Top Young Historians: 18 – Heather Cox Richardson


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

18: Heather Cox Richardson, 4-24-06

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Associate Professor, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 2004-
Area of Research: 19th century American history
Education: Ph.D., Harvard University (American Civilization), 1992.
Major Publications: Richardson is the author of The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901, (Harvard University Press, 2001), A main selection of the History Book Club; The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republic Economic Policies during the Civil War, (Harvard University Press, 1997).
Heather Richardson JPG Richardson is the co-editor with Sidney Andrews of The South Since the War, (Louisiana State University Press, 2004).
Works in progress include: Race, Riots, and Rodeos: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War, 1865- 1901. (Yale University Press, forthcoming, 2007).
Awards: Charles Warren Center Fellowship, Harvard University (1999);
Runner-up, Allan Nevins Prize (awarded for the best dissertation on an important theme in American history)
Additional Info: Formerly Visiting Lecturer, Fitchburg State College (2003–); Master Lecturer II, Suffolk University (2003-2004); and Associate Professor of History, Massachusetts Institute of Technology teaching there from 1993-2002.
Richardson has also participated in: The Woodward Dissertation Award Committee, Southern Historical Association, 2004-2005;
Guest Editor, Cobblestone Magazine, American Inventions of the Nineteenth-Century, 2004;
Consultant, PBS documentary, “Sinews of War: Money, War, and the Building of America”, 2004-;
Consultant, Primary Source and Teachers as Scholars, educational consulting firms, 2002-;
Consultant and Lead Teacher, Brookline, Massachusetts, public schools on Teaching American History project: “Defining Justice”, 2002-;
National Advisory Board, Tredegar National Civil War Center Foundation, 2002-;
Editorial Board, American Nineteenth Century History, 2001-;
Consultant, Bill Moyers documentary, “The Chinese in America,” 2001-2002. Richardson is also a regular contributor to the Business History Review, Chicago Tribune, Civil War History, The Historian, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Journal of American History, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Journal of Southern History, Labor History, Law and History Review.

Personal Anecdote

History was tangible to me, growing up. Literally. No one in my town ever threw anything away. Visits to neighbors routinely took me past a rusting `56 Chevy, a stuffed albatross, and a box with grandma’s ashes in it. My family was the worst. The 1975 Newsweek with Springsteen on the cover? Still got it. The 1923 National Geographic that announced the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb? Still got it. My great-great-grandmother’s shoes from the 1850s? Yep. Still got them. (Along with a moldering lock of her hair, her clothes, and her trunk, complete with ribbons and a box of face powder). As if our own predilections weren’t enough, my parents bought a home that came with a barn, crammed to the rafters with things the previous owners had never thrown away: a nineteenth- century grinding wheel, a settlement house cookbook, a half-full whiskey bottle from 1913 (my husband tried the whiskey last year and pronounced it very smooth). The junk around us wasn’t saved for its historical value. It was just that no one had ever gotten around to throwing it out.

As kids, we thought of it largely as junk. Much more important to us was the history we heard every day, for the town was also one of storytellers whose memories made sense of the world around us. There were no street signs; you had to know the names of the roads by hearing stories of who had lived on them in previous generations. “Harding Road,” on the map, for instance, was actually Carter’s Lane, or even The Colony, after a group of summer cottages built there in the 1920s. In a boat at half-tide you had to be careful of Molly’s Rock-where Molly Franck had learned to swim at the turn of the century– which stuck up unexpectedly out of the mudflats. Stories not only passed on knowledge vital to our everyday lives, they also explained why people acted the way they did. The Island women chasing off the stuttering Civil War draft officer by pelting him with boiling hot potatoes (“G-G-Give them a b-b-barrel and they’d take Richmond,” he allegedly remarked) helped to explain why islanders hated the government. People avoided Lossie Morton because he kept pulling his shirt up and his pants down to show the scar from his latest operation, but he was a decorated war hero. Nate’s parents were mad at him because he accidentally shot the dishwasher. Even as children we knew that stories changed according to who told them, and that, ultimately, they said more about who told then than about what actually had happened. Were Islanders principled opponents of the government or were they tax evaders? Was Lossie a figure of fun or admiration? Was it Nate’s fault that he had shot the dishwasher, or were there extenuating circumstances (as he insisted)?

In college I studied in both the history and in the folklore and mythology departments, fascinated with the distance between the facts of history and the stories people told to make sense of their lives. I believed in the historical record, but I could not dismiss the way people talked about things as central to their behavior. Reagan was elected in my freshman year, and listening to the political rhetoric around me only confirmed my sense that people most often made decisions based not on facts, but on their beliefs. Ultimately I concluded that one could not really understand the past without taking seriously the way people imagined their world. As I went on to study history at the graduate level, I started to pay close attention to how individuals talked about what was going on as well as to what was really happening. Not surprisingly, the two didn’t often agree, and the gap between them tells us a great deal, I think, about the people themselves. My work explores how beliefs and facts interact in American life, primarily in politics.

Chinese historian Stephen Platt and I have just started to write a history of the late nineteenth-century trans-Pacific world. Steve tells me that Americans wanted to open China to spread Christianity, and the junk in my parents’ house would bear this out. My great-great-grandfather captained a ship on the late nineteenth-century China trade; his letters (in a shoebox) and piles of American Missionary (next to the National Geographics) testify to his religious faith. But local legend says he was an autocrat who loved making money. There is truth, I have to think, in both.


By Heather Cox Richardson

  • “Northerners entwined their ideas about African-Americans with their hopes and fears for the country as a whole. Northern attitudes toward freedpeople became part of the general anxiety over the national government, which had grown so dramatically during the Civil War and which continued to grow in Northerners’ imaginations even more quickly than it did in real life. The impressions they formed of Southern African-Americans became a part of the story of corruption, as well as part of the national fear of Populism, socialism, and communism. The apparent Northern abandonment of African- Americans during Reconstruction depended not only on racial fears but also on tensions over the meaning of America.” — Heather Cox Richardson in “Death of Reconstruction”

About Heather Cox Richardson

  • “The Death of Reconstruction offers a provocative explanation of why Northerners after the Civil War gradually and often reluctantly abandoned their efforts on behalf of the Southern freedmen. Not ignoring virulent racism directed at African Americans, Richardson shows that it was less race than class that brought about the end of Reconstruction. An important, impressively documented book, The Death of Reconstruction is a work comparable to David Montgomery’s Beyond Equality as a major reinterpretation of the post-Civil War period.” — David Herbert Donald, Harvard University reviewing “Death of Reconstruction”
  • “Heather Richardson’s The Death of Reconstruction is a work of genuine originality and imagination. Steeped in remarkable research, this is a persuasive account of how economic world views drove Northerners’ retreat from Reconstruction; it makes us view Reconstruction from a different angle and helps explain, as well as any book has, the deep significance of individualism in American life in the late nineteenth century.

David W. Blight, Yale University reviewing “Death of Reconstruction”

  • “In The Death of Reconstruction the author’s main concern is with attitudes in the North, not in the states of the former Confederacy. She notes that most Northerners had little direct contact with blacks, because only 10 percent of them lived in the North. In the years immediately after the war, the Republican press in the North took a benign view of blacks as a group, portraying them as poor but eager to work their way to prosperity as free labor…The most interesting aspect of this book is the reminder it affords that the debate over “affirmative action” is not a modern phenomenon but can be traced back to the 19th century…[Richardson’s] focus on class conflict is a useful addition to other writings on the Gilded Age.”

John M. Taylor, Washington Times reviewing “Death of Reconstruction”

  • At last readers have an explanation of why the Republican Party, founded in antislavery, dedicated to emancipation, and the political inspiration for the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution, abandoned those causes in favor of an ideology which acquiesced in the disenfranchisement of blacks and in the triumph of Jim Crow. Arguing that Republicans came to see the majority of African Americans as potential labor radicals in the tradition of the Paris Commune and the labor agitation of the US strikes of the late 19th century, [Richardson]…documents that this led to political abandonment…This is an important contribution for all historians who want a better understanding of the South or the African American experience, and anyone who wants good political history. — T. F. Armstrong, Choice reviewing “Death of Reconstruction”
  • “She is one of the best professors I’ve had so far. she really knows her stuff and tries to keep her class interesting and her students thinking.”…
    “Great teacher…I took her for 2 classes and loved her for both, she is so helpful you can email her anytime you want. My favorite professor so far!”… “Awesome professor, interesting person, class is super!! One of the best professors at UMass!!” — Anonymous students

Posted on Sunday, April 23, 2006 at 1:58 PM

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. You can certainly see your skills in the article you write.

    The world hopes for even more passionate writers like you who aren’t afraid to say how they believe. All the time follow your heart.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: