and poverty had something to do with economic conditions, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the wealthy industrialists, and the terrible conditions of those who actually had employment. People thought then, as some still do, that poverty was the fault of the poor who were just lazy, criminal, and undeserving. The popularity of (the false but useful to them) Social Darwinism that swept the country at this time of course made this attitude respectable for a time (we still have some who apparently believe this even now).
The plight of the working class became so terrible, as wages were cut and cut again, until a family could barely survive at all. This inevitably led to the Great Strike of 1877, the first nation-wide strike in our history. It was a battle between labor and capital and, as in the case of the South, the only solution was believed to be violence. Companies hired gangs of strikebreakers, National Guards were ordered, and the President of the U.S. Rutherford B. Hayes did not hesitate to order Federal Troops to put down local strikes that were occurring with more and more frequency. This also led to the great Communist Scare in which anyone who even sympathized with workers was labeled a communist. Pittsburgh was burned, Philadelphia was barely spared, and the situation was never truly resolved (it’s still going on in Wisconsin and elsewhere at the moment).
As Bellesiles points out, the entire nation was homicidal during the 1877’s. Guns were carried by a great many citizens and they did not hesitate to use them often. Police work was not highly developed, people often took the law into their own hands, and so-called justifiable homicides were commonplace. This situation was exacerbated by the lunatic theories of criminality that became popular at that time, primarily those of the Italian Criminologist, Cesare Lombroso, who thought he could recognize criminal types just by their physiognomy, and Richard L. Dugdale who thought criminality ran in families and was passed down generation by generation. The situation was further exacerbated by the Pinkertons who made much of their living off strikebreaking.
This period of terrible violence continued until the rise of organizations like the Salvation Army, the Women’s Suffrage Movement and Temperance Crusade, and the emergence of charismatic leaders like Frances Willard, Booker T. Washington, Anna Dickinson, Susan B. Anthony, the reporter, Jacob Riis, and others. Eventually even Rutherford Hayes began to see the light (after he was President), and many Protestant Churches who had traditionally supported violence against the poor eventually changed their positions. Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt played a key role in the changes that were finally leading the country in a new and different direction.
Someone asked me if there weren’t any positive things that occurred during this period of time. There were some, the first department store was created, the telephone was invented, but these are not the subject of this important book. I would be remiss if I did not point out that echoes of this ugly and mean time still exist in our culture (think Wisconsin again), but happily so far without the insane violence.