An important reason to read history is to gain a perspective on current events. If you watch exclusively mainstream media television, particularly Fox News, you might be forgiven for the belief that things in this country are the worst they have ever been in history. “1877: America’s Year of Living Violently” by Michael Bellisiles is one effective antidote to that impression.

The panic of 1873, when a post-Civil War speculative bubble burst, launched a depression that lasted until 1879. By Christmas of 1876, whatever centennial spirit there was had mostly dissipated. The litany of complaints would be familiar to viewers of Fox News today:

“In Chicago, the journalist Mark “Brick” Pomeroy, a man not known or temperate behavior, published a laundry list of disasters facing the nation: the political parties were “manipulating” election returns, the nation “is filling up with tramps,” “bankruptcies are the order of the day,” the people elsewhere afraid to defend their rights, the prisons ere packed, “famine and despair are entering thousands of homes” while “rich men are growing richer and poor men are growing poorer.” Unemployment, foreclosures, alcoholism “rape, robbery, murder,” all were on the increase.”

Under the 14th Amendment, Black Americans supposedly had the same rights as White Americans. But by 1877, this was far from the reality. Indeed, many of the political forces are depressingly familiar in today’s America, with the Democratic Party then in the role of today’s Republican Party:

“The nation may have officially been reunified by the Civil War, but at the time of the 1876 presidential election there was every indication that the divide between the white South and the North remained as wide as ever, with the Democratic Party firmly identified as the party of Southern white racists. Theoretically, such a division should not have mattered, as democracy handed power to the majority. In 1876 the majority in several Southern states consisted of Republicans, black and white. But from the point of view of white Democrats, such a vision of democracy was inaccurate and traitorous to the race, for the South belonged to white men, and among that group Democrats predominated. White racists therefore felt completely justified in using any means necessary, from legal barriers to violent intimidation, to keep blacks from the polls.”

By 1876, Democrats won elections throughout the south by voter suppression. In districts were Republicans won, the threat of violence insured that they didn’t hold office. Hayes won the presidential election by a single electoral college vote, although historians agree that a fair election would have given him a much larger margin. Down ballot elections in the South were rife with corruption, too, with Democrats stealing a majority in the House of Representatives.

The outcome of the Tilden-Hayes presidential race was hotly contested. A committee in the Democratic-dominated House found that Tilden won, while a committee in the Republican-dominated Senate found Hayes won. The threats of violence made the January 6th riots in 2021 seem dignified. Grant ordered troops and a warship to guard key thoroughfares in Washington DC. Members of Congress began bringing pistols to the Capitol. A bullet was fired into the Hayes home in Columbus Ohio while the family was at dinner.

Eventually, Hayes gained the White House, whereupon he abandoned Southern Blacks and poor Whites to racist violence. Democrats seized power by force in several Southern states, and marauding gangs of armed Whites murdered many of those who attempted to assert their Constitutional rights to speak and vote. As Bellisiles puts it, “In 1877, Southern Whites accepted union and Northern Whites accepted racism.” Indeed, by 1877, the Confederacy had won the Civil War.

1877 marked the peak and ultimately the violent conclusion of the Indian Wars in the West. After Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn, the federal government fielded enough troops to either subdue the Sioux and Cheyenne or drive them across the Canadian border. William T. Sherman, a union hero of the Civil War, was a merciless villain in his pursuit of native Americans.

Meanwhile, 1877 was “the year of lynching” for California’s Hispanics. And racist attacks on Chinese immigrants, who were brought into California to work on the railroads and whose willingness to work for low wages undercut wages of the White working class and their unions, were frequent targets of violence during this period. To a significant degree, anticorporate sentiment underlay these attacks. As Bellisiles observes: “This concentration of weathe and power into a few hands produced social instability and would lead to greater violence unless stopped.”

The recession fueled conspiracy theories around unemployment and fear of the unemployed and working class; that these were dangerous men who preferred violence to honest work. The “tramp scare” of 1877 grew out of the fact that unemployed men were hitchhiking on trains and camping out in cities and towns hoping to find jobs. These unwashed and unkempt men, unmoored from the routines of jobs and homes, became grist for rumors of violence. Remarkably, though, many or most of the stories were written in one city about another city far away. Similarly, labor violence in the coal fields, fueled by collapse of unions, depressed wages and dangerous working conditions, led to the legendary “Molly Maguires” of Pennsylvania, including the hangings of innocent men with the encouragement of the press and the Catholic Church.

Marx envisioned the revolution leading to socialism and communism as beginning in an industrialized society. He was German, and expected a revolution in Germany, but he also anticipated revolutions in England and, eventually, in the US. 1877 was the first “red scare.” In the popular press, any effort to improve wages for the working class by unions was seen as “communist.” While railroads were shut down by strikes in Pittsburgh and Chicago, the closest thing to a commune occurred in St. Louis. Ultimately, rail strikes across the country brought the nation’s transportation network to a standstill, and with it, most of the enterprises that depended on it. But in spite of tens of thousands of supporters and their willingness to include Black workers, the combination of troops and the unwillingness to use violence by the workers made this historic uprising short-lived. In terms of violence, most of the bloodshed committed at these various labor uprisings was committed by police or troops. Corporations commandeered local, state and federal government, the police and military and the courts to violently defend their wealth and prerogatives.

This is a superbly written and highly readable narrative. There are extensive footnotes. While I was generally aware of some of the events covered, the details and causal linkages in this book colored out for me why this particular year was pivotal in US history. Far from being sui generis, 1877 had many of the same struggles we face in the third decade of the 21st century: the country still hasn’t fully recovered from a major recession, there is a substantial cadre of unemployed, inflation-corrected wages for the working class have been flat for decades while inflation-corrected wealth of the top 1% skyrockets, the right-wing press sows discord, racism is still pervasive, the right bleats “communist” about everything it disagrees with, and gun violence is alarmingly pervasive and growing.