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.