How the South Won the Civil War by Heather Cox Richardson

TitleHow the South Won the Civil War
Sub TitleOligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America.
AuthorHeather Cox Richardson
TypeNon Fiction
FinishedFebruary 28, 2021

For months Carla had been raving about Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters from an American” which she writes and sends almost every day. Yeah, whatever. Then when we were out on a long drive to get a change of scenery during COVID, Richardson appeared on a talk show we were listening to. After listening for a bit I turned to Carla: “Oh! This is the woman you have been so excited about!” This was just around the time of the treasonous insurrection at the US Capital in January. I loved her succinct style and explanations. As soon as we got home I subscribed to her daily letter (which you can find here) and ordered this book. Her daily letter brings the events of the day casting it in the light of US history.

Richardson discusses how the tension between equality and the oligarchy of rich white men have gone on for years: from the beginning of slavery in America to the current day. As far back as the 17th century – a hundred years before the declaration of Independence, slave owners started solidifying their position at the top of the heap:

“And there began the paradox. The very men who adhered most vigorously to the Enlightenment concept that all men were created equal held saves. Indeed, their new, radical concept of freedom depended on slavery, for slavery permanently removed the underclass from any hope of influencing government. Virginia leaders had gotten rid of the problem of the poor in society: they had enslaved them. And, of course, they had gotten rid of the problem of women by reading them out of personhood altogether.  What was left – ideologically, anyway – was a minority of  people running the government, a body politic dedicated to the needs of the men of property. And members of that body politic were – ideologically, anyway – identifiable by the handy metric of their skin color.” [Loc 644]

Richardson traces this dynamic from colonial days, through the Civil War and Reconstruction. She then traces how the mythos of the Western cowboy merged with the “simple farmers” of the South whose wishes to act as they wanted was constantly under threat of being  thwarted by equality and democracy. For the oligarchy to be successful, the Federal government must be kept out of their affairs. 

“When poorer men advocated roads or the dredging of harbors to spur economic growth, [Southern] Democrats insisted that any federal assumption of economic activity threatened to crush American liberty.” [Loc 1007] 

Here “liberty” means rich white men doing what they pleased. Any push over the centuries to expand democracy and liberty was met with the howl that if poor, or undeserving people got the vote, they would vote to take away from the oligarchy thus affecting those rich white men’s liberty. Although there has been pushback to this inequality over the years – the Populist and the New Deal – the rights of property triumphs over the rights of the common people. 

The genius of the right has been its ability to use rhetoric and a consistent messaging to get poor whites on their side. The “Movement Conservatives” hit their stride when Nixon and later Newt Gingrich, worked to pull support from Catholics and southern voters from the Democratic Party. 

“[A] key Republican strategist, Kevin Phillips, identified Nixon’s election as the movement that marked the end of the New Deal era and ‘the beginning of a new era in American politics.’The lesson of Nixon’s victory, according to Phillips, was that the Republican Party could dominate politics for a generation by focusing on white voters in the émerging Souther, Western, and New York Irish majority.'” [Loc 3007]

Finally, Richardson follows Trump’s success with his base of poor, uneducated, disaffected whites. They have been told – and believe – that the Federal government is responsible for their problems. It is a new echo of Regan’s claim that government isn’t the solution to the problem, it is the problem. Yet the policies of the Trump administration benefited rich whites much more than his base.

“…[T]he Trump administration reflected the ideology of oligarchy. Government was not designed to promote equality of opportunity by guaranteeing equality before the law. Rather, such meddling interfered with the ability of a few to arrange society as they saw fit; they, and they alone, truly understood what was best for everyone.” [Loc 3483]

Heather Cox Richardson has the ability of great historians to say “see these events today?” and write a  compelling narrative to explain how it started hundreds of years ago and continued to the current day. This book clearly spells out how the suppression and demonization of Blacks by 17th century southern land owners continued to be a successful way of the rich and powerful dominating the 21st century. Read the book, subscribe to her newsletter, or both.

If there is true equality, the oligarchy argues, the poor and lazy will simply enact laws to take money from the rich. We’ve never had a chance to see that when everyone is equal before the law, with the same access to resources, we won’t have a huge pool of takers, we’ll simply have more innovators to really help make the world better. It works so much better for the oligarchy to keep everyone else down than for them to really have to earn their position through progress.

One thought on “How the South Won the Civil War by Heather Cox Richardson

  1. I listen to her Tuesday and Thursday talks, also. So interesting, helpful, and logical.

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