Heather Cox Richardson

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Heather Cox Richardson
Heather Cox Richardson 2016.jpg
Richardson in 2016
Maine, U.S.
OccupationProfessor of history at Boston College
Academic background
Alma materHarvard University (B.A., Ph.D.)
Academic advisorsDavid Herbert Donald and William Gienapp

Heather Cox Richardson is an American historian and professor of history at Boston College, where she teaches courses on the American Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, the American West, and the Plains Indians.[1] She previously taught history at MIT and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.[2]

Richardson has authored six books on history and politics. She is a founder and editor at werehistory.org, which presents professional history to a public audience through short articles. Between 2017 and 2018, she co-hosted the NPR podcast Freak Out and Carry On.[3] Most recently, Richardson started publishing "Letters from an American", a nightly newsletter that chronicles current events in the larger context of American history.[4][5] The newsletter accrued tens of thousands of subscribers making her, as of December 2020, the most successful individual author of a paid publication on Substack.[6]

Early life and education[edit]

Born and raised in Maine, Richardson attended Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire.[7] She received both her B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University, where she studied under David Herbert Donald and William Gienapp.

Writing career[edit]

Richardson’s first book, The Greatest Nation of the Earth (1997), stemmed from her dissertation at Harvard University. Inspired by Eric Foner’s work on pre-Civil War Republican ideology, Richardson analyzed Republican economic policies during the war. She contended that their efforts to create an activist federal government during the Civil War marked a continuation of Republican free labor ideology. These policies, such as war bonds and greenbacks or the Land Grant College Act and the Homestead Act, revolutionized the role of the federal government in the U.S. economy. At the same time, these actions laid the groundwork for the Republican Party's shift to big business after the Civil War.

Four years later, Richardson extended her study of Republican policy into the postwar period with The Death of Reconstruction (2001).[8] Unlike other historians, her analysis of the period focused on the "Northern abandonment of Reconstruction". Building on the earlier work of C. Vann Woodward, she argued that a more complete understanding of the period required appreciation of class, not only race. As Reconstruction continued into the 1870s and especially the 1880s, Republicans began to view African Americans in the South more from a class perspective and less from the perspective of race that had driven their earlier humanitarianism. In the midst of the labor struggles of the Gilded Age, Republicans came to compare "the demands of the ex-slaves for land, social services, and civil rights" to the demands of white laborers in the North. This ideological shift was the key to Republican abandonment of Reconstruction, as they chose the protection of their economic and business interests over their desire for racial equality.

In West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War (2007), Richardson presented Reconstruction as a national event that affected all Americans, not just those in the South.[7] She incorporated the West into the discussion of Reconstruction as no predecessor had. Between 1865 and 1900, Americans re-imagined the role of the federal government, calling upon it to promote the well-being of its citizens. However, racism, sexism, and greed divided Americans, and the same people who increasingly benefited from government intervention—white, middle-class Americans—actively excluded African-Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and organized laborers from the newfound bounties of their reconstructed nation.[9]

Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre (2010), focused on the U.S. Army's slaughter of Native Americans in South Dakota in 1890.[10] She argued that party politics and opportunism led to the Wounded Knee Massacre. After a bruising midterm election, President Benjamin Harrison needed to shore up his support. To do so, he turned to The Dakotas, where he replaced seasoned Indian agents with unqualified political allies, who incorrectly assumed that the Ghost Dance Movement presaged war. In order to avoid spending cuts from Congress, the army responded by sending one-third of its force. After the event, Republicans tried to paint the massacre as a heroic battle to stifle the resurgent Democrats.

In To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party (2014), Richardson extended her study of the Republican Party into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.[11] This book studied the entire life of the Republican Party, from its inception in the 1850s through the presidency of George W. Bush.[12] A small group of wealthy white men who controlled all three branches of government, the party’s founders, united against the "slave power". These Republicans articulated a new vision of an America in which all hardworking men could rise. But after the Civil War, Republicans began to emulate what they originally opposed. They tied themselves to powerful bankers and industrialists, sacrificing the well-being of ordinary Americans. A similar process took place after World War II, when Republicans sought to dismantle successful New Deal policies and prop up the wealthy. However, in both cases, reformers within the party were able to return the party to its founding vision of equality of opportunity, first Theodore Roosevelt during the Progressive Era, and then Dwight D. Eisenhower, who enforced integration and maintained the New Deal. The Nixon and Reagan administrations represented yet another fall from the party's founding purpose. It is ironic, Richardson points out, that Republicans treated Barack Obama with an unprecedented level of disrespect, as Obama's rise from humble beginnings to the highest office in the nation embodied the vision of the original Republicans.

In How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (2020), Richardson argued that America was founded with contradicting ideals, with the ideas of liberty, equality, and opportunity on one hand, and slavery and hierarchy on the other. United States victory in the American Civil War should have settled that tension forever, but at the same time that the Civil War was fought, Americans also started moving into the West. In the West, Americans found, and expanded upon, deep racial hierarchies, meaning that hierarchical values survived in American politics and culture despite the crushing defeat of the pro-slavery Confederacy. Those traditions—a rejection of democracy, an embrace of entrenched wealth, the marginalization of women and people of color—have found a home in modern conservative politics, leaving the promise of America unfulfilled.


In September 2019, Richardson began writing a daily synopsis of political events associated with the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. Originally posted late every evening or in the early hours of the next day on her Facebook page, Richardson later moved to add a newsletter format, entitled "Letters from an American", published via Substack.[13]


  • The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies during the Civil War (Harvard University Press, 1997) ISBN 9780674362130
  • The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901 (Harvard University Press, 2001) ISBN 9780674013667
  • West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War (Yale University Press, 2007) ISBN 9780300136302
  • Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre (Basic Books, 2010) ISBN 9781458760142
  • To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party (Basic Books, 2014) ISBN 9780465024315
  • How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (Oxford University Press, 2020) ISBN 9780190900915


  1. ^ "HCR faculty page". Boston College. Retrieved 2018-11-17.
  2. ^ "MIT History". MIT. Retrieved 2018-11-17.
  3. ^ "Heather Cox Richardson". the Guardian. 2015-06-24. Retrieved 2018-11-17.
  4. ^ Richardson, Heather Cox. "Letters from an American". Substack: Heather Cox Richardson. Retrieved 19 November 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  5. ^ "We're History". We're History. Retrieved 11 August 2017. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  6. ^ Smith, Ben (2020-12-28). "Heather Cox Richardson Offers a Break From the Media Maelstrom. It's Working". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-01-08.
  7. ^ a b "Facebook's Historian: Professor Heather Cox Richardson". The Heights. 2018-03-18. Retrieved 2018-11-17.
  8. ^ "The Death of Reconstruction - Heather Cox Richardson". Harvard University Press. 2018-11-16. Retrieved 2018-11-17.
  9. ^ Slap, Andrew L. (2009-08-22). "West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America after the Civil War (review)". Civil War History. 55 (3): 407–409. doi:10.1353/cwh.0.0084. ISSN 1533-6271. Retrieved 2018-11-17.
  10. ^ Zasky, Jason (2010-07-27). "Wounded Knee: Party politics and an American massacre - Heather Cox Richardson interview". Failure magazine. Retrieved 2018-11-17.
  11. ^ "To Make Men Free, by Heather Cox Richardson". The New York Times. 2015-01-04. Retrieved 2018-11-17.
  12. ^ Richardson, Heather Cox. "How did this monster get created? The decades of Republican Party lies that brought us Donald Trump, Republican front-runner". Salon. Retrieved 17 November 2018. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  13. ^ "Letters from an American, by Heather Cox Richardson". Substack. 2019. Retrieved 2019-12-22.

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