While the North prevailed in the Civil War, ending slavery and giving the country a "new birth of freedom," Heather Cox Richardson argues in this provocative work that democracy's blood-soaked victory was ephemeral. The system that had sustained the defeated South moved westward and there established a foothold. It was a natural fit. Settlers from the East had for decades been pushing into the West, where the seizure of Mexican lands at the end of the Mexican-American War and treatment of Native Americans cemented racial hierarchies. The South and West equally depended on extractive industries-cotton in the former and mining, cattle, and oil in the latter-giving rise a new birth of white male oligarchy, despite the guarantees provided by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, and the economic opportunities afforded by expansion.
To reveal why this happened, How the South Won the Civil War traces the story of the American paradox, the competing claims of equality and subordination woven into the nation's fabric and identity. At the nation's founding, it was the Eastern "yeoman farmer" who galvanized and symbolized the American Revolution. After the Civil War, that mantle was assumed by the Western cowboy, singlehandedly defending his land against barbarians and savages as well as from a rapacious government. New states entered the Union in the late nineteenth century and western and southern leaders found yet more common ground. As resources and people streamed into the West during the New Deal and World War II, the region's influence grew. "Movement Conservatives," led by westerners Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, claimed to embody cowboy individualism and worked with Dixiecrats to embrace the ideology of the Confederacy.
Richardson's searing book seizes upon the soul of the country and its ongoing struggle to provide equal opportunity to all. Debunking the myth that the Civil War released the nation from the grip of oligarchy, expunging the sins of the Founding, it reveals how and why the Old South not only survived in the West, but thrived.
In this incisive, politically minded history, Boston College professor Richardson (West from Appomattox) argues that Barry Goldwater's "movement conservatism" which she claims has overtaken the Republican Party during the past 50 years "embrace the same ideas" that undergirded slavery and sparked the Civil War. Tracing the origins of those beliefs to the "great paradox" of America's founding documents ("the concept that all men are created equal' depended on the idea that the ringing phrase all men' did not actually include everyone"), Richardson contends that throughout U.S. history, wealthy white men have enhanced and enshrined their power by stoking the fears of poor and working-class white men that women and minorities are poised to become their equals. She documents how post-Reconstruction settlement shaped the West, building an economy based on resource extraction (just like the antebellum South); tracks the formation of political alliances between Western and Southern conservatives; and concludes that Donald Trump's cultivation of white supremacist support has "stripped off whatever genteel veneer remained on Republican ideology." Though Richardson underemphasizes the prevalence of racism, sexism, and inequality in other parts of the country during and following the Civil War, she marshals a wealth of evidence to support the book's provocative title. Conservatives will cry foul, but liberal readers will be persuaded by this lucid jeremiad.
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This review of our history, from the Civil War to the Trump presidency, makes it clear that our current problems were in play along before the 2016 election. The choice we face today between oligarchy and democracy is a replay of the 1860s, according to Richardson. If she is right (and I believe she is) then the 2020 election may well be our last chance to save democracy. Recommended.