From Publishers Weekly
If you think the United States has problems today, try 1877. That single year, according to historian Bellesiles, saw an unprecedented surge in lynchings, racism, homicides, army attacks on Indians, labor violence (including a near national general strike), quack theories to explain it all, and a political crisis whose resolution on the backs of African-Americans scarred the nation until Johnson's Great Society. Offering a thorough review of this crisis-ridden year, Bellesiles, author of the controversial Arming America, makes the case that 1877 was also a year of breakthroughs in thought and creativity (Thomas Edison made the first voice recording, and Wannamaker's, the first department store, opened). But it is the violence that preoccupies the author, and he attributes it at least in part to Americans, in the midst of a depression, struggling "to come to terms with their new industrial society...." No reader will come away from this sobering work without a greater understanding of violence so extreme that contemporaries and numerous historians have commented on it (one historians called it "a symbol of shock, of the possible crumbling of society"). It's not easy reading, but it is solid, deeply informed history.
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Lionized with the prestigious Bancroft Prize, Bellesiles’ Arming America (2000) scandalized historians when a committee of academics found him “guilty of unprofessional and misleading work.” The Bancroft was rescinded, and Bellesiles resigned his professorship from Emory. The present work is his bid to redeem his reputation. Sizing up a newsworthy year of a disputed presidential election, the termination of Reconstruction, the army’s pursuit of the Nez Percé Indians, a nationwide railroad strike, and gunplay in the Old West, Bellesiles extensively mines a verifiable source: newspapers. Quoting dispatches from small towns to burgeoning cities, Bellesiles succeeds in conveying an unsettled time of economic depression and class and racial conflict. A resumption of civil war appeared possible; southern blacks were terrorized back into subservience; and industrial strife upended Pittsburgh and St. Louis. Bellesiles also profiles a number of individuals prominent in 1877: both scoundrels such as Billy the Kid and reformers such as Frances Willard, an activist in the temperance and women’s suffrage movements. Absent challenges to its footnotes, this work should revive its author’s standing as it informs readers about 1877. --Gilbert Taylor