Heather Cox Richardson offers a provocative thesis in How the South Won the Civil War Oligarchy, Democracy and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America: that today’s conservatives are ideological brothers of yesterday’s Confederates.
She doesn’t just mean that many conservatives come from the South or that the South votes heavily conservative. She means that the ideas that animated the rebels in 1861 are the same basic ones that animate conservatives today.
Not literally preserving slavery. But more broadly, the idea that certain people are meant to be on the bottom, to act as the “mudsills” of society, in the words of antebellum slavery apologist James Henry Hammond, planter and senator from South Carolina. For Hammond and fellow slavery defenders like John C. Calhoun and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, black people were meant by God or nature to be always on the bottom, supporting the structure of the economy by providing unskilled labor at the lowest cost, and that whites were meant to be on top, running and building things.
Today’s conservative puts it in different terms, talking about “takers” on the bottom (“welfare queens,” people of color, women) and “makers” on the top (corporate bosses, oil men, financiers–as long as they’re white men of course). But it’s the same idea of natural class structure.
And as this theory justified slavery and then secession in the mid-19th century, so it justifies trickle-down economics and tax cuts for the rich today. Don’t waste resources on takers, so the argument goes, since they’re lazy losers who don’t deserve help and won’t offer any benefit to society. Instead, let rich people get richer, and that will make the whole economy hum.
This is an old story, though Richardson’s innovation may be to draw a line connecting the Old South to Trump’s America.
Drawing on her experience as a historian of the Republican party and professor of American history at Boston University, Richardson connects Confederates with Conservatives through the Old West, both real and imagined. The image of the cowboy encapsulates Richardson’s argument that the values of the Old South migrated out West and from there, infected the rest of the country.
Real cowboys were often poorly paid black or Latino ranch workers, but the mythical cowboy was a proud white man who stood up for his independence, fought off Indians and needed women only as wives or whores but never as comrades. This image of the individualistic frontiersman came to encapsulate libertarian ideology, that the real American is a person (or really, a white man) who’s self reliant, brave, and protective of his independence against the nanny state or uppity inferiors like women or people of color.
With similar extractive economies based on selling commodities, the antebellum South and the West developed similar social structures too, with a few white men at the top getting rich off the labor of many people of color at the bottom. And in both cases, though the oligarchs needed lots of government handouts and help to get started and keep going, both southern and western leaders developed the same libertarian ideology: we’re self reliant creators who just want government to leave us alone.
Richardson ends by offering Americans a choice: either to continue to accept the ideology of the oligarchs and get further and further away from democracy or to reject small government libertarianism and supply-side economics and instead to embrace the liberation offered by Lincoln and by the northern victory in 1865, to redeem the promise in the Declaration of Independence to create a system that supports equality for all.