In West From Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War, Heather Cox Richardson attempts to alter our geographic focus in assessing the postbellum era by arguing for the importance of the West in our understanding of the Reconstruction period. Richardson argues that during the decades after the Civil War, Americans redefined what the proper relationship should be between citizens and the federal government. By extending her analysis to 1901, West From Appomattox represents something of a departure from more traditional Reconstruction studies, instead focusing more broadly on what she terms the “reconstruction years,” while also lengthening the timeline of national reunion.
Richardson argues that questions about the role of the national government gained increased salience after the Civil War because direct federal taxation for the first time meant that the government’s reach would impact the pockets of citizens. Ultimately, she contends that by the early twentieth century, “a newly formed ‘middle class’…divided the nation into two groups” (1). They split the United States between “hardworking Americans,” who were working their way up with everyone else, and “special interests,” who only wanted special privileges from the government. This “middle class”—one Richardson sees as interchangeable with terms like “mainstream Americans,” and “mainstream individualists,” as she opts not to ascribe to it any kind of traditional economic definition—pointed to the image of the westerner able to find success by only his own hard work, conveniently ignoring the ways the federal government propped up the West. Richardson argues that this notion of the American West was “blinding,” and that “mainstream Americans” utilized this notion of the West while they “harnessed a newly active American government to their own interests,” all the while “retain[ing] a vision of America as a land of individualism” (5).
For Richardson, the emphasis many historians place on the South’s racial problems after the Civil War obfuscate what her “mainstream Americans” agreed were the most important issues of the day: who could be defined as a citizen, and what the government’s relationship to them should be. She argues that after the election of 1896, the “middle class” decided that “the people” were those “who believed in the mainstream vision of a harmonious economy of hard workers…and that the government should bolster their version of American society,” to the detriment of blacks, women, and Indians who still faced systemic discrimination that barred them from enjoying the fruits of this “American Individualist” ethos.