The Oligarchs’ Revenge (Review)

Historians in the News
tags: Civil War, Reconstruction, Heather Cox Richardson, White Supremacy, Oligarchy

The average person may be forgiven for thinking that the South actually won the Civil War. Despite a brief experiment in interracial democracy during the Reconstruction years, for much of its history the region has upheld a regime of brutal racial subordination. In the late 19th century, after the overthrow of Reconstruction, many of its state governments disenfranchised Black men, instituted racial segregation, condoned racial terrorism and violence, and kept a majority of Black and white Southerners economically bound through sharecropping, debt peonage, convict lease labor, and tenancy. By the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt called the South the nation’s No. 1 economic problem, resistant to unionization and social policies. Even today it leads in indices for poverty and weak educational systems. The Jim Crow South was upended by the civil rights revolution. Yet even in defeat, its language of oligarchy and its opposition to progressive political and economic policies through an appeal to racism has been adopted by the modern Republican Party.

This is the argument presented in Heather Cox Richardson’s new book, How the South Won the Civil War. Throughout American history, she contends, the forces of oligarchy and democracy have been involved in a mortal struggle for the nation’s future, and she wants to show how the visions of oligarchy have often won out—how, in other words, we got from the era of emancipation and Confederate defeat to the presidency of Donald Trump. A history professor at Boston College, Richardson has written numerous books on the Civil War and Reconstruction as well as on the Republican Party, and she draws from her considerable scholarly oeuvre for this slim and accessible volume. Known for her newsletter Letters From an American, which seeks to explain current political events through a historical lens, she deftly demonstrates her skill writing for a public audience in How the South Won the Civil War. Arguing that the slaveholders’ idea of an oligarchic America triumphed with the growth of the second American oligarchy in the latter half of the 20th century, Richardson shows how the rise of movement conservatism, as personified by Barry Goldwater in his 1964 presidential campaign, came to embody this vision of an oligarchic America. The new oligarchy’s triumph—one that combined economic domination with racial inequality—lay in a political alliance between the South and the West, Richardson argues, and in the Republican presidencies of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, and finally Trump. Her interpretive scheme is simple yet also compelling and clear. The title of the book, of course, is not meant literally, but Richardson does show that while the South lost the Civil War, it eventually, in many respects, won the peace.

According to Richardson, the unending struggle between American democracy and oligarchy began with the birth of the nation. Many historians of early America have argued that the ideology of the American Revolution was democratic republicanism, born during the English Civil War in the 17th century and then embraced by the colonies. As the quintessential radical of the Age of Revolution, Thomas Paine, proclaimed, “The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind.” But not all historians agree that this republicanism was the sole ideology then in circulation in North America. As Edmund Morgan observes in American Slavery, American Freedom, the seeming paradox of American republicanism was the simultaneous emergence of slavery and freedom in the colonial world. From the outset, the American idea of freedom was exclusive: It was for property-owning men only and was based on the enslavement of people of African descent. The Virginian founding fathers solved the problem of inequality by simply enslaving a racially outcast working poor and at the same time elevating the status of all white men, slaveholders and nonslaveholders alike.

For Richardson, the American paradox is a bit different: Slavery and democracy were opposing forces rather than constitutive of each other. She traces the birth of oligarchy, democracy’s enemy, to the ship that brought about 20 enslaved Africans to the British North American mainland in 1619. From then until today, she argues, the history of the United States has been a history of the conflict between democracy and oligarchy. For Morgan, American democracy was based on slavery; for Richardson, though she relies on Morgan’s book, American oligarchy has always rested on combining elite domination with racial and economic inequality. Ever since the arrival of that ship, she maintains, the American republic has allowed its elites to conflate “class and race,” thereby giving them “the language to take over the government and undermine democracy.”

Read entire article at The Nation