Professor Heather Cox Richardson, a prominent professor of American history at Boston College, has gained notoriety in the last several months as the author of a popular series entitled “Letters from an American” which appear on her website as well as on her professional Facebook page on a nightly basis. She began writing these letters in early November 2019 in response to numerous questions she received trying to make sense of the political events of the day. In these letters she provides a nightly roundup of the day’s political news, and along the way, she provides lessons delving the depths of American history to show where many of these ideas and tactics originated. On April 1, 2020 (after she was well into her nightly series), her latest book, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, was released. In this book, she describes what she refers to as the American paradox. This paradox is based on the principle that throughout American history, equality depended on inequality. She shows how this paradox started before the founding of the country and ripples throughout our nation’s history driving much of the division we see in American society today.
The American paradox is woven throughout the book, and indeed is the single most visible affront to a true democracy where everyone’s voice is equal. Prof. Richardson is quite clear that from the very beginning of the nation, the phrase “all men” in the oft repeated refrain that “all men are created equal” never meant everyone, or even all men in the founders’ worldview. The founders sought to cut ties with the tyranny of royal rule from England. Instead they thought that merit and accomplishment rather than bloodline should determine who should lead. Their radical idea that “all men” should be equal was juxtaposed with the fact that many of them “owned slaves, thought Indians were savages, and considered women inferior.” Further, they excluded paupers regardless of their race from being considered equal as well leading to their definition of all white, male, landowners being equal, and excluding everyone else from having a voice in government. In other words, “freedom depended on racial, gender, and class inequality.” Still, even just making this group equal was a revolutionary idea at the time.
In her introduction, Prof. Richardson gives a sweeping overview of American history from the time of the nation’s founding to the current day. She makes the stark observation that over the last half century, although the country has brought focus to how the American paradox has denied people of color and women from enjoying their hard won rights, the fact that this threatens everyone has not been given the same visibility. In fact, this is the foundation of oligarchy, and it stems directly from what Richardson refers to as the corollary to the American paradox.
“If equality depends on inequality for women and minorities, the opposite should also be true. That is, inclusion of women and minorities as equals in American society would, by definition, destroy equality.”
This corollary has been behind the weaponizing of rhetoric used by those attempting to maintain oligarchic rule and eliminate democracy in the US by appealing to white men’s fears of becoming subservient to women and people of color. Richardson points out that the clash between the oligarchy and those attempting to reassert democracy was at the core of the two most serious crises in American history. The first time this occurred in the early nineteenth century and eventually sparked the Civil War. The second time this happened is the focus of her book overall providing the history behind the Movement Conservatives and their march from Senator Barry Goldwater’s nomination in 1964 to 2018 and the hold of the modern American oligarchy.
Prof. Richardson breaks her book up into overlapping bites including:
- The Roots of Paradox
- The Triumph of Equality
- The West
- Cowboy Reconstruction
- Western Politics
- The West and the South Join Forces
- The Rise of the New West
- Oligarchy Rides Again
- Conclusion: What Then Is This American?
She also includes an extensive bibliography in her notes section, descriptions in her list of chapter heading figures, and a useful index.
The book reads much as her lectures might proceed, which is to say that most of American history is not a straight line. There were many things happening concurrently in different parts of the country, particularly as it was still being settled. During reconstruction, the Wyoming Territory and Utah gave women the right to vote, albeit temporarily. Between some unpopular votes, the 15th Amendment excluding sex under its protections, and compromises to achieve statehood, women’s suffrage in those territories was revoked until it was later won nationwide in 1920.
What may be surprising to those who are potentially familiar with the western mythos but not historical fact is how similar the west was to the south early on. Although the products were different, their goals were the same – advance the interests of white men in charge of their families and circumstances, and keep the others including women and minorities dependent, subservient, and out of the political sphere. As the west developed and the south enacted numerous Jim Crow laws, the west had its own restrictive laws including what became known as the “Juan Crow” laws to restrict the rights of Mexican Americans. In other words, even in the “enlightened” west, inequality reigned.
As Prof. Richardson continues the story of our American history, in addition to the advancement of rhetoric aimed at stoking white men’s fears of subservience, the western mythos was carefully cultivated to help further the rise of the Movement Conservatives through Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. She shows that the link from Reagan to Trump is pretty direct, and while it wasn’t necessarily dependent on Trump the person, it was on Trump the character.
In Prof. Richardson’s recounting, none of this would have been possible without the American paradox and its corollary in play. Despite furthering a revolutionary ideal of breaking free from royal rule and establishing a free society based on a previously unfounded equality, the country still has a ways to go. Richardson discusses many of the advances that have been made, and they are significant, but she also provides a very stark warning. She points out that the America of 2018 looked a lot like the America of 1860, and the country again sits on the precipice between its historic democratic republic and a full-on oligarchy. Without diligence, America could fall off the precipice to the other side this time, and her final statement is chilling:
“America’s Founders put … into practice … what George Washington called a ‘Great Experiment’: a government based on the idea that human beings had the right to determine their own fate. Could such a government endure?
Our country’s peculiar history has kept the question open.”
Prof. Richardson’s book brings to mind another question. Clearly, the founders had their own ideas of what constituted equality based on inequality among people with different characteristics of race and gender, so it might be too much to assume that their definition of equality could have been different at the time of the country’s founding. What if, at the end of the Civil War, the 15th Amendment, instead of giving only black men suffrage, had instead removed all differences between people? How might American history have evolved then?
The month before Prof. Richardson’s book was released, much of the country (and the world) shut down due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. In response to this, Prof. Richardson began semiweekly live video sessions. One session discusses American history. She started this series with an engaging discussion of the history she covers in her book and has branched into more in-depth discussions of various aspects of American history including a detailed look into the American paradox as well as a history of the Republican Party. In a separate session, she takes political questions from her followers and provides the historical context for the events. These videos first appear live on her professional Facebook page, and are also later uploaded to her YouTube channel.