Thursday, July 23, 2015

Civic Wars, by Mary P. Ryan

This week I'm reviewing a book by Mary P. Ryan titled Civic Wars, which is an attempt on the part of the author to analyze and make sense of civic life in three American cities between roughly 1825 and 1880. By the author's own admission she also attempts to draw parallels with the era of the book's writing, the mid 1990's, and make predictions about the trajectory of American cities in the twenty-first century. This is certainly an audacious attempt and the result is it comes across as poor history because of its very attempt to predict the future based on events of the past. Although I'm sure every historian has had that temptation, myself included, it ultimately smacks of hubris to try and predict the flow of events. Although in hindsight the worries of the 1990's seem almost trivial compared to the increasingly militarized police state and stagnant economy we've been facing in recent years.

I will confess some initial hesitation in going into my review of this book because I am certainly no expert on American urban history. Well, I'm becoming an expert in one city in the United States, but the development of Cincinnati does not necessarily reflect the development of cities in the rest of the country. Furthermore I do not have any claims to fame such as being published in a peer-reviewed journal. However, I do have some serious issues with Ryan's arguments and the conclusions she draws from her research. Along with an invitation in the introduction for other historians to challenge her arguments, I plan to proceed with at least a raising of serious concerns regarding her book.

As I mentioned, this book focuses on the growth and development of three American cities over about half a century of history. Ryan specifically chose New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco because they provide contrasts in culture and in the case of San Francisco very little history. New York is a northern, mercantile, industrial, and rather "American" city, while New Orleans, despite being an equally important port for the United States, is thoroughly southern and has extensive influences from French and Spanish cultures, as well as until the 1860's the experience of slavery. San Francisco, finally, is little more than a Spanish mission until the gold rush of 1849 and grows explosively as a city, in some level of isolation due to its location on the other side of the continent. Ryan ties all three cities together by similar events and ideologies that take precedence in the cities through the nineteenth century, showing a shared urban development in the increasing industrialization of the 1800's.

The arc of Ryan's narrative talks about how New York and New Orleans, at least, being under an enlightened, Republican patriarchy where wealthy landowners engage in government out of a sense of obligation to provide for the greater good. This smacks very much of Gordon Wood's utopian interpretation of the late colonial and early American period in his Radicalism of the American Revolution. However, Ryan also delights in the expansion of the franchise under Jacksonian Democracy and the emphasis on public meetings and the "common man". As the country enters the 1850's, however, things begin to turn violent and nativist sentiment runs high against immigrants, with some nativists seizing control of local governments through violent coups. This violence continues into the Civil War, and afterwards the effort becomes putting the cities back together. However, increased corruption of machine politicians creates discontent with American politics, spawning reform movements. Increasingly government becomes dominated by secret caucuses of wealthy interest groups. Public meetings increasingly decline, and there even is a movement to restrict the franchise, already secured as the privilege of white men, to once again institute property requirements on voting. Ryan concludes with the gloomy prospect, jumping forward to the 1990's as well, that decreasing participation in the electoral process has lead to a decline in American democracy and only increased public participation can hope to revive it.

To first address her historical conclusions, the first problem I had was her assertion that the nativist struggles of the 1850's were merely a prelude to the American Civil War and they are in fact connected. Personally, I find this assertion patently false because it's trying to draw a connection between two very different phenomenons. The nativist movements of the 1850's, such as the Know-Nothings, were motivated by a large influx of immigrants to the United States in the 1840's and 1850's. This influx was caused by a number of factors, including cheaper oceanic transportation making immigration an option for a wider class of people, the political struggles on the European continent of 1848, increasing industrialization which reduced the demand for traditionally skilled labor, as well as the devastating potato famine in Ireland. This influx of immigrants caused the established Anglo-Protestant majority to become threatened, especially for example in Cincinnati where 40% of the population by 1860 were recent arrivals. The nativist movement is a response by Anglo-Protestants to the threat of being marginalized in a country by immigrants (many of whom are Catholic), and so their actions are focused on maintaining the political and economic superiority of their group.

The American Civil War, by contrast, is essentially about slavery. Now, I'm sure there's plenty of people who just read that and exclaimed. "But, Kalpar! What about states' rights?" Well, yes, the state's right to enslave people based on their skin color. The Civil War is motivated because of a desire by the south to expand their agricultural, slave-based economy, which came into conflict with the northern free-labor, increasingly industrial economy. With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, who did not initially seek to end slavery, merely contain it, the fear that slavery would go extinct with no room to expand precipitated the Civil War. Ryan's assertion that the primarily urban, immigration based nativist struggles are a direct ancestor to the slavery-centric, national struggle of the Civil War is an attempt to draw a causational relationship when no correlation even exists.

After the Civil War there is, of course, the problem about enfranchising black men. Radical Republicans, who had fought so hard for the abolition of slavery, ardently support this expansion of the franchise in the Reconstruction South. This, of course, meets significant opposition from the white population which remains after Reconstruction ends and begins the process of rolling back the reforms of the Radical Republicans. Meanwhile,  New York previously had expanded the franchise to black men, but had instituted a property requirement when none had existed for white men, but the franchise remains rather limited in New York. Despite the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, the right to vote remained highly restricted to non-whites, and even in San Francisco the Chinese population, the focus of much of the racially-based rhetoric in San Francisco, was denied the right to vote. Although there is some rumblings about reducing the right to vote to taxpayers in the 1870's, the right to vote remains the privilege of white men. Ryan asserts that this is a turn away from the Jacksonian efforts of the earlier 1800's, extending the franchise to all white men and removing the property requirements previously attached. However, once the Jacksonians secure the right to vote for white men, they were never interested in expanding the electorate beyond that. The claim seems wholly inadequate considering racial ideology becomes black vs. white rather than native vs. immigrant.

Throughout this book Ryan also includes over forty illustrations to provide further support to her arguments, citing cultural evidence. The problem with this inclusion is that many of the pictures are referenced only obliquely in her arguments and are given no explanation whatsoever. An image taken out of context can be interpreted to mean whatever you want it to mean, so the prime importance in including images in an argument is providing the necessary historical context to support your interpretation. Ryan does succeed in providing adequate context for some of the images, however an equal number are simply thrown in, as if to add flavor, and fail to add any real substance to her historical arguments.

The final thing that really struck me was the inclusion of the Workingmen's Party of California (WPC). By Ryan's own admission the WPC, despite uniting labor from numerous sectors of the economy, and being some of the early clashes of labor and capital in the late nineteenth century, the WPC ultimately focused on a racial agenda and the exclusion of Chinese immigrants. Ryan tries to tie the WPC to later labor movements, specifically because it includes the usage of terms such as labor and capital, but the WPC does not focus on an eight hour day or better wages or increased business regulations. Instead, it focuses on the exclusion of Chinese labor from competition with free white labor, ultimately pushing for the Chinese Exclusion Act. This has very little to anything to do with labor struggles that would come to dominate American economics and politics. The fact that Ryan cuts off at 1880, before the Populist and Progressive movements, further undermines her arguments, especially since they involved considerable grassroots support.

The narrative Ryan presents appeared, at least to me, to be meandering, unfocused, and eclectic in its inclusion of sources for the creation of its arguments. It certainly all comes falling apart at the end when the narrative is abruptly halted at 1880 and then jumped a century forward to 1995 to try and make predictions. In so doing, Ryan blatantly ignores a century of American history, acting as if everything that happened in the intervening hundred years was inconsequential in the development of the culture of the 1990's. If anything, the decline of cities and increasing civic isolation we began to notice at the end of the twentieth century was caused by the growth of suburbia and automobile culture, rather than anything from the nineteenth century. Ryan's argument, as far as I'm concerned, ultimately fails to pass scrutiny as it is built on the flimsiest of evidence. Civic Wars simply doesn't work, especially twenty years later.

- Kalpar

No comments:

Post a Comment