Of all the political predictions one can think of, perhaps the only one to actually come true was Jefferson Davis’s 1868 prediction that “The South shall rise again.” What Heather Cox Richardson adds to the doleful story of how political ideas and the social order central to the Confederacy rose to dominate America is the central role played by the West and Californians since even before the rise of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in continuing to make oligarchy and race hatred as acceptably American as apple pie.
Richardson begins with Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964. While presidential electoral politics might classify him as one of history’s biggest losers — President Johnson won 44 states and garnered almost 43 million votes to the Arizona senator’s six states and 27 million votes — the “Movement Conservatives” he epitomized, essentially the old Confederacy redux, has all but taken over America.
“Like the elite slaveholders before the Civil War, they believed in a world defined by hierarchies, where most people — dull, uneducated, black, female, weak, or poor — needed guidance of their betters,” writes Richardson, a professor of history at Boston College, in How the South Won the Civil War.
When I was in high school in the 1970s, the fact that Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and other Virginians who argued and fought for freedom and liberty were also slave holders, was taught as a paradox. Far from being the inscrutable workings of an all knowing Supreme Being as they sometimes argued, Richardson shows equality for white men required the inequality of others: i.e., Black slavery.
As long as there were slaves beneath them, then all white men (women, of course, did not even enter the equation) were formally equal no matter that Washington was one of the richest men in the country and, after the invention of the cotton gin, the owners of the huge plantations were pulling in the equivalent of millions of dollars a year while dressing their wives and daughters in the latest French fashions.
Slave laws went beyond defining chattel slavery and banning slaves testifying in court. One held that if a master killed a slave in the process of “correcting” him or her, the master “shall be free and acquit of all punishments and accusations … as if such an incident had never happened.” Rape wasn’t just legal; it was a way of life.
Despite the fact that the entire regimen of slavery rested on government power, including, famously, the United States Army units under the command of Lieutenant Robert E. Lee that tracked down and captured John Brown at Harper’s Ferry in 1859, the oligarchical plantation owning class created an ideology picturing them as individualists. Central to this was the nexus of ideas and images showing them to be “chivalrous, skilled horsemen with fine manners and courage, who protected their dependents and defended their own honor.”
By the time the nation was breaking into two, slave holders feared more than Abraham Lincoln’s pledge to prevent the extension of slavery and his defence of free labour, they argued that the ringing declaration that “all men are created equal” was wrong.
California’s ’49ers also pictured themselves as individualists, striking it rich by panning for gold. But they had drunk the southern oligarchic Kool Aid and passed laws to ensure that the riches of the West were available to only to white men and were no less willing to use violence against those they saw as lesser breeds. Cue the 1850 California that limited citizenship to “free white persons” and the years between 1848 and 1860 when 167 Mexicans were lynched, a rate equal to that of the worst years of Jim Crow.
Whites seized haciendas and legislated away property rights dating back to the Spanish regime. The sixteen midwestern and Western territories organized and states admitted to the Union during the Civil War were free of slavery — but not of racial thinking that denied native Americans and Mexicans both humanity and rights.
Nor, Richardson shows, is the cowboy myth to be believed. It was constructed of the shards left by the destruction of the Confederacy. First in serials in the newspapers, then dime novels and later in films and Westerns like Gunsmoke, the cowboy is depicted as being an individualist. All they want, the myth says, is to be left alone to ride the range and bust a few cattle.
In reality, theirs was a hard, filthy job that had them rubbing tobacco juice in their eyes to stay awake and in the saddle — while the profits accrued to the owners of the herds, the packing houses and the railroads. The empty land they drove millions of animals through was prepared by the U.S. Army that fought and won the Indian Wars.
Goldwater’s embrace of the saddle, epitomized by the cover of Life magazine on Nov. 1, 1963, was as bogus as Reagan’s. Goldwater was the scion of a wealthy department store owning family and grew up with a nurse in his house. Reagan grew up in a small Illinois town. But it served them both to wrap themselves, as it were, in saddle blankets because that cloaked their real agenda.
That agenda was the furtherance of oligarchical policies inherited from the Old South and championed in the early 1950s by William F. Buckley, the John Birch Society and the Koch family. Buckley, the son of an oil man and Yale graduate, provided the intellectual ballast for those who called themselves Movement Conservatives, who hated every aspect of the New Deal, which was largely accepted by politicians such as President Eisenhower, who committed $25 Billion ($242 Billion in today’s money) to build the Interstate Highway system, the largest public project in American history.
Movement Conservatives modelled their attack on Eisenhower’s willingness to use the Army to desegregate the South and the burgeoning women’s movement by borrowing from the song book the so-called Redeemer Governments of the post-Reconstruction South wrote. Any money used to help lift Blacks out of poverty was criticized as a tax on white working men. Cue then Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan’s infamous — and fictitious — “Welfare Queen” and then Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s infamous line about “makers and takers.”
Women, these conservatives claimed, belonged in the home. In 1972, Phyllis Schlafly summed up the view that “women’s lib is a total assault on the role of the American as wife and mother and on the family as the basic unit of society.”
As governor of California, Reagan signed what was then the nation’s most liberal legislation pertaining to abortion, but by the 1970s, he had turned against it, as had, importantly, the Southern Baptist Convention, which prior to 1971 supported abortion rights. The central moment in this change, Richardson argues, was Richard Nixon’s decision to politicize abortion in order to give Catholics a reason to embrace the party that had shunned them for more than a century.
Today’s buccaneer capitalists in Silicon Valley who do all they can to obscure the fact that the Internet was developed out of ARPANET funded by the Defense Department are no different than the railroad barons, including Leland Stanford, who grew rich selling off the parcels of land given to the railroads in the late-19th Century. Western politicians and business leaders who praise the region’s economic dynamism, ignore the fact it is largely based on government funding. Between 1950 and 1959, the US spent $228 billion ($2 trillion in today’s funds) on defense while California received twice as much as any other state, some $450 billion in today’s funds.
Reading this book as I was against the backdrop of the more than 250 laws that amount to voter suppression that have been tabled in various state legislatures, I heard the echo of Buckley’s typewriter as he channeled Jefferson Davis. The darling of the right wing, whose vocabulary and almost British manners bought him a seat on PBS’s Firing Line, wrote in an article entitled, “Why the South Must Prevail” in his National Review in 1957: universal suffrage was nothing more than “demagogy” and whites as “the advanced race” must dominate Blacks.
* * *
My one quibble with Richardson’s fine and clearly written book concerns Bonanza. True, it was one of the 26 westerns that were on television in 1959. Yes, many of its plots “embraced the myth of the American West, where cowboys worked hard, stood for what was right, and protected their women from bad men and Indians” (though in comparison to Rawhide or The Lone Ranger these last were less-common themes in Bonanza). And certainly, many of the plots were simple — and the land had been effectively ethnically cleansed before Ben Cartwright bought the Ponderosa.
Yet, when it premiered in 1959 and until Bruce Lee starred in the Green Hornet in 1966, Bonanza was the only television show that featured a regular Chinese character, Hop Sing. True, Victor Sen Yung’s character was the Cartwright’s’ cook, but he appeared in 107 episodes and, according to the show’s creator, David Dortort, had a strong fan base. In several interviews toward the end of the show’s fourteen-year-run and after, the Canadian-born Lorne Greene spoke of his efforts to infuse the stories with ethics points drawn from his experience as a Jew.
One such episode is “It’s a Small World,” which aired in January 1970 and is a thinly veiled attack on racism. In it, Cartwright’s banker, Mr. Flynt (whose name is hardly a coincidence) refused to hire the dwarf George Marshall (whose name evokes both the general who served as Chief of Staff during the Second World war and the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall).
Flynt tells Cartwright that the reason is that Marshall, played by Michael Dunn, is midget. Cartwright responds by telling his long-time banker that he should prepare the books so he, Cartwright, could withdraw his fortune from Flynt’s bank. The nonplussed Flynt asks why and reminds Cartwright of how long they had been doing business.
In his stentorian voice, which was nick-named the “Voice of Doom” when Greene was a news reader on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation during the Second World War, Cartwright responds, “I can’t trust you.” Flynt again asks why. Cartwright’s response is both simply and a devastating attack on racial thinking, “You have brown hair.”
Nathan M. Greenfield is a Brooklyn-born author who taught English at Algonquin College in Ottawa and has written extensively on U.S. and Canadian history.