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How Heather Cox Richardson built a sisterhood of concerned Americans

With her hit newsletter, the Boston College political historian offers something devoted readers desperately crave: context.
With her hit newsletter, the Boston College political historian offers something devoted readers desperately crave: context.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

As we hurtle through the tumultuous end-days of the Trump presidency, hundreds of thousands of people turn each morning to “Letters from an American,” a daily newsletter by Boston College political historian Heather Cox Richardson, posted in the wee hours on Facebook and distributed via e-mail by Substack. Twice a week, many of those same fans show up for Richardson’s Facebook livestreams.

“She has a genius for distilling the chaos of current events, a reasoned calm, and an ability to let us know that what’s happening now has happened before, and America survived,” said Mim Eisenberg, 78, of Georgia, a retired oral history transcriptionist who follows Richardson on both platforms.

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Mary Jo Shapiro, 58, reads Richardson on Facebook first thing each morning at her home in Maryland, when there are only just a few hundred comments. She likes being part of this community. “It’s cool. It lets us know we’re not alone,” said Shapiro, who works for a consulting company in higher education.

“I think of myself as a translator and as an explainer,” said Richardson, 58, in a Zoom conversation from her home in Maine. “Anybody can sew on a button, but a really good seamstress is a very different thing. It would be a mistake to ask me to make a wedding dress or a ballgown, but a seamstress would be like, ‘oh sure.’ And I’m the ‘oh, sure’ of political history.”

The Harvard-educated historian, whose specialty is 19th-century America, has written six books. The most recent, “How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America,” came out last year.

The context Richardson provides is reassuring. Her tone — curious, approachable, and friendly — might be that of your super-smart sister or mother. She has grown children, and fondly mentors her PhD candidates at BC.

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Asked about the fate of the Republican party today in light of the insurrection at the US Capitol, she said the Democrats were in a similar divisive position in 1879.

“What happened was the white supremacist violent group kind of got sidelined,” she said.

Then she returned to present-day Republicans: “After the election, I kept saying — as I think, honestly, any mother would — ‘Why are you hitching your wagon to this star? You know it’s going to get worse.’ And every day we have learned more about what happened on [Jan. 6]. None of it looks better. It all looks worse.”

She writes “Letters from an American” at night and teaches by day, and has spent the pandemic working from home near the Maine coast, where her partner is a lobsterman. She has deep roots there, as if she’s living history as well as studying and teaching it. Two years ago, she bought land that her ancestors first acquired during the War of 1812, in a town where they have lived since before the Pilgrims.

I happened upon “Letters from an American” in late 2019. Like Shapiro, I open it, hungrily, first thing each morning. Richardson offers a sort of grounding that daily journalists, caught up in breaking news, cannot. But it’s more than that: I am one of a passionate fan base of middle-aged and older women. When I told friends I would be interviewing her, they lit up. One called her “our girl.” Richardson has catalyzed a community because she speaks to something in us — a legion of smart, creative women (and men) who crave her down-to-earth style of teaching civic engagement.

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“Letters from an American” is a wave, and we’re all riding it — Richardson included.

“I did not start these letters,” she said. “They started me.”

Two years ago, she was posting essays on Facebook every couple of weeks and had about 22,000 followers. Then, in mid-September, 2019, she was stung by a yellow jacket. She’s allergic, so she stayed home to monitor her reaction rather than commute to Boston. Democratic Representative Adam Schiff had just written a letter to then-acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, advising him that Congress knew he was withholding a whistleblower complaint. It was the beginning of the Ukraine investigation, which led to Trump’s first impeachment.

“That was the first time I had seen a member of the legislative branch specifically say to the executive branch, ‘you have broken a law,’ ” Richardson said. She recognized the weight of the moment.

She sat down to write about Schiff’s move on Facebook. The post blew up.

“Within a few weeks,” she said, “I knew something really big was happening.”

Richardson was already a public historian, publishing essays in the Washington Post. She has found a new, bigger niche on social media. And at a time of unprecedented unrest, when the pandemic has people stuck at home, her numbers just keep growing.

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Joanne B. Freeman, a professor of history and American studies at Yale who hosts a weekly webcast called “History Matters ( ... and so does coffee!)”, said she is struck by the hunger on social media today for history.

“There’s such a need out there, and historians who can meet the public where they are and enjoy it are really important,” Freeman said. “People are eager to engage in conversation about what’s going on. Having a community to process that means a lot. Heather offers that.”

“And she’s doing it in a spirit of providing information. She’s not trying to sway people, or attract a following, or promote herself,” Freeman said. “She’s doing it in the right way.”

Richardson’s lessons are driven by her political philosophy. She believes in the human self-determinism at the core of American democracy’s aspirations. She is also clear-eyed that American democracy has consistently failed to give everyone an equal voice.

“I believe the best kind of government is the kind that Abraham Lincoln first articulated in 1859, when he said the government should support ordinary Americans,” she said. “And not out of some version of morality — although that’s there — but out of self-interest, really, because it’s ordinary Americans who innovate, and work hard, and work together.”

“Right now, a lot of people are really frightened,” I said to Richardson.

“They’re right to be,” she said pragmatically.

But history teaches us that we’ve been here before.

“We have come to the verge of autocracy a number of times,” she said. “And in each case, people who otherwise thought they didn’t care about politics have woken up, and they have gotten involved, and they have taken back our government.”

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The groundswell of support for “Letters from an American” reflects that civic passion, as well as its writer’s Lincolnian belief in ordinary Americans.

“What this community does, I think, is maybe gives a voice to us,” she said. “These are hundreds of thousands of people saying, you know, we want the world to be a kinder place and a juster place. And we’re doing our part to make that happen.”


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.