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A Biography of America

America at Its Centennial

As America celebrates its centennial, 5 million people descend on Philadelphia to celebrate America's technological achievements, but some of the early principles of the Republic remain unrealized. Professor Miller and his team of historians examine where America is in 1876 and discuss the question of race.

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Program 13: America at the Centennial/The Revolution Betrayed

Donald L. Miller, with Pauline Maier, Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Virginia Scharff, Louis P. Masur, and Douglas Brinkley


Miller: 1876 — America celebrates its Centennial: 100 years as a Republic, 100 years in pursuit of the promise of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal.

Maier: You know, I always think of John Adams’ comments that all men are created equal — so long as you leave women and children out of the picture. You know, what they said. With men, it was gender specific and I’m quite convinced of that.

Martin: What I like is the sense that we understand that we are engaged in a struggle. A man named Frederick Douglas, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, all the ways in which civil rights struggle is basically about fulfilling the promise that is there. Living up to the laws of the Constitution and all of that. I think that’s really what is pivotal.

Miller: Waldo keeps talking about complicating things. I like that because he’s also talking about simplifying, explaining them clearly, explaining that they are complicated.

Martin: Yeah, that’s basically the point.

Scharff: You know, the promise is out there. It’s like this really great shining thing that everybody wants to believe in but for a really long time there are lots of people who are not expected to participate in that.

Miller: In 1876, is America fulfilling its most fundamental promise? Our team of historians probe this question, today, on A Biography of America.

The 1876 World Exposition

Miller: On May l0, l876, President Ulysses Grant traveled to Philadelphia for an unusual birthday celebration. The United States was one hundred years old. Nearly ten million people, one fifth of the country’s population, came to Philadelphia to celebrate the progress and prosperity of America, even though the country was in the midst of its worst economic depression ever.

New, life-transforming inventions were on display: the telephone, the typewriter, electric lights, and the internal combustion engine. But the centerpiece was a 700-ton Corliss steam engine, which symbolized the Exposition’s theme — that machines were remaking America and promised to inaugurate an age of widespread abundance.

In early July, the realities of American life intruded into the Centennial’s celebration of industrial progress. A group of feminists, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony broke into the Exposition’s July 4th proceeding to read a document they called the Woman’s Declaration of Independence. These women had supported black liberation, supported the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. But they felt outraged and betrayed when the 15th Amendment, which extended voting rights to black people, did not do the same for women.

The same day of their protest, word reached the Exposition that George Armstrong Custer and his Seventh Cavalry had been wiped out at a place called Little Big Horn by a band of Sioux warriors led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. There were immediate calls for vengeance; the Indians would have to be dealt with violently. Grant’s hopes for racial harmony didn’t fare much better. That same centennial July 4th, 13 years to the day since Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, whites in Hamburg, South Carolina tried to prevent a group of black militia from marching in an Independence Day parade.

When the case went to court four days later, fighting broke out between black people and a group of whites who were armed with a cannon. After the blacks surrendered, several of their leaders were murdered in cold blood. All of the whites were acquitted in a travesty that was called a trial. Grant sent troops, and condemned the massacre as “bloodthirsty” and “unprovoked.” But the future solution to such outrages, he made clear, would have to depend on a higher power than the Federal government, in his words, “the Great Ruler of the Universe.”

Frederick Douglass, who had been a supporter of the President, now questioned the nation’s commitment to Lincoln’s pledge of a “new birth” of freedom. “What is your emancipation?” Douglass asked. “When you turned us loose, you gave us no acres. You turned us loose to the sky, to the storm, to the whirlwind. And most of all, you turned us loose to the wrath of our infuriated masters.”

Years later, W. E. B. Du Bois offered a more measured judgement. Reconstruction was, he said, a “splendid failure.” For a promising moment, black people took a gigantic step out of slavery, with white help, and they were then were pushed back into the dark night of racial suppression, abandoned by almost all their former allies. For all that was gained by courageous black people, what Reconstruction demonstrated was that racism was a national, not a regional, scourge.

As a nation, we continue to struggle with Reconstruction’s unresolved legacy, with the inheritance of the painful question of race in America.

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The Problem of Race

Miller: If you open the door, the trap door to the unconscious, the trap door down into the past, what would fly out in 1876? What are these unresolved problems that are going to just haunt the conscience of the nation?

Martin: Well, I think one is very clear, the problem of race. I mean, 1876, we’re at the end of Reconstruction. Technically, slaves have been freed, but what you begin to see with the decline of any kind of commitment to Reconstruction and the demise of Reconstruction is a turning back of any kind of modest clock in terms of any kind of progress. I think when you talk about Civil War, emancipation is a transformation. It is a revolution. Freedom for the ex-slaves is an important accomplishment. But what you discover is that Reconstruction does not provide the economic wherewithal, the political wherewithal, to ensure the freedom of the ex-slaves. And so, in 1876, it’s not surprising to me that the struggles and the “progress” of African Americans or the ex-slaves in particular, is pushed off into the side because it’s not seen as simple.

Miller: What’s happening here?

Masur: Well, I think there is this tendency towards historical amnesia. And let bygones be bygones. Forgetabout the past. “Why grope among the dry bones of the past?” is a famous line from an Emerson essay. And there’s that sense that America is about the future. And that one leaves one’s past behind as you succeed, you need not revisit those things. Of course, there is a price that’s paid for that kind of amnesia, for that kind of erasure.

Brinkley: But the abolition of slavery did take place and you do have a new sense of unionism in 1876. So when you’re at that Centennial, you can say, hey, we made it for 100 years. And we’re looking to the future. Believe me, there’s a lot of patriotic gore in 1876 celebrating that 100th anniversary — and I think even travesties like the Civil War, which turn out to be good for the country in the sense of unifying the nation, getting away with the slavery issue finally, and the new technologies that came out of the Civil War, whether it’s technologies with machine gunnery for war, or medicine in war, or submarines, or photography, or more improved communication cables with the telegraph. Pretty soon, instead of just telegraphing around the country, we’ll be

telegraphing to Europe. The building of the trains in the middle of the Civil War, while North is fighting South, Abraham Lincoln is sig

ning the bill for the Transcontinental Railroad connecting the East with the West. And so much of the next decades after the Civil War building and connecting the country together through the railroads. So, it’s a kind of time I think of new energy and optimism for a lot of Americans. Yet at the same time, it’s still a period, as Waldo was saying, where we are free from slavery. Thank Goodness. But we still don’t have equal rights. But everybody still seems to think that there is a chance of a better life somehow.

Scharff: Well, I think it’s hard to talk about everybody at that point because the news arrives at the 1876 Centennial Exposition that the Custer debacle has just occurred at the Little Big Horn, that the allied troops of various Plains Indian peoples have massacred and slaughtered all of the Seventh Calvary. And this is a devastating military loss for the United States, and it’s a great victory for the people on the Plains. They don’t want to be a part of the United States. They don’t want to be a part of this incorporated republic that builds an iron railroad across their land, that splits up the buffalo herd. And this is a moment for them when they suddenly think, they think maybe we can fight it back. There is still a war going on. It’s not a war for the South. It’s not a war to bring the South back to the Union. But it’s a war in the West to incorporate those Western territories into the United States and even as late as 1876, that’s not a done deal. That’s not a guarantee.

Miller: But here, after the Civil War, you’ve got this giant engine that you describe, this industrial engine. A country that had already mobilized for war, knew had to fight a vast war, a continental scale war. Boom. They go out West. And it’s all over. It’s all over by the 1890s.

Martin: I think there’s a different way to think about this. Because, I think, there is a longer-term historical problem here and that is that the peoples that Virginia is referring to have been there for a while. And they have seen struggle over a long term. And it strikes me that the short term victory of “Manifest Destiny” is just sort of one part of a longer stream of struggle that a lot of these people have seen. They did not disappear. They did not vanish. They are still there. They have chains. They have been altered.

Miller: The Indians were caught in a juggernaut.

Martin: But why does victory come to be the standard of judgment? Why does victory come to be the way?

Miller: It’s not the standard of judgment.

Martin: But it strikes me.

Miller: It’s what happened.

Martin: But see victory is sort of, history is written by the victors. I mean, history is written by “the people with history.” The people without history, the native peoples, don’t write the kind of history that we come from.

Masur: But Waldo, you keep saying “the native peoples” as if they are one group of people that are native. But if we tell the story as a story of conflict, as a story of contested values, as a story where there are native tribes who are being, perhaps, invaded. There are workers on the railroad who are being exploited. There are battles among the capitalists themselves. You know, this isn’t just the story of capital against somebody else. Somebody wins and somebody loses.

Maier: And the triumphalism that Waldo is objecting to obviously comes out of the position of those who are triumphing, in effect. It’s the sense that they are bringing civilization and progress.

Miller: But what’s the agenda of the country here? What’s the agenda of the country?

Masur: It’s an interesting question. Because, what has the nation just gone through is recently completed this Civil War that threatened to tear this nation apart. And you would assume that there would be lots of references to what the United States had been through from its founding. But the core of the Centennial is really an international exposition. Showing off industry, technology, and consumerism. And in all kinds of ways, if you were to go through that exhibition and look at what was displayed, the kind of goods, the kinds of products. It really is a celebration of technology and it harkens towards a future world separated from a past world.

Maier: Well, Don, go back to this question of what’s going on in 1876. I wonder if, to some extent, what we aren’t all saying is that the issues have changed in some fundamental way. And I’d like to take exception with the notion that we have a historical amnesia — 1876, I wonder if so many of those basic issues that had shaped politics and disputes before the war hadn’t been settled. I mean, certainly, there was the whole question of union. This was there from the time of the Constitutional Convention. Could the Union hold together? I think Appomatix Courthouse settled that. You can’t just leave the Union. There is no right to leave the Union. The cost would be tremendous. Now Waldo, I want to ask you something. It seems to me what is so interesting about the pre-Civil War period is that African Americans were active players. I mean, that they were in some ways the most ardent advocates of true universal rights and equality. And they were terribly important in part because they had allies. Abolitionists, for example. What’s happened to them? Why are they less forceful? I can’t think that the African American community has abandoned its championing of genuine equality and equal rights. Why are they less effective after the Civil War?

Martin: This is a very compelling question. At least as I think about it, it’s not that the voices are not there. The problem is that the issues themselves, as you suggest, have become more complicated. For example, you get the 13th Amendment which abolishes slavery. You get the 14th Amendment which clarifies the fact that African Americans are now citizens. And you get ultimately a 15th Amendment around issues of the vote, giving black men the vote. But these are contested issues and all along the way, the sort of defining citizenship, deciding who gets the vote and who doesn’t get the vote. Some of the former allies are less enthusiastic about some of the ways in which those issues work themselves out, especially the vote.

For example, one of the places where you can see this problem is in the debate over the 15th Amendment, the effort to give black men the vote. There is a debate. There is a strong acrimonious, difficult debate. And ultimately there is a split between those who support the vote for black men, which excludes women, including black women. And there are those, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony who split ways with someone like Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass supports the amendment which gives black men the vote, whereas, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton oppose it. And then they want to argue that, you know, women, especially white women, deserve the vote. So, ultimately…

Miller: Why did Douglass oppose that?

Martin: He didn’t oppose that. It was just the notion that in any kind of political development there are going to be winners, there are going to be losers. You have to compromise. And his argument was, give black men the vote. Once we have the vote, we will continue the fight and join the fight to give women the vote. That’s the next stage of the struggle. Now a lot of women and a lot of supporters of the other point of view felt that this was too big a compromise. That you do not, that was where you drew the line in the sand, so to speak. And you fought it out on principle. And that kind of idealism, that kind of belief, Douglass felt, had to be compromised at this point in time. But I do think that there is a sort of a declining idealism around issues of race.

Miller: I guess its a sense of inertia that sets in or just a feeling that how long can this thing continue.

Scharff: But I think that there…

Martin: The struggle for black rights. I mean how long can it go on?

Scharff: But some of it is about…

Miller: We’re getting tired of this.

Scharff: Well, some of it’s fatigue but some of it’s a question of how far is this movement for a democracy going to go? And there is so much concern that that’s just going too far. That is just too much. So that African American rights and white women’s rights and black men’s rights during this period will come to seem like, boy, that’s just asking too much. One or the other. But not both.

Miller: Question for you on this issue that we keep talking about: We just fought a Civil War. Almost 500,000 Americans are dead. You know, a million Southerners killed, wounded, or missing in action. The whole South has been devastated by the Civil War. Literally reconstruction and physical reconstruction as well. A new generation is on the scene. Their fathers had fought the Civil War. A younger generation, rising business people like Carnegie, Morgan, who made money out of the war. Isn’t it that the country wants to move on to something else? That it’s tired, it’s exhausted from the war. And from Reconstruction.

Martin: I think this is one good explanation. I think the war idealism or the war concern, generated about freedom for black people, does decline.

Masur: In regard to this retreat from Reconstruction, it would be almost impossible for us to exaggerate the virulence of the racism that existed in the 19th Century. And for many of these activists and for many of these participants, liberty was one thing. Equality was something else.

Miller: Exactly.

Maier: And having gotten liberty, a lot of people felt, you know that that next step was too much of a… You know, Lincoln himself, while he’s an opponent of slavery, favors colonization. There are all kinds of issues that were going around in this period in regard to this.

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A New Cultural Ethos

Brinkley: They weren’t talking about a reformism movement here. You just had a Civil War that was basically, if you think who is fighting this Civil War, these soldiers from the North, they are coming in to fight for unionism. That’s what they originally went in for. Yes, slavery became a big issue after the Emancipation Proclamation, even before. But it’s over now. And people want to get back to a sense of normalcy. And what did people go home for? They’re not going home for continuing reformism. Like, boy, let’s get more democracy. Let’s get more people the vote. They want to make money. Unfettered capitalism is what starts kicking in after Reconstruction. People want a way to get more personal income, ways to get richer, ways to go into homestead schemes into the West, ways to go look for gold rushes and mining interest and starting new ranches and it’s that personal interest of wealth that people are looking for or at least for a decent life.

Miller: But the larger forces at work in society seem to be these gigantic technological and industrial forces.

Maier: Well, Don, don’t you think that the different generations in American history have different issues, different agendas.

Miller: Sure.

Maier: And I think that in the 18th Century, the challenge that attracted the best minds of the time had to be with the designing and establishing of a republic. I think the period of the early 19th Century saw itself as somehow working out that heritage. Making sure the union lasted. Dealing with the question of equality. The war itself changes the country. There are entirely different issues at the top of the agenda afterward. And it came, I think, in part, out of the war itself. The way this expanded federal government was encouraging a concentration of money, the growth of large corporations. A whole new world came out. And the challenge then had to be in the private sector. It was economic far more than it was political.

Miller: When foreigners came over to observe the country in the 1870s and 80s, this is what struck them about the country.

Maier: I don’t think it’s just going after the big buck. It’s not just being rich.

Miller: It’s building.

Maier: There’s a real challenge here. And how you organize national corporations, national businesses. How you manage it. It had an appeal independent of the…

Masur: There’s a new cultural ethos that’s helping to shape a set of beliefs about competition, about individualism itself that, I think, comes out of the war. And that effects this period. The period before the war is a period of romance and sentiment. The period after the war is this period of realism, of hard-cold fact. And there’s a sense of the individual, rather than being in solitary pursuit of upward mobility, that individual is now in competition, direct competition with other individuals. And this becomes validated. This becomes part of the everyday discourse of society. You talk about that engine, that Corliss engine that ran in the Centennial of 1876. It was described as an athlete of steel and iron. And the sports metaphor takes over the society in all kinds of ways. This is a world where, in the last half of the 19th Century, where football was invented. You talk about industrial technological forces. Think about football as this game on a grid, about acquiring territory in combat formation with one another.

Maier: Soldiers, fields.

Miller: Sure. Exactly.

Miller: The popularity of boxing.

Masur: Precisely. The most popular sport in the period. You have round and round of boxers pummeling each other. And even by the time they move away from that, and put on gloves, you have images of these fights. It’s the most popular spectator sport in America. And the audience sits there and has blood lust that these figures of these powerful men going at it, coming at you, into the ring. That sense of muscularity, that sense of strength. You can see it time and again in the images of the period as workers expose their bodies to show their muscles as other figures continue to engage in this battle. This battle for nothing less than survival.

Miller: Some historians argue that it wasn’t democracy that we were known for in the 19th century.

Maier: And the railroads.

Miller: And the argument that we were known for being a nation of builders — builders of skyscrapers and these great arching bridges, like the Brooklyn Bridge and these stupendous, roaring steel mills. And that’s what people were taken to. You know, that was the glamour of America. That’s what America had to export to the rest of the world. That’s what they saw as the modernization.

Martin: I think we’ve underplayed the point that Pauline made so eloquently earlier. And that is, this is a democratic republic founded on Constitutional premises and that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and all those values are fundamental. And that, in a lot of ways, I think throughout the 19th century, people who look at this nation see it differently as a result of that.

Brinkley: I don’t really see that, Waldo, at the time of the Civil War. What people in Europe would have been seeing is that we are at each other’s throats. And this experiment is about to disintegrate.

Martin: But I think what it shows is the complexity, the difficulty. How, you know, it’s a nation with a very brief history. And you create a structure and over time, you see how that structure might work.

Masur: But in some ways, we’re going to look at a legacy from the period. The fact that the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were passed, they probably couldn’t have been passed under any other circumstances. Right! They were passed as conditions for the southern states to come back into the Union. I mean, those will serve as an important legacy. If not for a Civil Rights movement in the 1870s, then certainly for one in the 1960s.

Maier: And it meant that those who are arguing for a real equality could do it under law. That the law was already on the books. You just had to realize the promise that had already been made as a commitment.

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Visual Footnote

Masur: America at its Centennial was envisioned in dramatically different ways by those living through the times. Red Horse, a Sioux warrior, painted at least 40 pictographs of Custer in the Little Big Horn. In his telling, there is little that is heroic. Warriors go about the business of destroying an invading army. And the brutalities are rendered simply as facts of battles.

In 1881, John Mulvaney offered a triumphal narrative of the same event. Custer is dressed in uniform and with saber in hand. Though in actuality, he had neither that day. He holds off the fateful moment of his death.

Walt Whitman viewed the painting as the epitome of what he called the “western phase” of America. Nothing like it in Homer or Shakespeare, he said.

Not only troops wound West, but trains as well. On May 10, 1869, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific joined at Promontory, Utah and the first trans-continental line was completed. Andrew Russell took a photograph of the moment as men and machine unite in triumph and celebration.

But not everyone applauded industrial technology. In the summer of 1877, workers went on strike against the leading railroad companies, which had slashed wages. When the government called out troops, strikers attacked the engines and tracks at the center of their grievance.

Whatever tensions existed, Americans tried repeatedly to depict the westward movement as one of progress. John Gast portrayed Liberty as the star of empire, leading technology and commerce into the darkness of the frontier.

Some images sought to confirm the divinely ordained destiny of the nation. A popular print in the 1870s was William Henry Jackson’s Mountain of the Holy Cross, a peak located near the Continental Divide.

But other photographers raised questions about the meaning of the landscape. Timothy O’Sullivan took pictures of ancients ruins, of a human form shrouded in steam rising from a chasm, and of blinding sand dunes with a carriage and horses paused in time, the tracks and footprints soon to be erased.

America was old as well as new. Destructive as well as regenerative. And the land had a secret history that was all its own.


Haworth, Paul L. The Hayes-Tilden Disputed Election of 1876. [Originally published in 1906] New York: Russell and Russell, 1979.

Kirkland, Edward C. Industry Comes of Age: Business, Labor, and Public Policy, 1860-1897. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961.

McFeely, William S. Grant: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1981.

Panzeri, Peter F. Little Big Horn 1876: Custer’s Last Stand. Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing Co., 1999.

Rydell, Robert W. All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916.Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Viola, Herman J. Little Big Horn Remembered: The Untold Indian Story of Custer’s Last Stand. New York: Times Books, 1999.


Ulysses S. Grant  
Offers a Grant chronology with links and images.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Susan B. Anthony


Sitting Bull

Crazy Horse

Frederick Douglass

  • Africans in America – Frederick Douglass  
    Biographical information on Frederick Douglass. Includes a reference to the Narrative. Provides a link to a portrait of Douglass.
  • Frederick Douglass  
    Provides links to different stages of Douglass’s life and career.
  • A Short Biography of Frederick Douglass  
    A short biography of Frederick Douglass with links to three of his speeches.

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A Biography of America


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