How the South Won the Civil War

By Heather Cox Richardson

Books on history directed at a general audience tend to run to two extremes: either doorstops that go over the same old ground in ever greater detail or brief introductions that look to cover a subject quickly, picking out only a couple of salient points with little depth of analysis.

Despite agreeing with much of what Heather Cox Richardson says in How the South Won the Civil War, I came away thinking it ended up being the worst of both these worlds.

The basic idea, and it is very basic, has it that American political history has been a constant conflict of democracy and equality (good) vs. oligarchy/hierarchy and liberty (bad). At first blush you may think placing liberty on the dark side a slip, but it’s really a function of what Richardson sees, in blurry terms, as the American paradox, one “that sits at the heart of our nation.” The paradox has it that “equality for white men depended on inequality for people of color and women.” It’s equality as a zero sum game: there’s only so much of it to go around. This leads to a corollary of the paradox: that equality for everyone leads to the end of liberty (that is, for white men).

This is history painted in broad strokes, and in a rush. How the South Won the Civil War covers the entire political history of the U.S., from colonial days to the Trump years, dealing with matters foreign and domestic, in just 200 pages. Breaking it down, the historical-geographical narrative is that oligarchy reached its perfect form in the Old South, was defeated by the forces of equality in the Civil War, but then mounted a comeback through western expansion, the myth of the cowboy, and the rise of “movement conservatism.” As a pull quote: “The resurrection of antebellum southern ideology through the rise of the western individualist rewrote American history.” At the end of this process, which is where we are today, oligarchy is very much back in the saddle, though with “women voters and voters of color” leading a pushback.

There is support for a lot of what Richardson has to say, especially with regard to the New Deal as the progressive version of the lost cause, the swing from the post-WW2 Great Compression to the post-Reagan Great Divergence, and the success of the Republican “Southern strategy.” But beyond the generalities her argument has a lot of problems.

In the first place, as Ronald Syme wrote in The Roman Revolution, “In all ages, whatever the name and form of government, be it monarchy, republic, or democracy, an oligarchy lurks behind the façade.” That is, whether you want to call Rome a republic or an empire, it was always ruled, not by “the people” or a dictator, but by a governing class. Richardson, however, is not much interested in class. As with so many contemporary academic commentators she prefers to see everything in categories of identity like race and gender. The heroes of her story are thus those women voters and voters of color while white men are the whipping boys. Movement conservatism, for example, was driven in its early years by “young white men whose easy future was no longer ensured,” clinging “to the idea they were special.” A lot of hate went into the writing of that sentence.

By eschewing class for identity politics Richardson does a lot of work for the Right, who want to fight using this language. She also has to ignore facts like Hillary Clinton losing to Donald Trump in 2016 among white women voters, and Trump’s surge in popularity among women and Hispanic voters in 2020. What is driving this? I don’t think using the lens of race and gender is very helpful, or very hopeful, here. (For what it’s worth, I’ll point here to where I’ve previously placed my own favourite whipping boys, the Boomers, in the stocks. Though not the sole guilty party — no single demographic is — I think they have the most to answer for, and help make sense of the nearly identical authoritarian shift in Britain at the same time.)

I mentioned the broad strokes that a history covering so much material in so few pages has to paint in. As we’re swept along readers may find themselves wanting to dig their heels in. Yes, the mythology of the West has at its center the rugged individual who, because he’s an individual, is basically locked in a battle-to-the-death with the world. And because of its historical grounding it certainly comes with a lot of sexist and racist baggage. As a genre, the Western carries a political message. But is it really anti-government? Outlaws aren’t always heroes.  John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) has to be set against My Darling Clementine (1946). And while Star Wars (1977) may be “the classic western story mythologized into space,” its politics are a lot more complicated than just a rainbow coalition fighting a giant, evil bureaucracy with the power of the Force. The Rebel Alliance includes hereditary monarchies. The Force has both a good and a dark side. Where does such a discussion really take us?

I wouldn’t say the South won the Civil War so much as American history shows us different oligarchic factions jockeying for power using the language of equality and liberty in self-serving ways. To be sure, the mythmaking on the Right involves bigger and more dangerous lies, as I think the history surveyed here makes clear. But perhaps the main takeaway I had, and it’s one I found particularly disappointing and not at all Richardson’s fault, was that this sort of analysis doesn’t help that much when considering the present situation not only in America but Western democracies in general. What we’re seeing is a different kind of system breakdown, driven by new forces (environmental, demographic, technological) we still have little understanding of. Meanwhile, liberty and equality don’t mean what they used to, and fraternity disappeared from the face of the earth nearly a century ago. We need a new language of revolution.

Review first published online April 21, 2023.

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