The Year 1877 Looks Awfully Familiar Today


Michael A. Bellesiles teaches history at Central Connecticut State University. He is the author of numerous books, including Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. The New Press will publish his new book 1877: America’s Year of Living Violently in August 2010. He lives in Connecticut.

At the corner of Broad Street and Exchange Place in New York, on a hot summer day in July, 1877, Major A. A. Selover, a Christ Church vestryman and stockbroker, walked up to one of the richest men in America and threw him into a pit. The victim of this attack was the financier and “prince of the railroad schemers,” Jay Gould. With a nationwide reputation as a manipulator of the economy, Gould had driven hundreds of people, including many close friends, into bankruptcy and had earned the label “the worst man on earth.” Selover had considered himself a good friend of Gould’s and had trusted him in a number of business transactions that had ended very badly for everyone except Jay Gould. In an unplanned encounter, Selover had demanded the truth from Gould, and when not receiving an acceptable answer, began slapping the speculator before lifting the diminutive Gould off his feet and throwing him into a nearby construction pit. The crowd of witnesses broke into cheers and a policeman who had rushed to the scene let Selover go upon learning the victim’s name. Gould, bruised but not seriously injured, refused to press charges, though he did hire bodyguards.

Newspapers praised Selover for finally striking back at one of the avaricious men who had brought down the nation’s economy. Through fraud and taking advantage of an unregulated banking system, Gould, Jay Cooke, and other speculators bear the blame for starting the Panic of 1873, which led to the worst depression the United States had yet witnessed. It all began with the collapse of Cooke’s bank, spreading outwards to claim ever more financial institutions, leading to foreclosures, plant closures, bankruptcies, and massive unemployment. The year 1877 was the nadir of that economic crisis, with no end in sight, and corporations using the surplus of labor to justify continuing wage cuts even while paying high dividends to shareholders. Selover’s single aggressive act constituted part of a flood of frustration and violence sweeping the country in 1877.

A resonance rises from the newspapers of 1877; the crises of that year share a curious harmony with our own time. It is a bit ridiculous to look for exact parallels in the past, but striking similarities can prove instructive. Thus, there is no correspondence between today and the Great Strike of 1877, the first nation-wide labor action in the United States and the most violent, reducing some cities to battlegrounds as the U.S. Army moved in to restore order. But the tendency of large enterprises to place the burden of economic decline on the shoulders of workers who are laid-off or see their wages slashed, and to seek government support even while paying themselves significant bonuses—well, that does sound a little familiar, doesn’t it? Barbara Tuchman spoke of certain periods in the past as distant mirrors, reflecting back to us a pale image of ourselves, and reminding us of the tendency of people to face social crises in similar ways. The year 1877 is not 2010, but there are some moments in that year that will, I believe, make the modern reader nod in recognition, and also wonder why we have not yet learned a few basic lessons from our mistakes.

Violence set the Gilded Age apart from our modern era. Most Americans today perceive ours as a very violent country, with a higher homicide rate than that of other industrialized nations. Yet none of our cities run red with armed battles between workers and militia while African Americans are murdered in appalling numbers for daring to claim their civil rights. In 1877, homicide rates in some parts of the country, most particularly Texas, floated free from any notion of civilization, while urban police forces fought armed gangs for control of the streets. White Americans fearful of a growing Hispanic population attempted to close the border with Mexico—oh wait, that does ring a bell—while out in California an anti-immigrant movement came to dominate the state with the goal of excluding the Chinese. This latter campaign very quickly led to the first Congressional limitation on immigration, and also made 1877 “the year of lynching” in the West. The entire Western half of the country struggled to form its identity in 1877, with some seeking to exclude certain groups. Others sought to extend democracy to include blacks, as with the Exoduster movement, and women, who kept insisting on their right to vote. It was a year of fear, marked by both the first hysteria over the homeless, known as the Tramp Scare, and the first Red Scare perceiving a socialist conspiracy intent on transforming America, with even the President of the United States labeled a communist. Seeking explanations for the widening economic polarization, Americans first used the phrase “social Darwinism” in 1877, while the first stirrings of the Social Gospel movement imagined a Christianity dedicated to social justice. Commentators saw the country coming apart, repeating the phrase that the United States was poised atop a volcano.

U.S. history survey courses and textbooks use the year 1877 as their traditional breaking point. The choice seems obvious as Reconstruction ended in that year, seemingly bringing the curtain down on the drama of the national struggle with slavery, the Civil War, and reunion. But as Eric Foner made abundantly clear in his masterpiece, Reconstruction, the end of federal support for the stillborn experiment in multi-cultural democracy was a national tragedy and hardly ended the enduring contradiction of racism. There is also little sense in most treatments of the events of 1877 that something began as well as ended. The extermination of democracy in the South led to a system of white oligarchy maintained by violence and intimidation that lasted nearly a century. Equally important, a variety of highly significant changes occurred throughout the country that determined the national character for a long time to come. A close reading of this bloody year at the heart of the Gilded Age can make the past appear less remote, and its inhabitants look more like ourselves.

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steve m cearfoss - 5/20/2010

Curious as to which president was called a socialist -- Grant went out in '77, and Hayes came in the same year.