New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905

Introduction: Democratic Vistas

by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press


Ach! America! From the other end of the earth from where I came, America was a land of living hope, woven of dreams, aflame with longing and desire.—Anzia Yezierska, “America and I”

In the last half of the nineteenth century, a new United States emerged out of a crucible of fire. Literally as well as figuratively, fire shaped Americans’ destinies. Fearsome prairie blazes scorched homesteads on the Plains. Workers in Andrew Carnegie's famous steel mills melted iron in Bessemer furnaces at 3000 degrees, while day and night, refineries in Ohio and Pennsylvania burned off tall plumes of gasoline, a by-product of kerosene that no one yet knew how to use. Coal fires stoked the locomotives and steamships that began to dominate land and sea. Their fires sometimes raged out of control: steamboat explosions scalded workers and passengers, while stray sparks from railroads ignited barns and homes. An 1876 train wreck at Ashtabula, Ohio, burned dozens of people alive when a bridge collapsed under the Pacific Express. The explosive energy of miners' blasting powder was also dangerous, trapping workers in underground infernos that killed as many as 200 in a single catastrophe. As Nevada silver miners chased the Comstock Lode deeper and deeper into the ground, temperatures in the shafts rose as high as 167 degrees.

Most dramatic of all were firestorms that raged around the Great Lakes, where clear-cut logging left miles of dry brush. The holocausts of 1871, described by terrified survivors as "tornadoes of fire," killed 1,500 people in Wisconsin alone. The heat was so intense that a wooded island a half-mile offshore in Lake Michigan burst into flames. Two decades later a similar firestorm in Minnesota incinerated six towns in four hours. At Hinckley a heroic railroad crew saved 300 lives by running their train backward full-throttle to reach a pond beside the tracks. As roaring flames cracked the train windows, a black porter paced the aisles calming passengers and extinguishing sparks. When the engineer braked beside the pond everyone leaped from the cars and waded in. The engineer dragged with him the train’s unconscious fireman, who had shoveled coal frantically to stoke the engine while his clothing burned. Neck-deep in water, the group waited for hours until the flames passed by. Two Chinese immigrants, terrified and apparently unable to understand English, stayed in their seats and burned with the train.

Americans in the growing cities suffered their own versions of such horrors. Two dramatic fires marked the beginning and end of the era in Chicago, where the Great Fire of 1871 destroyed most of the downtown and a 1903 blaze in the Iroquois Theater, a modern "fireproof" building, trapped and killed more than 600. (Engineers hastily explained that the frame of a building could be made fireproof but its occupants could not.) A swath of central Boston burned in 1876; the same happened to large portions of Seattle in 1889 and Baltimore in 1904, while flames engulfed much of San Francisco after the infamous earthquake of 1906. Urban tenement fires became such a well-known phenomenon that amusement parks on New York’s Coney Island staged live spectacles called “Fire and Flames.” The parks hired off-duty firemen and actors to battle the blazes, scream from windows, and flee out the doors. (Fire later touched Coney Island in a real way when all three of its famous parks—Dreamland, Luna Park, and Steeplechase—eventually succumbed to accidental blazes.)

Some fires were set as intentional acts of protest, in an era marked by sharp social and economic conflicts. A group of female convicts in Georgia reacted to sexual exploitation and abysmal living conditions by burning down the Chattahoochee brickyard where they had been sent for hard labor. Striking steelworkers at Homestead, Pennsylvania lit up the night sky along the Monongahela River by torching the barges that had brought in an army of private detectives. Anglo miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming set fire to the cabins of Chinese workers; when the occupants fled they threw them back inside to burn, killing twenty-eight. And among 2,500 lynchings that occurred between 1885 and 1900, mobs burned at least twenty-three men and one woman at the stake. The Civil War veteran Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote of his generation that “in our youth our hearts were touched with fire.” The same was true for millions of Americans after the war’s end—though their experience was often less glorious than Holmes’s memory of his war service. In fact, the postwar world was almost as lethal as the war itself. During four decades of clear-cut logging, more Americans died in forest fires than had been killed at the Battle of Antietam. The number of employees, passengers, and bystanders killed by railroads in the same years probably approached 200,000--a number not far distant from the sum of battlefield deaths for the Union and Confederacy combined.

As significant as it was, the Civil War was thus part of broader, even more sweeping transformations. Confederate surrender did not so much restore the old nation as create a new one, reshaped by not only the war but by economic and political changes that had begun earlier and had helped precipitate the conflict. With the Union preserved and slavery ended, many Americans hoped for the "new birth of freedom" Abraham Lincoln had called for in his Gettysburg Address. The great question of the postwar era was whether and how that promise would be fulfilled. What place would four million freedmen and freedwomen have in the new republic? What obligations did employers and employees have to each other in the rapidly growing economy? What was “free labor,” and how free was it? How, and how much, should government stoke the mighty engines of industrial capitalism?

The restless Americans of this era experienced an array of profound confusions and dislocations. The rise of corporate capitalism had been underway before the Civil War, but after 1865 it took on new scale and geographic reach. Steamships ferried wheat, cigarettes, rubber, missionaries, immigrants, and tourists all over the globe. Millions of people said farewell to friends and kin in China, Russia, Mexico, Italy, and many other countries to seek their fortunes in America. Within the United States, individuals left the eastern seaboard for the frontier, the countryside for the towns, the towns for the cities, and together they made up mass migrations. Farmers' children headed to business school; the daughters and sons of slaves earned college diplomas and became teachers and insurance agents. Indian children left their parents' homes on reservations, entered boarding schools, and pursued careers as writers and doctors. The ideal of “separate spheres” for men and women began to fade; young women graduated from high school and even college, took jobs in the corporate world, and led great reform movements. If, as one historian writes, “the central dream of the modern world” is “the ability to escape the burden of the past,” then Americans of the late nineteenth century embraced modernity with a passion.

Historians have long labeled the post-Civil War era “the Gilded Age," borrowing the title of an 1873 novel by Mark Twain and his friend Charles Dudley Warner. The Gilded Age satirized get-rich-quick schemes and corruption in Washington, and its title suggested that America glittered on the outside while it rotted at the core. In his notes for the novel Twain wrote that gold rushes and railroad speculation had been "the worst things that ever befell Amer[ica]; they created the hunger for wealth when the Gr[eat] Civ[ilization] had just completed its youth & its ennobling WAR--strong, pure, clean, ambitious, impressionable--ready to make choice of a life-course." Troubled by corruption, Americans were even more shocked by postwar violence. The fires of economic and social transformation kindled conflicts over political power in the South and land in the West, while fierce clashes also broke out between labor and capital—including the first nationwide strikes—and among laborers themselves, especially those of different racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. These conflicts, described in part three of this book, profoundly shaped the future course of US history.

Yet the post-Civil War decades were also a time of enormous optimism for ordinary Americans. Walt Whitman suggested as much in his 1871 essay Democratic Vistas, capturing the hopes that arose in the wake of Union victory and accompanying amendments to the Constitution. Echoing Lincoln’s call for a “new birth of freedom,” Whitman proclaimed a “new spirit” in America’s democratic experiment. Democracy, he argued, consisted of three related projects. First, it was set of political structures vesting authority in the people; in this sense American democracy had begun with the Revolution and continued with the Fifteenth Amendment enfranchising all men, irrespective of race. (Whitman predicted that within a generation women would also vote.) The second project was the advancement of "trade, finance, machinery, intercommunications,” which Whitman hoped would provide broad-ranging benefits. The old poet loved tramping around New York City talking to peddlers, housekeepers, trolley conductors, and dockworkers, and he wanted enterprise to serve them all.

Whitman's third project, which he believed had just begun, was democratic culture. "Did you, too, O friend," he asked, "suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruits ... in religion, literature, colleges, and schools--democracy in all public and private life." Whitman called for a new American culture to complement the nation's political forms. Its "genius" would lie in the popular, the spiritual, and the scientific, and its goals would be to help each individual find truth and self-expression while strengthening ties of community and love. In dreaming this grand dream, Whitman was in good company. Freedmen and freedwomen, immigrants, students, workers, artists, intellectuals, and grassroots reformers believed post-Civil War America offered a chance to start anew.

What arose out of the ashes of the era’s fires? To what extent were Whitman’s dreams fulfilled? To the extent they were not, what intervened between dreams and reality? New Spirits seeks to answer those questions, capturing the optimism, doubts, and conflicts of Americans in the postwar era. Whitman himself saw democracy as messy, unfinished, and too frequently thwarted. Like the authors of The Gilded Age he deplored his country's "hollowness at heart" and obsession with money making. He worried about labor protests and criticized Americans for fawning over European culture rather than celebrating the freshness and diversity of their own. He deplored the stuffiness of a society he found overfed, self-righteous, and morally flabby, and he wondered where the United States was drifting. "In vain have we annex'd Texas, California, Alaska, and reached north for Canada and south for Cuba," he wrote. "It is as if we were somehow being endow'd with a vast and more and more thoroughly appointed body, and then left with little or no soul."

Whitman was right to be ambivalent. His United States combined modern technology with race hatred, eager consumerism with grinding poverty, greed with goodwill, humanitarian impulses with designs for economic empire. Between 1865 and 1905 Americans witnessed the first march on Washington, the first federal welfare programs, the first elections in which women and black men voted for president, and the first national park in the world. But the era that gave birth to such achievements—and to automobiles, telephones, and Coca-Cola—also ushered in new forms of discrimination and violence. The era in which Americans began organizing for world peace also brought the first major deployments of US troops overseas. By 1900 the fires that raged at home had helped ignite conflagrations overseas. Among its other imperialist projects the United States committed itself to occupation of the Philippines. Many soldiers there wondered why they were posted in a hostile landscape thousands of miles from home, battling guerrillas determined to control their own homeland.

It is critical to understand the United States of this past era, because we are its heirs. Much that is familiar about the United States we know today emerged after the Civil War, both because of what Americans did in those decades and also because of the dreams they relinquished and the paths they did not take. To recapture the spirit of those pivotal years is to gain a better grasp of America's present as well as its past. For now, as when Whitman and Twain wrote, we live in fiery, conflicted times. Americans today are as proud of our country's achievements, as frustrated by materialism and shallowness, as outraged by corruption, and as troubled by injustice as Twain and Whitman were when they expressed their doubts and dreams. New Spirits maps a crucial piece of our past. I have sketched it for all those who are now setting out, in Whitman's words, to "write, as it were, upon things that exist not, and travel by maps yet unmade."

© Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press

New Spirits

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New Spirits


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