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History’s First Draft
We sit down with Heather Cox Richardson, the BC history professor whose smash newsletter Letters from an American has made her one of the country’s leading public intellectuals.
Three years ago, Heather Cox Richardson was in the middle of the kind of sparkling career that any academic would admire. The BC history professor had written a number of highly regarded books, was a regular contributor to respected publications such as the Washington Post, had cohosted an NPR podcast, and had amassed twenty thousand or so followers on Facebook who looked forward to her weekly essays about history, current events, and life itself.
Then, in 2019, something happened in Washington that would change the trajectory of Richardson’s career. The chair of the House Intelligence Committee sent a letter to the acting director of national intelligence demanding that, in accordance with the law, a whistleblower complaint be turned over to the committee. To Richardson, the letter marked the first time that a lawmaker had accused a member of the Trump administration of breaking the law. Recognizing the historical significance of the moment, Richardson dedicated one of her Facebook essays to it. Rather than assume her readers were already experts, however, she used her conversational writing style to provide context and help her audience understand the nuances of the issue. The response was astounding. So Richardson wrote again two days later. “The floodgates just opened,” she recalled. “And I’ve written every night since then.”
Those early essays formed the beginnings of Letters from an American, Richardson’s daily musings about the state of the nation. She continues to post her 1,200-word essays for free on Facebook, but hundreds of thousands of people also pay for subscriptions to them on the hit newsletter platform Substack, on which Richardson is one of the most successful authors. Her posts generate tens of thousands of comments. She was named one of USA Today’s 2022 women of the year. And she was invited in February to travel to the White House to interview President Biden.
We sat down with Richardson to discuss her sudden—and quite unexpected—rise to media stardom, the state of the country, and how the job of historians will change in the future.
There’s much more to this conversation. To listen to the entire Boston College Magazine podcast, click here.
How did Letters from an American get its start?
I had a Facebook page of about twenty-two thousand people in 2019, and I posted an essay on it about once a week—sometimes about history, sometimes about life, whatever, just because I like to write. And I had not written in 2019 since July 18 and my readers were starting to be nervous about me because I had been listed on a professor “watch list,” and people like me get hate mail. So I started to get emails from people saying, “Are you okay? Has something happened?” But actually, I was just really busy and didn’t have time to sit down and write an essay. One of the things I was doing was moving to a new place. So I was painting my house before I moved, and I got stung by a yellow jacket. Now, I’m allergic to yellow jackets, and I did not have my EpiPen. I was supposed to come back to Boston but I didn’t dare get in a car until I knew that I was not going to have a bad reaction to that sting. So I thought I might as well write. So this again was 2019, just after Representative Adam Schiff, who is the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, had written a scathing letter to the acting director of National Intelligence saying, We know there’s been a whistleblower who has said something. And by law you must give us that complaint, and you have not done so. So we have to assume that there’s somebody big that’s referred to in this whistleblower’s complaint and you’ve got to hand it over. This was the first time in all the years of the Trump administration that a member of the legislative branch had explicitly accused a member of the executive branch of breaking a law. And so I thought, well, I might as well write about where we are in American history right now. So I wrote up this quick thing for Facebook saying, “This is what’s happened, there’s been this whistleblower complaint.”
What kind of a reaction did you get to that essay?
It was very different than in the past. All of a sudden, the transoms opened and people were writing in, asking all kinds of questions: Who is the DNI? Who is Adam Schiff? What is going on? That post was on September 15. I wrote again on September 17. Again, the floodgates just opened. And I’ve written every night since then. What I’m doing is responding to people’s questions about this country. And I think the magic of it is not me. It’s that I’m a teacher, and a translator for people asking questions. And a lot of what I do is simply say, “Okay, here’s what the Department of Justice is, and here’s what a congressional committee is, and here’s the difference. And here are the powers that they have. And here’s what they’re trying to do.” All those things that many people pretend they know and they don’t actually know. And that’s always been the key to my professional career, saying, “Wait, I don’t understand that. What are you talking about? Let’s figure out what exactly you mean.”
Your Facebook audience has exploded since then.
It’s about 1.5 million now, and it happened really quickly. I remember reaching out to my Dean within three weeks or so—because I was already touching on some really hot topics—and saying, “Just so you know, something really big is happening over here. And I don’t want to embarrass the university.” And I will say that the administration has always been extraordinarily supportive of me.
How do you choose your essay topics?
I’m not deliberately trying to push any arguments with my essays other than for multiracial democracy and liberal democracy. Beyond that, I am not pushing an argument except to the degree that I want people to understand the facts. I firmly believe in the Enlightenment concept that if people have true facts in front of them, they will make good decisions. They will not necessarily be the decisions that I would make, but they’re the decisions that make sense for them. And that’s how a pluralistic democracy works. So that’s my political point of view. But that means that as a person trained to be a teacher, I try to include voices that I don’t agree with but that are well grounded in facts, ones that simply present a different perspective. In terms of the topics I write about, I look at this in many ways as a chronicle of America for the graduate student in 150 years. So, which are the stories that are going to matter then? I try and look from that perspective and say, “This is important, and many of these other things are not.” And my historical training is very useful for that because, for example, I could look at the first speech that Antony Blinken gave when he became secretary of state in the Biden administration—which was not well covered in the media—and say, “Whoa, boy, this is a major shift in American foreign policy. This is the speech that’s going to be in textbooks and is going to be in monographs in 150 years.” Meanwhile, some other stuff in the news today really is going to be in the background in the future. So that’s how I choose my stories and how I figure out what’s going to be important.
How did you come up with the name Letters from an American?
There is a very famous document in American history called Letters from an American Farmer. It’s by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, and it’s very famous for the line, “What is this American, this new man?” And so it is partly saying, “what is America?” And I’m trying to explain what America is and keep a record of what America is. But there’s also a twentieth-century reference and that is Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America. And those were absolutely brilliant short snapshots, once a week, that really took off in the 1940s. Alistair Cooke, who was a journalist from England, took a look at America, saying “This is what America looks like today.” And he would cover everything from the 1948 reelection of Harry Truman to a tattoo artist. And it was his way of creating a kaleidoscope of what America looked like. And I thought those two things worked very well. That being said, it sounds like I was sitting around thinking great thoughts—I was literally running down the hallway in Stokes Hall with two of my graduate students going, “Oh my God, I got to have a name for this. What am I going to call it?” And we shopped it, the three of us, and this is what we came out with.
Writers are typically encouraged to write for their audience. Your audience is enormous. Do you write for your readers?
I have a laptop and I sit alone in a room, and I don’t see those oceans of people out there. I write these letters to explain to about six friends the way the world works. My touchstone about what goes in a letter is always, would I send this to the six friends? Because the minute I start thinking about the people who are actually reading that letter, or the people that I would like to impress, or the people that I think are really cool, or the people I don’t like, I find I get paralyzed. So I sit there and I say, “Would I say this?” And one of the people is my college roommate. “Would I say this to my college roommate?” And if I would, then it goes in. And if I wouldn’t, then I figure I’m not writing authentically any longer.
“I firmly believe in the Enlightenment concept that if people have true facts in front of them, they will make good decisions. They will not necessarily be the decisions I would make, but that’s how a pluralistic democracy works.”
You have an especially large audience among women, people of color, and other groups that have traditionally been marginalized in our country. What makes your work so appealing to these readers?
Well, I don’t know. I’ve never actually done a survey or anything like that, but I think that there are two pieces that matter. One is where my writing appears. Everything I write is available for free on Facebook, which is where the audience is. That’s where people are. Love or hate Facebook, there are billions of people on Facebook. So it’s very easy to get. It’s very accessible. I also think it doesn’t hurt that I’m not afraid to say I don’t understand something. And my great example of this was when Tom Cotton, a senator from Arkansas, wrote a letter during the Obama administration to Iran. The letter was signed by a whole bunch of senators. Afterward, there were a number of news articles that said, Well, he’s violated the Logan Act. And I was like, I have taught American history for thirty years, and I don’t know what the Logan Act is. Why are you all pretending that we know what the Logan Act is? So, literally, I went to Wikipedia. I’m like, Oh, that’s the Logan Act. It was a very simple law from the Quasi War with France in which a regular citizen had gone to try and cut a deal with France, to undercut the administration. And the Congress passed a law in 1799 saying you can’t do that. Okay. So that’s an explanation that journalists could include in a sentence. The fact that they didn’t made me feel really stupid, like, “Well, everybody else knows the Logan Act.” So part of what I do is always remind people. I even identify the president of the United States every night. That’s saying, You don’t have to remember this. I know that you have worked a ten-hour day and your car’s breaking down and the laundry’s dirty and you’re exhausted. You don’t have to remember who Adam Schiff is. I’m going to tell you who Adam Schiff is. And I think that helps this whole world be more accessible to people who otherwise feel like it’s a language that they don’t speak.
From the weakening of democratic norms to the pandemic to the insurrection, these are terrifying times, and it often feels like all of this is unprecedented. One thing that your readers learn is that we’ve often been here before. What is history’s role in informing modern public debate?
We have been here before in many ways. We are currently in a brand-new moment in which we have a major political party that has rejected democracy. That is alarming and it is not completely unprecedented because, of course, this was the position of the Democratic party in the late 1850s. But in that case, those lawmakers and leaders left our government and tried to start their own. In this case, we have those same people remaining in the government, and this is new and dangerous. But I think that history’s primary role in this moment is providing the melody, perhaps, that we all sing: The reality that as Americans—and I mean this not only for native-born Americans but for the people who came to these shores a minute and a half ago—we share the same values, which have been embodied in particular documents, in particular people, and in particular events. It helps us to recognize that we have a shared reality, a shared set of aspirations, and a shared devotion to the common good. And I think of it like listening to a concert of somebody like James Taylor, where everybody in the audience knows the words to “Fire and Rain.” And part of you says, “why do they want to hear this song again?” And the answer is not because it’s breaking new musical ground for the audience, but because it reminds them that they are all in this ship together. And that, I think, is something that our shared history brings to this incredibly fraught moment.
Will the rise of social media and the spread of disinformation complicate or change the nature of the work that historians will be doing a hundred years from now?
How will this affect history, and the way we do history? I think that’s a really interesting question because of course the real issue for archivists is curation. Whose voice gets to stay in the archives? Who gets to be there? And the proliferation of so many different forms of media and of speech means that we’re going to lose most of it. How many of your emails do you have from the late 1990s? I have none. I don’t have an archive. If it had all been on paper, I would, at this point in my life, have an archive. I don’t have one. That stuff’s going to get lost. And the question right now for archivists is, what do we keep? Why do we keep it? And what will that say about who America is at the end of the day? A lot of the reason we don’t understand that we have this whitewashed version of the past is because the only people who ended up in the archives were the white guys. And we did not, in fact, have a past that was uncontested at all. For example, if you were a follower of Joe McCarthy from Wisconsin in the 1950s, you were a fervent anti-Communist who was willing to hang people that you considered your enemies. And if you think about the 1930s, we literally had Nazis here in Boston. And those are stories that perhaps are less known, but it’s not like the past has not been contested. But at the same time, the modern explosion of media and of information offers the opportunity to include more voices in our archives, which will change the way we think about this history. When we talk about the construction of the idea of America, one of the things that has jumped out to me in the book I’m writing right now is that the people who have most clearly articulated what America means are people of color, are immigrants, and to some degree are women. And that, I think, is a really interesting reconstruction of what America means. Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, these are the people who sit in our stone pantheons. And yet, if you think about the people who made the dream of America come alive, it’s Fannie Lou Hamer, a former sharecropper who was beaten almost to death for registering people to vote. It’s the Chinese American who was asked not long after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 to donate money for the Statue of Liberty and responded, “I’m offended that you would ask me to give money for a statue dedicated to Liberty just after you’ve passed a law that says I am not welcome in this country.” It’s Frederick Douglass asking what—to an African American—is the Fourth of July? And that strikes me as being perhaps an obvious thing that I should have seen long ago. In terms of the way that we remember our history, maybe it’s time to recognize that the people who are keeping America alive are its marginalized peoples and its newcomers who recognize our dream in a way that those of us who have come to be somewhat blasé about it no longer do.
Do you see any way out of the disinformation swamp we seem to find ourselves in?
That hits on what is in many ways the most interesting part of where we are for somebody who studies ideas. I think about disinformation in two ways. First, I look at it as an attack on our society, no different than a physical attack. And I think it has been quite deliberate to try and destabilize America. The efforts of people like Russian President Vladimir Putin to seed America with divisive concepts that tear us apart have been clearly established. So first of all, it’s an attack. But second of all, there’s a larger problem. And not just the foreign influences in America. There is the problem of the algorithms that enable people essentially to package social media users, to sell them. That’s been part of advertising since the beginnings of radio—people make the mistake of thinking that we are buying products, when in fact we are the product that advertisers buy—so that’s not exactly new. But what’s new are the algorithms that permit social media to privilege certain speech. And I see social media as we are currently using it, if you will, as a wild west. Every time we get a new technology, there aren’t rules around it, people misuse it. It’s got enormous potential to do good. It’s got enormous potential to do evil. Invariably, a lot of people jump in and do the evil with it. The society looks at this and says, “We can’t have this happen,” and they start to regulate it. And I expect that this is the direction we’re going now in America. The First Amendment means the government can’t say, “Hey, you’re not allowed to lie.” But what it can do is say, “you are not allowed to put warping algorithms on advertising,” for example, or on who sees what posts on Facebook.
What’s the problem with these algorithms?
We know that Facebook privileged posts that created high emotion, especially anger. You were much more likely to see those posts than you were to see posts that created, for example, good feelings or no feelings at all. If you think about Facebook as a public sphere, that’s quite different than just seeing whatever comes along. Instead, you were literally being fed things that make you angry and that continue to lead you down a rabbit hole. And it’s not just Facebook that did this, of course. There are algorithms on YouTube. There are algorithms on TikTok. There are all sorts of ways in which people are steered into certain political directions. And I really think that’s pushing a lot of our polarization. I continue to believe that we are in an artificially polarized moment because of the way we have been steered into one way of looking at the world or another.
You’re someone who has studied and written about a number of long-deceased American presidents. And then, very recently, you had a chance to interview a living president, Joe Biden, and you got to do it in the seat of American power, the White House.
It was really interesting because my White House is a historical White House. It’s a building full of memories and ghosts and paintings and statues and rooms and the Rose Garden. And I’d never been there before, and all of that is what I saw. And yet the White House is also, in the modern world, an office building. It’s full of people doing their jobs, and literally being like, “Hey George, do you have that envelope?” And those two things are overlapped when you’re there. I’m walking through history, I’m in an office building, and in some very small way, I’m making history because I’m interviewing a president. And that was also very odd because I know President Biden very, very well. But he’s on paper. I know his speeches. I know his videos. He is a historical figure to me. No different in many ways than FDR or Lincoln or Harding or any of those people who exist for me on paper and on screens. But he’s alive. He walked into the room and he talked to me and I got to ask him questions. And there was this moment of feeling like he wasn’t supposed to be three-dimensional and he wasn’t supposed to be able to answer my questions. And if he was going to answer my questions, I wanted him to give me the answers I wanted to hear . . . but he didn’t. And I’m like, Wait a minute, you’re not allowed to do that. You’re a historical figure. I get to do research and I get to figure out what the answer is. And then I get to write it. You’re not allowed to have your own opinions about your life.
That interview seemed to take your acclaim to a new level. What’s it like to be a media star now?
[Laughs] When you put it that way, sure. But you don’t walk down the street thinking I’m going to interview the president of the United States. I am still absolutely the same person that was here five years ago or ten years ago. Sometimes I joke that I still feel like I’m twelve. I think we are who we are. And I’m a writer, I’m a teacher, and that’s what I do. I write and teach. I just have bigger audiences than I used to ten years ago.
What comes next for you?
I’m making no plans at all. Everyone says to me, how long will you do the letters? And my answer to that is, they began absolutely organically and they will stop organically. We’ll know when it’s time for them to stop. People aren’t going to need them forever and then it will be time to do something else. I think that my life will depend a lot on what happens with the country. And right now, I feel incredibly fortunate to be part of this supportive, interesting, creative community that cares so deeply about this country. It is a wonderful community that is gathering. I also feel like I have been given the golden ring in that, for a historian, there is literally no better position in our entire history than to be the person who gets to keep the record of this era. And the fact that I fell into this—if you had told me three years ago that I was going to have this opportunity, I would be like, “Nah, never me.” But I happen to be in the right place at the right time. And that for somebody like me is an unfathomable gift.