- West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War
Heather Cox Richardson’s latest work is ambitious, declaring on page one, “This is the book that explains why today’s political map looks like a map of the 1860s.” Richardson argues that reconstructing the nation after the Civil War created “a new definition of what it meant to be American,” which “developed from a heated debate over the proper relationship of the government to its citizens.” Each section contributed something; the North, the idea of equal opportunity, the South, the idea that not all men could rise, and the West, the mythology of individualism. These components coalesced into a middle-class worldview that expected hardworking individuals to succeed and distrusted “special interests” wanting the federal government to adjust conflicts in society. Ironically, those subscribing to this middle-class ideology that condemned blacks expecting civil rights legislation and farmers wanting railroad regulation used an activist government to serve their own interests, such as limiting the power of trusts and creating national parks. “The powerful new American identity permitted many individuals to succeed,” Richardson contends, “but that exceptional openness depended on class, gender, and racial bias.” She insists that though “the political contours of this division have changed over the decades. . . . It was certainly part of the 2004 electoral puzzle that made the red states, with their large government subsidies, vote so overwhelmingly against what they perceived as government aid to ‘special interests’” (7).
At heart, West from Appomattox is an expansion of Richardson’s 2001 The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865–1901, aimed at a general audience. Richardson incorporates the West and women into her previous account of Reconstruction and explicitly states that West from Appomattox is “a narrative history”; it contains no reference to historical debates, even in the endnotes (6). Both books share [End Page 407] an identical historical interpretation, with the earlier concluding that “the growing fear of those who wanted government redress of economic inequalities led the ‘better classes’ of Northerners to mythologize individualism in American society” (243). Richardson uses the same methodology in both, which, while appropriate for the first, is problematic for the second, where she explains, “I tried to put myself as closely as I could into the position of an educated nineteenth-century American” and “read newspapers, novels, memoirs, and histories of the late 1800s; looked at paintings; and listened to music” (4). The partisan political nature of newspapers in the nineteenth century makes them unreliable for understanding public opinion, and without primary sources from individuals it is impossible to know how people interpreted contemporary novels and art. In addition, the New York Times, Harper’s Weekly, and other middle- and upper-middle-class northeastern periodicals constitute a disproportionate share of Richardson’s sources. Richardson may have succeeded in assuming the perspective of an educated late-nineteenth-century upper-middle-class northeasterner, but this is too singular a viewpoint to understand all of Gilded Age America.
Ultimately, West from Appomattox fails to prove that “in 2004 red state voters who championed American individualism and blue state voters who recognized the limitations of that vision both reflected patterns established over a century ago” (349). Richardson never analyzes the role of religion, nor how the New Deal and the civil rights movement fundamentally changed Americans’ relationship with their government and the composition of the electorate in the twentieth century. Richardson’s own evidence also shows that the real question is why many regions have changed—not kept—their voting patterns. She insists that “McKinley’s victory settled the national decision in favor of the mainstream vision of society” and that Theodore Roosevelt embodied this individualistic ideology (299, 339). Yet it was mainly the 2004 red states that voted against McKinley in 1896 and Roosevelt in 1904, and the 2004 blue states that voted for them. As Thomas Frank asked in What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America...