Southerners were not the only Americans whose lives were transformed during the decades immediately following the Civil War. Northerners did not face the same challenges of political reconstruction or economic transition in the aftermath of slavery, but they did face a series of revolutionary experiences. Students in History 118 should be able to identify the main social, political and economic forces that ripped apart the North during the 1870s and 1880s, but they should also be able to explain the story of westward expansion in great depth. That was a story of unexpected complexity, one that can be at least partially summarized through a close reading of this famous painting by John Gast, entitled, “American Progress,” (1872).
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What I see from looking at this picture is that while the settlers moving west in the painting are not actively trying to chase the native americans out of the land, they are still doing so. A herd of bison, a tribe of indians, and various wildlife are seen running fearfully away from the advancing settlers and the technology that follows them (Steam locomotive, the city in the background, etc). The woman in the foreground, presumably an angel, seems to be guiding these settlers west. The book in her hand is titled “school book,” linking progress and westward expansion with education.
Reconstruction in the North was defined by new forms of industrial organization: specifically the railroad network. Economically, the United States underwent a shift away from the cotton mill to an industrialized economy centered perhaps most prominently around the railroad industry. At that time, the largest corporation in the country was the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, which had over 6,000 miles of track across the continental territory. With great economic focus on this emerging industry came great political corruption, particularly under President Ulysses S. Grant. Legislators often held stock in the lumber and railroad companies leading to biased judgement in terms of the allocation of land and the regulation of the enterprise. One tidbit that I found most compelling was the National Mineral act of 1866. This act stipulated for the distribution of MILLIONS of acres of land to mining companies for FREE; at that same time freedmen within the United States were allowed nothing. When land was fairly distributed to them, it was promptly taken away.