The struggle to provide equal opportunity for all is never finished. Understanding why is crucial toward building a more perfect union. The history behind that fight lies at the heart of Heather Cox Richardson’s searing, provocative, and masterful How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America.
Dr. Richardson is one of our country’s most articulate connectors of events and themes to set today’s political landscape in its broader historical context. In this 2020 book, Richardson breaks down the myth that the Civil War ended oligarchy and cleansed the nation of our founding sin of slavery. She traces the story of the American paradox (the competing claims of equality and subordination) and its corollary (the belief that universal equality will reduce white men to subservience) beginning with the nation’s founding to the growth of the influence of the West. From there she covers the joining of political forces and oligarchs in the South and West leading to today’s fight to overthrow our democracy. The corollary allows oligarchs to tap into the extraordinary strength of the ideology of American freedom, as perpetuated in myths such as the western cowboy, while undermining freedom and liberty for anyone who is not white and male. A key figure of this resistance to democracy is Barry Goldwater.
In Goldwater’s time, “people claiming to be embattled holdouts defending American liberty called themselves ‘Movement Conservatives.’ A century before,” Richardson notes, “their predecessors had called themselves ‘Confederates.'”
In his Washington Post review, Randall J. Stephens captured how Dr. King saw Goldwater.
Martin Luther King Jr., like many other African Americans, believed that Goldwater was a threat to democracy and to the black freedom struggle in the South. In King’s estimation, Goldwater gave “aid and comfort to the racists.” King warned that Goldwater’s campaign was “obviously an attempt to appeal to all of the fearful, the insecure, prejudiced people in our society.”
How the South Won the Civil War is full of surprises, wisdom, and insight. We live in a world where individual states and communities will regularly overturn the will of the majority on issues such as voting rights, pandemic response, and the treatment of women and people of color unless the federal government intervenes. Richardson’s work helps us understand how we went from John C. Calhoun to Donald Trump. Highly recommended.
If this topic piqued your interest, find more to consider in these MTC posts:
- Towards a more perfect union (2020) — Historian Eric Foner’s work on the “second founding” of the country examines why “key issues confronting American society today are in some ways Reconstruction questions.”
- The abandonment of democracy (2020) — I was reading Nancy MacLean’s compelling Democracy in Chains at the end of 2020 while watching the attempted coup that took the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance to its logical conclusion. Utterly chilling.
- History is a teacher (2019) — Historian Joanne B. Freeman’s The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War is the riveting tale of mortal threats, canings, flipped desks, and all-out slugfests…and that’s just on the floor of Congress! Freeman shows that it is only when we stand up to those who would divide us and push for a true reckoning of what we are as a nation, that we break through the polarization.
- Telling the full story (2017) — The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism is a troubling and ultimately persuasive 2014 book by historian Edward E. Baptist. Slavery was not some pre-modern institution on the verge of extinction but was, instead, essential to American development and, indeed, “to the violent construction of the capitalist world in which we live.”
More to come…
NOTE: As the country celebrates the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, the posts over the next eight days focus on various aspects of understanding, justice, tolerance, love, and reconciliation with the hope they may be useful as we each take our own journeys to create the beloved community.
The Weekly Reader series features links to recent books and articles that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy.
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