Heather Cox Richardson, the New York Times noted last December, has become “more or less by accident the most successful independent journalist in America.” Decidedly not by accident, Richardson (who has a home in the Bristol area) is a tenured professor of American history at Boston College. The Times was alluding to her newsletter, “Letters from an American,” which since 2019 has taken politically thoughtful Americans by storm.

Cover courtesy of Oxford University Press

Every evening, Richardson reviews that day’s political top story or two and fits them effortlessly (for her 350,000 subscribers) into the arc of American history. The newsletter is so successful, the Times claims, “because she’s offering something you can’t find in the mainstream media, and indeed that many editors would assume was too boring to assign.” From a personal perspective, “Letters” have become must-read articles for me over the last 18 turbulent months. When foreign friends ask what on earth is happening to America, my automatic response is to send them Richardson’s latest.

Loyal readers of her daily newsletter will find familiar themes in her new book, “How the South Won the Civil War.” The “radical idea that all men were created equal,” she writes, “depended on the traditional idea that all men were created unequal and that a few wealthy men should control the government, and therefore the lives, of women and men of color.”

Richardson calls this baked-in dichotomy – oligarchy versus democracy – the American Paradox; it is the root of “the continuing fight for the soul of America.” The conflict is manifested today between those seeking to use the government to balance the playing field for all Americans and those who see that effort as a redistribution of “their” wealth (via taxes) to people who don’t deserve it.

Richardson is interested in big ideas. On more than one occasion, I could have used a bit more about how a specific cause had its effect. But getting into the weeds is not her goal. Rather, she is a surgeon who opens an unobstructed view of the arteries of history that have fed, and still feed, the American heart.

Even if it was strictly limited to white males, in 1776 the idea of equality was “extraordinary” and set the new country apart. In the eyes of one impressed French immigrant, the new American was “the hardworking farmer who earned a living by the sweat of his brow …not because he was forced to but because it was in his own interest.”

But this new American man developed very differently in the North and South. With short growing seasons and hard-scrabble land, northern farms tended to be small subsistence efforts, family-worked and -owned. Here, the American Paradox could head toward resolution, at least as far as slavery was concerned.

In the South, the opposite conditions prevailed. Fertile land produced cotton, which – after the invention of the cotton gin – became a hugely profitable crop, “but only to those who had enough money to monopolize large tracts of good land and to command gangs of workers.” For the elite society this engendered, the American Paradox defied resolution and could be only further intensified into what Richardson calls its corollary: “equality for all will end liberty.”

In theory, the Civil War saw the triumph of democracy over oligarchy. Richardson argues, powerfully, that it didn’t really turn out that way. “Timing and geography would give (oligarchy) a new life”: for the Civil War also saw the opening of the West, which unexpectedly became a hothouse for oligarchs.

Having laid out the story of the struggle over slavery, Richardson marches into what she calls the second rise of American oligarchy, from the candidacy of Barry Goldwater, to the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, and finally to that of the naked oligarch, Donald Trump.

Left open is the question of whether democracy has triumphed a second time yet. But “to understand the present, we have to understand how we got here.” Déjà vu looms over page after page of “How the South Won the Civil War.” The echoes are like a drumbeat: “an almost exact replay of Reconstruction,” “just as during Reconstruction,” “as had been the case a century and a half before.” Some of her analogies are not subtle. “In Goldwater’s time, people claiming to be embattled holdouts defending American liberty called themselves ‘Movement Conservatives.’ A century before, their predecessors called themselves ‘Confederates.’”

Richardson hammers home her points over and over again. This is no criticism. If I might paraphrase the infamous words of Barry Goldwater (which appear in the book’s first paragraph), “Repetition in the defense of democracy is no vice.” And this is not mere repetition. It is as beautifully (and relentlessly) organized as a Bach fugue.

Quite simply, “How the South Won the Civil War” should be required reading for everyone.

Thomas Urquhart is the author of recently published “Up for Grabs! Timber Pirates, Lumber Barons and the Battles Over Maine’s Public Lands.”


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