"How the South Won the Civil War" Review: One Side Kept FightingHistorians in the News
tags: racism, books, Civil War, Reconstruction
Mustering history to serve present-day politics is neither new nor inherently ill-judged. Since the days of Thucydides and Plutarch, history has been a field of often ruthless political contention. It continues to offer a well-stocked armory for our own political battles, when everything from the intent of the Founders and the meaning of the Constitution to the significance of slavery, class and money in American life may serve as ammunition for debate both inside the academy and out.
Onto this battlefield Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College, now charges, ideologically armed and ready for combat, in “How the South Won the Civil War,” a short, provocative assault on conservatism and the Republican Party. Her polemic hinges on what she terms the “American paradox”: the idea that “America was born in idealism and the profound principle that all human beings had a right to self-determination” but grew up “in an environment that limited that right to white men of property.” This paradox, she says, while rooted in the era of slavery, continues to infect American politics today.
Ms. Richardson is the author of several well-regarded scholarly books, including “The Greatest Nation of the Earth” (1997), an exceptional study of the North’s financial underpinnings during the Civil War; a history of the Republican Party, “To Make Men Free” (2014); and “West From Appomattox” (2007), about the extended effects of Reconstruction. She now ventures into more popular territory in a book that, while lucid and jargon-free, too often feels tacked together and lacking in the intellectual heft that characterizes her academic work.
Ms. Richardson endeavors to draw an unbroken line from the hierarchical politics of the antebellum South and the hostility to federal power that accompanied it, through the development of the American West by big-money plutocrats, up to the equally “hierarchical” values of modern conservatism. Like many writers of the left, she maintains that elite conservatives, whether in the Old South or the present day, could only gain political control by essentially duping voters by means of cynical appeals to shallow but potent myths about American individualism on the one hand and their enemies’ endemic corruption on the other. “So long as they continued successfully to project the narrative that they were protecting democracy, their supporters ignored the reality that the oligarchs were taking over,” she writes. Both then and now, she suggests, even respectable conservatives resorted to voter suppression, rigging the mechanics of government, bullying the opposition press, and dehumanizing opponents to ensure that the majority was kept from power, no matter what the cost to basic rights.
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