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

How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America by Heather Cox Richardson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the wake of the 2020 election and the January 6 insurrection, this book feels all the more poignant and essential for reading and understanding the modern party politicals of the Republican Party. While the book starts in the founding of the country, its major focus (as the title indicates) is understanding how the pretext of the Civil War and its aftermath reinforced a central privileging of white men at the disregard and disposal of women and people of color, who despite legal changes in the 1800s were still marginalized and second-class citizens throughout the 1800s, 1900s, and even still in the 2000s. The central argument that she makes is that the founders of the country and the leaders of the South invoked the language of freedom and individualism as the grounds of the United States, however, they meant that for only white males and typically, landed white males, creating an oligarchy where an entrenched minority (white, male, wealthy) were given all the rights and benefits of a democratic republic such as the US but everyone else had to pay for it in work and forfeited wealth. When faced with the contradiction of true freedom and retrenched privileged oligarchy, the country's founders and the South took the latter every time.

In fact, because the founders kicked the idea down the road by not resolving slavery, it largely set up the showdown that was the Civil War. And despite the loss of the South, because of the politics of Reconstruction and the expansion into the West, where much of the same practices could be reproduced (massive exploitation and murder of Native Americans, Mexicans, and Asians/Asian Americans), the concept of rugged individual became entrenched in the white-male body through the iconography of the cowboy. These ideas permeated and infiltrated politics for decades until the 1960s when the Republican party directly reinvested in the Southern Strategy, where they increasingly played to white audiences while reinforcing racist and sexist stereotypes of people of color and women as a whole.

Cox's writing is accessible and helps draw direct lines to everything we have seen under the Trump administration and how Republicans in 2020 seem insistent on not discussing the January 6 insurrection while simultaneously trying to do everything they can to keep as many people as possible from voting. The biggest drawback of Cox's book is that while her writing is rich with detail and insight for much of the 1800s and the early part of the 1900s, she seems to rush through a bit more of the second half of the 1900s and early 2000s. Ultimately, there are plenty of other books that can fill in here and reading this work is still strongly recommended.

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