American Oligarchy: ‘How the South Won the Civil War’Historians in the News
tags: Reconstruction, Southern history, Confederacy
The year 2020 has raised a number of existential questions for our country. The pandemic is exposing cracks in our health-care and economic systems as COVID-19 disproportionately takes the lives of Black Americans. Protesters march in the streets in every major American city to demand an end to racism in our system of policing. Amid these national debates about injustice in some of our biggest institutions, we ask ourselves: What kind of country are we, and what kind of country should we be?
In her new book How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, Heather Cox Richardson contends that the United States was founded on a “paradox”: a North that tended toward democracy, and a South designed for oligarchy. Although the Union defeated the Confederate Army, Richardson writes, the Civil War did not eliminate the Confederate worldview; instead, the American West became a place for this oligarchic ideology to grow and spread. While Richardson overstates the racially egalitarian nature of the North, she does effectively trace the movement of this Confederate oligarchic ideology from the Southern Democrats of the nineteenth century to the modern Republican Party. Today, she argues, we have reached a watershed moment: either we will guarantee the rights and freedoms of civic participation to all, or we will risk allowing a small group of oligarchs to dictate the lives and interests of the rest.
The North may have won the military conflict, but the oligarchic ideology was not stamped out. Richardson argues compellingly that instead it transformed and migrated. Former Confederates founded the Ku Klux Klan, engaging in guerrilla attacks to resist Northern rule. Others moved westward, where Westerners had created a racial hierarchy in the midst of expansion. White Americans seized land from Mexican ranchers, passed laws to restrict the number of Chinese immigrants coming to the West Coast, and waged brutal wars against the Native Americans inhabiting the Great Plains. What emerged in the West over the course of 1860s and 1870s was the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few ranchers and industrialists, and the rejection of Lincoln’s concept of a government dedicated to equality for all.
Over time, Richardson writes, the South and the West formed a political coalition that would continue into the twentieth century. While cowboys moved west, Southern Democrats passed legislation to limit the voting capabilities of former black slaves following Reconstruction. Former Confederate politicians, such as the Confederacy’s Vice President Alexander Stephens, were elected to serve in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, but Southern Democrats fought the integration of former slaves into society. Playing on the fear generated by the rise of a thinker named Karl Marx, the Democrats warned that handouts to black laborers would lead to a socialist state; instead, Southern Democrats argued, the government should move to protect the freedom and individual rights of white workers. Lauding the white American cowboy as an emblematic of real American freedom—rather than a government that enforced equality—Southern Democrats found eager supporters in the West.
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