Like Ulysses S. Grant Jr., Daniel Webster, and so many more historical figures she has spent her life studying, Heather Cox Richardson got her start in the hallowed halls of Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH, where she was a member of one of the first coed classes in the early 1970s.
Perhaps it was spending her formative years in the same classrooms as such giants that has afforded Richardson the ability to discuss history with a distinct air of familiarity. In her column at Salon and her articles in The Guardian, Richardson analyzes the news through the lens of an academic, blending Ph.D.-level knowledge with everyday vernacular, presenting it on Facebook and Twitter to be read by professors and plumbers alike.
The classrooms at Exeter have never had neat rows of individual desks typical of the average American high school. Instead, students sit around what’s called the Harkness Table—a large oval table across which ideas flow freely and naturally. Without raising their hands, students discuss what in the text they find most intriguing, curious, and allusive to larger, transcendent ideas.
Richardson’s experience in high school, which she says is still the most intellectually impressive setting in which she’s studied, continues to inform her teaching style today.
“The concept that I don’t have an endpoint to the course, that I’m throwing the material at you and I want to see what you do with it, it’s something I find BC students get terrified by because I’m not looking for them to figure out what’s in my head. I want to figure out what’s in their head,” Richardson said.
For some students, many of whom have been trained in the art of scantron by the time they reach Richardson’s upper-level history courses, her relaxed approach is refreshing.
“She doesn’t come to class with a textbook plan. Rather, she brings a group of ideas she’s passionate about, and then does a really good job of presenting them to the students,” said history major Nick Russell, MCAS ’18.
On a recent Thursday in a class she teaches called The Plains Indians, she lectured on three Native American translators—Sacajawea, Quanah Parker, and Charles Eastman—each of whom lived remarkable lives but now receive palpably different amounts of reverence in our American story.
The lecture did not posit why Sacajawea earned a spot on a coin and Quanah Parker received a town of Texas, or why no student had even heard of Eastman, who went to Dartmouth and Boston University Medical School. Instead, Richardson presented objective facts about each’s story and then asked her students why they thought they had only learned about Sacajawea growing up, and learned about her not as a 15-year-old girl with a newborn baby, but as a strong, independent woman.
While they mulled it over, she opened a word document on her laptop, which was projected on the board. Richardson called on each student and wrote down their thoughts impartially.
“Okay,” “Maybe,” “Interesting,” and “Ooo,” was all she said—just enough to keep students engaged and comments flowing, but not so much as to pull the discussion in any one direction.
Naturally, debate blossomed. One student theorized that Quanah received a Texas town because of his entrepreneurship, while Eastman was irrelevant because he was a doctor, which was an important job, the student said, but how would anyone know this Indian doctor’s name if most don’t even know the name of the guy who made penicillin?
But many people do know his name, Richardson pointed out. She called on another girl who was eager to refute the point just made. As she listened and typed the girl’s opinion on the board, Richardson smiled. She had accomplished her goal.
Although she wasn’t a rule-breaker in high school, Richardson has never been a fan of regimens. To this day, she prefers to toil with ideas and texts for as long as she sees fit, only moving on when she feels she’s exhausted the material.
“The idea that I should stop my English homework because I had to do my math was very difficult for me,” Richardson said.
After Exeter, Richardson went on to Harvard, but she soon grew disillusioned by it all. She watched the rat race going on around her but hesitated to join her classmates.
“It just seemed kind of pointless to me. My parents said ‘just finish,’” Richardson said.
But one morning, to conduct research for an approaching paper, Richardson decided to journey down into the dark, cold room in which microfilms were stored. There, from 10 a.m. until late in the afternoon, Richardson read the entire Chicago Tribune for the years of the American Civil War.
“I lived the whole war, and finally, Lee surrenders. Of course I knew the story but I was like ‘Oh my God, it’s finally over,’” Richardson said. “I went on. There was a black bordered page and they killed Abraham Lincoln. Of course I knew, but it was alive to me. I thought, ‘I want to bring this alive for everyone else.’”
After earning her B.A., Richardson stayed at Harvard to pursue an M.A. There, she studied under the late David Herbert Donald, two-time Pulitzer Prize Winner, noted Lincoln biographer, and one of the most notable historians of the American Civil War and Reconstruction period. But after her now ex-husband accepted a job in Oklahoma, she joined him, and took a break from grad school to become a waitress.
“I was the only person on the floor who was not a born-again Christian,” Richardson said.
Although they spent their Sundays differently, Richardson became acquainted with the people of the town, and grew close with many of the women. She was struck by how fiercely her new friends despised Democrats—whom they dismissed as freeloaders—and how blindly they loved Reagan.
“I was not political really at all, but I’m looking at them thinking, ‘Reagan is cutting everything that you need’ … and they really believed in [him],” Richardson said.
After revealing that she had gone to Harvard, Richardson remembers one Okie calling her ‘the antichrist.’ But, she wasn’t discouraged and refused to dismiss them as simple or uneducated.
“I’m from a very small town with very poor people in it. I’ve always had a foot in both camps, and a foot in neither in a way,” Richardson said. “I get it when rural people talk about Donald Trump in a way that my Exeter and Harvard education suggests I shouldn’t.”
Richardson was fascinated by the contrast between the image the Okies had of Reagan and the reality his policies were going to enact. To her, they weren’t just naive people with silly ideas– they clearly thought this way for a reason. Richardson wanted to find out why.
She returned to Harvard and continued studying for her M.A. and after that, her Ph.D., all under the guidance of Donald. Her dissertation explored the economic policies of the Republican Party during the Civil War and contended that such policies made the Gilded Age possible. After earning her Ph.D., Richardson published her first book–The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies During the Civil War, which was largely based on her dissertation.
“Thank God for David Donald, because it went into print almost unchanged,” Richardson said.
After that, she went on to teach at MIT, where she taught a wide range of history classes, including both halves of a survey of American history, the American West, American Women’s History, and, of course, the Civil War.
While at MIT, Richardson found herself in a dark microfilm room again, this time reading The New York Times for the years of the Civil War.
“The story that jumped out at me was entirely different than the story I read in the textbook. I just wrote down what I saw. It was not rocket science, but what I said is that in 19th century, and possibly always, America’s always been racist, so racism is constant,” Richardson said. “You can’t use it to explain historical change. What explains historical change during the Reconstruction years … is the way white Americans in the north thought about class.”
This is the argument of her second book, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901. Richardson heard that a professor needed to publish a second work in order to earn tenure. So, she wrote her second book convinced nobody would read it, but hoped it would earn her a spot on the faculty.
Ironically, she was denied tenure, but received a wide readership and high praise from fellow historians.
She left MIT and published a third book, West From Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War, which also received praise from her peers. Richardson began working in educational consulting and freelanced along the way, which earned her job offers to return to academia.
But, because Richardson had not been tenured at her last job at MIT, she was not being offered as much money as the male candidates who had been previously tenured.
“I frankly said straight up ‘I will not take a job for less money than a man would make in the same position,’” Richardson said.
Eventually, she found a job at UMass Amherst in 2004 to test it out, fearing that if she stopped listening to her invitations, people would stop inviting her. While at UMass Amherst, she published Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre and continued teaching.
In 2010, she received attention from Boston College and was hired in 2011. Since being hired she wrote another book, To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party, an ironic prelude to her past two years of stardom.
On Nov. 21, 2016, two years after publishing her most recent book, a conservative group by the name of Turning Point USA launched a new website called Professor Watchlist, on which it listed close to 200 college professors who it claimed had, “…records of targeting students for their viewpoints, forcing students to adopt a certain perspective, and/or abuse or harm students in any way for standing up for their beliefs.”
Richardson, who was briefly included on the list, was more annoyed than upset—that her hard work was dismissed as leftist propaganda, that her credibility was in-question, and, most of all, that the forum of academic debate was shamed and discouraged from its pursuit of truth.
“I am a historian. When I write, I write as a historian. And I do have political beliefs, but I’m using a different skill set when I do history,” Richardson said.
The day after being added to the list, Richardson posted a response on her Facebook page, which she uses as a blog for personal writings.
“It is even more ironic that the list would label me ‘anti-American.’ In fact, I do what I do—all the teaching, writing, speeches, and media—because I love America,” she wrote. “I am staunchly committed to the principle of human self-determination, and have come to believe that American democracy is the form of government that comes closest to bring that principle to reality.”
The next day, she was removed from the list, and since then, Richardson has been a beacon for objective, historical observations of the ongoings of American politics. She’s launched Werehistory.org, a history blog that publishes 1000-word articles relating current affairs to past ones and then infusing often unknown history to suggest a different perspective.
Richardson just wrapped up an NPR podcast series she started in December 2017 with Pulitzer-Prize winning author Ron Suskind, called Freak Out and Carry On. On it, the duo analyzed the Trump presidency through a academic historical lense, branching out beyond the archetypical American story.
“What makes her so unique is her ability to be a normal human being and express those brilliant remarks in a way that everyone can understand,” said Colin Notis-McConarty, a third year Ph.D. student in history at BC.
In one episode, they compared Trump’s style of speech to that of Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton. Another episode draws connections between the Trump resistance movement and the women’s suffrage movement that Susan B. Anthony began in 1884.
During such a tumultuous political era, Richardson finds comfort in returning to history to read how Americans of the past preserved the republic.
“If you start to look at your history with clear eyes, you will be more likely to look at the world with clear eyes,” said Richardson.
January 4, 2021 3:09 p.m.: This article was corrected to state that it was Ulysses S. Grant Jr. who attended Phillips Exeter Academy.
Photo Courtesy of Heather Richardson