I’ve been reading Richard White’s The Republic for Which It Stands, and it’s as good as you’d expect a volume in the Oxford History of the United States by a scholar of White’s caliber to be.
One of the themes he returns to again and again is the importance of “home”—the independent, male-headed household—as a driving force in American history during the late nineteenth century. The home and the values associated with it, White claims, “provided the frame in which ordinary nineteenth-century Americans understood their own lives, the economy, and the national goals of Reconstruction in the South and West.” It links together a lot of seemingly disparate trends and events from the end of the Civil War to the turn of the twentieth century.
The desire to propagate independent households helped form the basis for free labor ideology. Reconstruction was an effort to extend the benefits of the home to African Americans, and those Americans who resisted Reconstruction invoked the need to defend white homes to justify racism. Labor reformers claimed that rapacious capitalism threatened the stability and integrity of households. And in the West, some white Americans attempted to use the idealized, male-headed home as a template for Indian acculturation, while others sought to displace or exterminate those same Indians because of the threat they posed to settlers trying to establish their own independent households. It might not be too much to say that Americans of that era either embraced or rejected any given thing to the same degree that it nurtured or threatened the propagation and protection of independent, male-headed homes.What strikes me about White’s centering of late nineteenth-century American history on the home is that the same framework applies to the backcountry and frontier of a century earlier, my own area of special interest. As Honor Sachs has demonstrated in Home Rule, and as Richard Maxwell Brown has argued in his work on the “homesteading ethic,” the history of the settlement and development of the eighteenth-century West is, to a considerable degree, a story of Americans’ desire to obtain and secure a competency in the form of an independent, male-headed household.
As much as historians like to talk about change over time, the idealization of the home has been a pretty consistent—and persistent—force over the past couple hundred years. Indeed, you can see the same emphasis on the household ideal playing out across a lot of culture war battlegrounds in our own day. But precisely because these ideals are so ubiquitous and ingrained, we risk overlooking their explanatory power, even though they might come as close as anything else to providing something like a unified theory of American history.