Facebook’s Historian: Professor Heather Cox Richardson

Historians in the News
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Like Ulysses S. Grant, Daniel Webster, David Rockefeller 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 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….

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 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. ...

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