A historian responds to current events in real time: the BFG interview
Timing has given Heather Cox Richardson a higher public profile than she might have had a year ago, when her book How The South Won The Civil War was originally scheduled to come out. Richardson, Professor of History at Boston College, and the author of five previous books, has acquired a vast new audience who read her daily “Letters From An American” (posted on her Facebook page and available as an email newsletter), a column which offers perceptive analysis of current events. Her columns have proven so popular, she now hosts weekly Facebook chats as well.
The Facebook chats were a response to the new pandemic, a means of getting the word out, now that no book tour was going to be possible.“And then that first chat, there’s tens of thousands of people watching,” she tells Book and Film Globe. “And I’m like, ‘This is not what I expected!’ This is the story of my life. Everything I do seems to be inadvertent.”
Richardson subtitled her book “Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America,” and she dates that continual fight to what she calls the country’s “great paradox,” enshrined in the constitution. “For the Founders, the concept that ‘all men are created equal’ depended on the idea that the ringing phrase ‘all men’ did not actually include everyone,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “In the Founders’ minds, then, the principle of equality depended on inequality.”
“The oligarchic principles of the Confederacy did not die,” she writes in her book, “timing and geography would give them a new lease on life.”
“What I was hoping to do, was explain how in America those things have always been yin and yang in a way,” she says. “So not simply to say ‘My God, the Jacksonians were racist,’ which they were, and sexist, which they were, but also to say that that went hand in hand with this other side, this concept of American liberty, the concept of equality, and self-determination. That vision, is still, to me, a profound statement of humanity. If I have a religion, it is that humans have the right of self-determination. And that’s really the major contribution of America to governing ideology in the world. But always associated with that is this other side, this dark side.”
The Sting of History
Richardson’s enhanced public profile began on September 15, 2019, after a wasp stung her while she was outside painting her home. Because she’s allergic to stings, she had to sit still as waited to see how bad the reaction might be, and figured she might as well write a post for her public Facebook page. As a topic, she picked the recent news about Representative Adam Schiff subpoena to the then-Acting Director of National Intelligence, Joseph McGuire, to produce a whistleblower report that had not been turned over to the Intelligence Committee. That was the first of her “Letters”.
“I recognized it was a really big deal, because it was the Chair of the Intelligence Committee directly accusing a member of the Executive Branch of breaking a specific law,” Richardson explains. “So I wrote a general round up of what was going on.” After it was posted, “people poured in all kinds of questions. And I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just answer this.’ So I answered those questions. And then I was getting more and more commentary, and more people paying attention, so I wrote another piece. And by the end of that week, the ‘Letters’ were born.”
The daily column’s name was jointly inspired by French writer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur’s 1782 book Letters From An American Farmer and journalist/commentator Alistair Cooke’s radio broadcasts Letters From America. “They just went insane from the beginning,” says Richardson. “And I honest to God don’t understand their attraction. Except that having studied this stuff for 35 years, I can see something, like a letter, that doesn’t look important to most people as actually being important. Or recognizing when a rant from Trump is important, versus when it is not important; I’ve got a pretty decent sense of that. I am not an investigative journalist. I’m just reading what’s out there and translating; I’m a translator.
She continues: “I’m really writing with the idea of what historians will think is important in a hundred years. So that helps me to say, ‘This is important, this isn’t.’ The harder thing to do is to take a day where there’s like seven completely different things and turn it into some kind of larger story. That’s the hard part, figuring out why any of this matters, and how you can convey it to readers in a way that’s memorable, and not just the way the evening television news does, which is ‘The Ways and Means committee did this,’ ‘The President did this,’ ‘This sports team did this,’ and there’s no framework to fit it in.”
While writing the “Letters” on a daily basis for now, she expects “it will have a natural ending point, and I feel like I will know it when I see it.” She plans to self-publish the entire run in a limited edition, “just to make sure they exist for a historian in the future,” with the possibility of a “highlights” edition for more public consumption.
Richardson’s “Letters” have documented an exceptionally dramatic news period in this country, from the impeachment trial, to the current pandemic, and the upcoming election. “We’re really at the crisis moment of, is democracy going to survive, or are we going to become an oligarchy,” she says. “This moment we’re in, and the conversations we’re having about the election, about Corona virus, about the collapsing economy and how Congress can save that—all of those conversations are the moment when we are deciding whether or not we’re simply going to turn everything over to a small elite group to run everything, or whether we’re going to take back the country for the vast majority of Americans and try and reorder it so that it serves more people more fully.”
But neither the “Letters” or her book make any predictions about what comes next, she says: “People do ask me to predict things, and all I can say is, ‘Here’s how it has played out in the past, but tomorrow is completely unwritten,’. And that to me is the excitement of our lives, that tomorrow is completely unwritten. We can change the direction of the country any time we want. It may not be easy, but we can do it.”
Letters In a Pandemic
The “Letters” column of May 4 discussed the leak of the Federal Emergency Management Agency models that projects 200,000 new coronavirus cases a day by the end of May, and, by June 1, 3000 Covid-19 deaths a day. “Historians are prophets of the past, not the future, and I am completely unqualified to assess this released model,” Richardson wrote that day. “But I am indeed qualified to note the political importance of the fact that the administration appears to have seriously downplayed its own estimates of the projected death toll from this pandemic.
“As Andrew Slavitt, acting administrator for Medicare and Medicaid under President Barack Obama, explained, Trump’s team told him to expect 100,000 to 250,000 dead, horrific numbers, numbers from which Americans would recoil. But he revised that number downward based on a model that assumed, for example, that states without social distancing would not have outbreaks. The number he offered was around 60,000, a number that convinced his supporters that Covid-19 was no more serious than a bad flu, and that Democrats were exaggerating the danger for political gain.
“That was enough to start a push to reopen states.”
The Letters have proven so popular because people, living through history, are hungry to see that history interpreted through a historian’s more or less objective eye. It’s important to have that broader context in an era defined by quick-twitch social media reactions and sensational headlines.
“Historians try to take a look at the way society actually works, in order to make observations about how it might work in the future,” Richardson says. “And that’s why we do such research; we want to see what made Newburyport, Massachusetts tick in 1700, because we want to see what factors created change in that society.
“And there is now this sudden hunger for, ‘Wait a minute, what does our history really look like?’ I can tell you as a historian that ten years ago, 20 years ago, people just rolled their eyes at the idea that anybody would ever read history again. And now we’ve got more work than we know what to with, because people care about it again. And I think that’s incredibly important. Once you get a handle on your story, and you reclaim your own nation’s story closer to reality, you can make much better decisions about the future. And I think that’s where we are now.”
(Heather Cox Richardson author photo by Jetsy Reid)