A Graceful History of Illinois
The new Illinois that emerged from the Civil War
December 23, 1977
The conversion of a “wildness” into a prosperous farming state was only one of the transformations undergone by Illinois in the 19th century, and not the most astounding. Converting a field into a farm is easy; converting an old lake bed into a massive steel works is altogether harder. The concluding three decades or so of the 1800s were as traumatic—socially and economically—as the war that triggered that change. Almost too much happened, but historian Keiser makes it intelligible.
Reviewed: Building for the Centuries: Illinois, 1865 to 1898 by John H. Keiser. The Sesquicentennial History of Illinois, Vol. 4, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1977
In 1870 the ghost of Abraham Lincoln still lay over Illinois. But the world Lincoln knew was dead or dying; like the Union itself, Illinois emerged from the Civil War changed. Building for the Centuries by John H. Keiser tells how much.
Keiser's new book about the final four decades of the 19th century, was published by the University of Illinois Press as part of a history of Illinois commissioned in honor of Illinois' sesquicentennial in 1968. (There will be six volumes in all, three reprinted from a half century ago and three more, including Keiser's, which together will carry the state's story forward to 1968.) Keiser is more profitably employed as vice-president for academic affairs at Sangamon State University, but he is an historian by training. Though this is his first book, he has written numerous award-winning articles and also authors a weekly newspaper column on Illinois history.
Keiser started the book while teaching at Eastern Illinois University, and only one of the remarkable things about the book is that its author managed to complete it while continuing to teach at his new school and holding down the demanding job as academic vice president—a post which has provided precious little of the tranquility usually thought essential to the scholar's work.
Robert P. Howard, retired journalist and dean of Illinois historians, is familiar with the work in both its manuscript and its published form. He liked it both ways and has said so in print. Howard has also noted in private conversations that Keiser writes in a "quiet style." Building is quietly written—I might prefer the word "gracefully" if it did not mean contradicting a writer of Howard's accomplishments—but it is far from dull. Keiser had the general reader in mind rather than the academic, for which we can all be grateful, even though his documentation is first-rate and his bibliography voluminous.
There is a delicate balance between providing enough small-case detail to make an historical point comprehensible and broad strokes which, by putting detail in context, makes it intelligible. It is a headache familiar to anyone who's tried to do historical writing: Err on the side of detail and the result is splintered, a sort of shopping list prose; err in the other direction and the result is lighter-than-air generalizations which, without specific examples to nail them down to earth, tend to float away: Keiser has managed to avoid both extremes for the most part.
Building for the Centuries (the title is taken from a speech by Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld) takes the conventional concerns of the historian—politics and government, industry, agriculture, society and culture—and appropriates them as an organizational scheme. The book also provides useful appendices which list data about the origin of the state's polyglot citizenry, the growth of its manufactures, and the ebb and flow of its political opinion, among other things. There are no pictures—a disappointment to many readers who would rather look at history than learn about it—but it is not a crucial lack.
Building ranges the breadth and width of the state. It stops at little coal mining towns like Braidwood, "one of many towns in Illinois with little but the presence of a seam of coal to explain its existence"; at Chicago, "the ultimate city," that grew from merely the largest city in Illinois in 1860 to "a robust and ribald giant"; Springfield the capital, where by the end of the Civil War "politicians sought entertainment instead of providing it" (which, Keiser deadpans, was "in contrast to earlier years").
The range of subject matter is equally broad. It covers ground from the women's rights movement (whose leaders were castigated by a Chicago paper in the 1890s for "harping on from morning till night" with "preposterous twaddle" about women entering the professions) to agricultural esoterica (Henry Haaff, author of The Practical Dehorner, or Every Man His Own Dehorner, was tried for cruelty to animals in 1885 for sawing the horns off cattle.) Such incidents not only illustrate the diversity of Reiser's subject matter but also point out the perils of being a reformer in any field.
The diversity of life in Illinois has been noted, more often by visitors than natives, who tend to accept as ordinary its sometimes extraordinary richness. It was during the last third of the last century that Illinois rose to the top of the ranks of states. Agriculture, aided by an explosion of clever machines (many of them invented by Illinoisans) grew into an industry. Coal mining exploded, railroads snaked across the state, factories boomed.
The problems caused by this expansion matched it in magnitude. On the partisan level, political events followed a predictable course; Republicans dominated in the statehouse, largely because the Democrats were "unable to shake the disloyal image painted of them by their antebellum pro-slavery stand and by opposition to the Civil War." On other levels things weren't so simple. As Keiser notes, "the challenges of industrialization and urbanization were too new, too powerful and too complex to be met squarely by the politics of the era," especially since politics (and government, politics' more respectable other face) was still operating according to the tenets of the simpler agrarian society which gave it rise. The reform age was still a decade or two away, though the impulse to reform was gathering momentum as politics slid in thirty years from the hysteria of Reconstruction to the hypocrisies of corruption.
Rapid industrialization also gave rise to the labor movement, which in Illinois had a bloody history. "Industrialization" is a convenient shorthand for basic economic changes that sent more and more women into factories, drew idle hands off the farms and into the cities, and centralized production and eventually marketing (the last reflected in the success of the mail order houses like Sears and Roebuck). Unionism had a labored birth in the Prairie State, and the Haymarket riot was only the most infamous of the real battles between capital and labor.
Much about life in Illinois during these years was raw, unformed, rough. Life was hard; "for the new immigrant, the miner, the sweated factory worker," Keiser observes, it was "a dawn to dusk struggle for a grey survival." But in spite of this, or perhaps, looking back, because of it, culture flourished. The Chicago school of architecture took root and was transplanted to cities across the country. Newspapers thrived. New libraries (four dozen of them paid for by steelman Andrew Carnegie) were opened. Tax supported common schools were made mandatory in 1870. True, much of the state's cultural blossoming would have to wait until the next century, when talents like Masters, Lindsay and Sandburg would make Illinois' name familiar in literary circles around the globe. But the years from 1865 to 1898 were for the arts (as it was also in politics) a critical incubation period.
In his conclusion (honestly labeled "Conclusion" instead of the fancier and more commonplace "epilogue") Keiser says, "Illinois in 1900 was building for the centuries. It was forging vast combinations and programs necessary for a lasting empire. It was a rich and powerful state. Its natural resources were being exploited with great success; its population was busy and productive. But the problems of this new time were not yet acknowledged, and final solutions were a long way from coming."
The fact that good history is hard to write is only one reason why there's so little of it around. The market for history, especially regional history, is pitifully small. Were the job of underwriting historical writing left to the commercial houses unaided by foundation grants, university sponsorship or, as was the case with Keiser's book, government aid, there would be little history written—something like Paul Angle's Bloody Williamson if we're lucky, something like The Lincoln Conspiracy if we're not. All this has no direct bearing on Building for the Centuries, except to make us that much more grateful whenever books of its quality manage to find their way into print. ●