American Oligarchy

‘How the South Won the Civil War’
The toppled Richmond Howitzers Monument, erected in 1892 to commemorate a Confederate artillery unit, lies on the ground June 17, 2020, after protesters against racial inequality pulled it down overnight in Richmond, Va. (CNS photo/Jay Paul, Reuters)

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.

Since the founding of the United States, Northerners and Southerners disagreed about who should exercise authority in the republic. Some founders, such as Northerner John Adams, insisted that the institution of slavery ran contrary to the principle of equality; others like Thomas Jefferson, a Southerner, argued for the maintenance of a racial hierarchy in the United States. While the rights guaranteed at the 1787 Constitutional Convention extended only to white men with property, the North emerged as a more democratic region that eventually rejected the enslavement of human beings and prioritized economic opportunity for the working class. Richardson paints a rosy picture of the North, where a person of modest means could purchase land, make use of natural resources to fish and log, and earn steadily increasing wages. Because the economy of the North was diversified, rather than reliant on one cash crop as it was in the South, political power was shared between members of different classes.

Southern senators were the driving force in acquiring new territory, extending the United States westward and bringing the institution of slavery with them

In the South, on the other hand, a class of agrarian oligarchs worked to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few, dominating the economy and politics of the new republic. Between the American Revolution and the Civil War, plantation owners utilized their wealth to acquire all of the cotton-producing land in the South, worked by a massive underclass of slaves. With the introduction of the cotton gin in 1794, cotton production increased exponentially; Southern oligarchs saw the potential for increased profits and sought to expand outside of the original borders of the United States. In one of their most successful efforts, they pushed President Andrew Jackson to seize Native American land with the Indian Removal Act. Southern senators were the driving force in acquiring new territory, extending the United States westward and bringing the institution of slavery with them. To secure the oligarchic way of life, John C. Calhoun and other Southern elites increased their power in Congress by creating new states where slavery was legal; they succeeded in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), when the United States acquired territory that would become the states of Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and California.

The expansion of the Confederate system of oligarchy gained significant momentum with the combined force of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision: slavery could expand into the newly acquired Western territories, and African Americans who had escaped from slave-holding states into free states did not have legal protections. Southern oligarchs like Alexander Stephens and James Henry Hammond used these legislative precedents to redefine the “democratic experiment” as a political system where the rule of a few wealthy white men would bring prosperity to all. For this to succeed, Hammond argued that it was imperative that the South control the entire Union. It was in response to this threat that Lincoln and his Republican party emerged, and these ideologies clashed on the battlefields of the American Civil War.

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.

Republican efforts to curtail the role of the federal government can resemble the machinations of the Southern Confederates on the eve of the Civil War.

One of Richardson’s strongest arguments is that the oligarchic ideology transitioned from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. Franklin Delano Roosevelt marshalled this coalition of the South and West to win the 1932 election, but designed his New Deal with anti-oligarchic belief that the best way to guarantee the promises of the Constitution was to work for economic equality. Such a philosophy was of a piece with Lincoln’s vision for the country, but Republicans balked at the intrusiveness of the New Deal into individual lives. It was this moment, Richardson argues, that marked the introduction of the oligarchic ideology into the Republican Party’s identity. As Democrats continued to use government power to expand rights to the disenfranchised, Republicans began to split between those who accepted Roosevelt’s liberal worldview and those who wanted to undo the social safety nets that he had created. A final break came when Presidents Truman and Eisenhower used the powers of the federal government to desegregate schools. Feeling betrayed, radical Republicans turned to a new leader, someone who would advocate for a limited federal government: Barry Goldwater.

Goldwater was the figure who most cemented the oligarchical ideology in the Republican Party. His self-depiction as a cowboy crusading against the federal government garnered much support in the South, and he campaigned against desegregation enforcement as an unjust intervention by the federal government in states’ affairs. Southern Democrats like Strom Thurmond, who advocated for segregation and was a staunch opponent to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, openly switched their party affiliation to Republican. For the first time in almost a century, the South started voting consistently with the GOP. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan continued in the tradition that Goldwater established, implementing policies like the war on drugs that kept a permanent underclass based on racial discrimination. (Reagan even copied Goldwater’s cowboy image.) By the time Reagan was arguing that government is “the problem,” he had brought back to life the rhetoric used by many Southern Democrats against Lincoln’s Republicans in the election of 1860: that government enforcement of rights for more Americans risked infringing on individual freedoms. Today, Richardson argues, Republican efforts to curtail the role of the federal government with the removal of federal economic and environmental regulations can resemble the machinations of the Southern Confederates on the eve of the Civil War, and Donald Trump’s presidency continues the oligarchic tradition, openly embracing racism and elite rule.

Richardson’s book is a well-examined history of ideas and the power of political ideologies. The book lays out a convincing case that despite its victory in the Civil War, the North failed to deliver the killing blow to a Confederate oligarchic ideology, which lived on into the formation of the Republican Party we know today. But the book’s major flaw is its assessment of race and racism in the North. While Richardson clearly and correctly juxtaposes the democratic North and the oligarchic South, she does not give adequate attention to the racial inequality that existed in the North. The North may have abolished slavery earlier than the South did, but it was not the equitable society she sometimes seems to describe. Richardson oversimplifies the history of racism in the North to focus on an argument about the rise of the modern GOP. But in making this contrast too starkly, she sacrifices a nuanced discussion of racism in the North, a legacy still very much relevant to discussions of racial justice today.

Despite this omission, How the South Won the Civil War offers valuable insight into the past as well as the present. While oligarchic thinking appears to be on the rise, there is still time for action. For Richardson, acknowledging why the South won the Civil War is the first step in addressing issues at the heart of the American identity, and providing, as Lincoln once said, “a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

How the South Won the Civil War
Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America

Heather Cox Richardson
Oxford University Press, $27.95, 272 pp.

 

Nicholas Misukanis is a PhD student at the University of Maryland-College Park specializing in modern European history. His research focuses on the relationship between ideology and foreign policy between Europe and the Middle East in the twentieth century.

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