Is the great working class oppressed? Yes, undoubtedly it is, both by the Governments and the rich men, and by the educated classes. This is not because the Governments, the rich men or the educated classes desire to oppress them, but because it must be so....When men are ignorant and poor and weak, they can't help being oppressed. That is so by a great natural law.
- Henry Ward Beecher, July 1877
Michael A. Bellesiles' 1877: America's Year of Living Violently is harrowing reading. Bellesiles is the award-winning historian whose reputation was ruined when critics found holes in his research for Arming America, a study that attempted to show that America had no real "gun culture" before the 19th century. 1877 is his bid for renewed respectability, based entirely on verifiable, published sources but notably published by a "progressive" company, The New Press, as if to signal an ideological slant. Reading 1877 may slant one's ideology, because it's hard to get through without feeling bloody outrage at the way ruling classes and their auxiliaries treated black freedmen, Native Americans, striking railroad workers, the unemployed, etc. Bellesiles episodically chronicles the year when Republicans sold out former slaves to their former masters in order to win the Presidency, an underpaid and understaffed army hunted down the Sioux and the Nez Perces, and the President called out more of the army to restore order in major cities amid the nearest thing to a general strike in American history. Blackening the national mood and hardening its collective heart in the face of the first wave of mass unemployment and homelessness in industrial America was a barbaric, half-baked "social darwinism" that twisted Charles Darwin's theories into a doctrine of "survival of the fittest" that even self-professed Christians like Henry Ward Beecher espoused. The quotes dug up by Bellesiles to illustrate this pseudo-darwinism are bracing stuff and make the rhetoric of 21st century Tea Partiers taste quite tepid. Bellesiles is dealing with people who didn't even believe in charity, since they thought that mass unemployment would only end when lazy, ignorant working class people had no choice but to work or starve. If they starved, it was their own damn fault, and if there was no way out of starving, they should do so without complaining. "Compete or Die" was a new commandment for these purported Christians. The starving unemployed and underpaid should "bear matters unflinchingly," Beecher said, "In losing everything else a man should not lose his manliness." We assume that the reactionaries of 2010 want to take the country back in time, but I doubt they want to go that far. They may agree with some of the doctrines of 1877 deep in their hearts, but they won't necessarily admit it to themselves. Or if you prefer, none of them have the guts or gall to say such things openly. In any event, today's reactionaries boast too often of their charitable impulses to adopt the merciless attitude of their ancestors. If the economy gets worse, however -- who knows? In 1877 many Americans probably did feel sincerely that their survival depended upon the economic decisions they made; if so, they were perhaps understandably less charitable toward those who chose wrong, or even those with hard luck, than people would be in a less desperate era. For us, 1877 is a cautionary tale of an America without either a safety net or, momentarily, opportunity for many of its people. It's impossible to say that such a situation can never recur, but we might take hope in the thought that even the worst minds of today don't approach the depths of misanthropy that one fell upon frequently once upon a time. It'd be interesting to take the author's name off the cover, give the book to a Tea Partier, and ask: "Is this what you want?" The answers would be even more interesting.