Over the past year, I have been fortunate enough to get to know Heather Cox Richardson, one of the many amazing professors in BC’s History Department. While this is only her third year of teaching at Boston College, she was previously a professor at UMass and MIT. In addition to writing her latest book, which will look at the history of the Republican Party, Professor Richardson is also the president of The Historical Society (and you can read her blogs and Richardson’s Rules of Order here!). If you have the opportunity to take a course with her, I highly recommend it, as the courses I’ve taken with her have been two of my favorites at BC!
What is your upcoming book on the Republican Party called?
Titles change right up until the minute the cover goes to print, but currently the book is titled: To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party.
How long have you been teaching?
I became a TA in 1987, and started my first job at MIT in January 1993 (when my first child was just shy of three months old!)
What’s your favorite course that you’ve taught?
I have liked all my classes—not one left a bad taste. And I have many favorites. But lately, last year’s comic book class– Making History Public—has been one of those that stood out. It was a bit of a high-wire act, because I turned the students loose to design and execute a public exhibit on comic books largely on their own, with me in the background making suggestions. That can either be a triumph or a disaster, and it’s never initially clear which it will be. In this case, they triumphed, and it was a joy to watch them turn the chaos of February into the smart, fun, interesting exhibit that will go up in Stokes in January.
Of the books you’ve written so far, which has been your favorite and why?
Well, you like all your books, for different reasons. West from Appomattox was my smartest, but I think I’d have to vote for Wounded Knee, which is a great read. I had a fabulous editor for that book, Lara Heimert (in fact, I dedicated the book in part to her). She really forced me to learn to write in a new and engaging way. I learned a lot writing that book, and it shows in a story that does credit—I hope—to all the people in it.
Where did you get the inspiration for the new book?
My books have all dealt with the Republican Party in some fashion because you can’t be a historian of nineteenth-century American politics and economics without writing about the Republicans, since they controlled the country for all but two years between 1860 and 1912. And I had taught the second half of the American history survey for many years, bringing the story of the party to the present. It seemed like it would be easy to tell the whole story of the Republican Party, and that it was important to tell it since modern Americans seem to think its history started with President Reagan. I was shocked to discover it WASN’T easy, and that the twentieth-century history of the party had nothing to do with anything I had ever learned.
How long have you been working on it?
I’ve been writing it for three years, but thinking about it since about 1983, when I first started studying Republican politicians.
What is your typical writing day like?
Unfortunately, my TYPICAL writing day is spent alternately staring at a blank screen and surfing the web, convinced I will never write another word. My ATYPICAL day is when I sit down and the words seem to write themselves, and I have no idea why I spent so many days frozen. I do work better in public spaces (watch me sometime when I proctor an exam!) because, for some odd reason, buzz around me seems to help me focus. Deadlines help, too. I find long, unbroken stretches of time deadly for my production rate.
What was the hardest thing about writing the book?
Curiously, the theoretical underpinnings of it were what almost sank me. While this book reads (I hope) like a story, it is actually quite sophisticated theoretically. I was grinding out the material on President Grant and his struggle with Senator Charles Sumner for control of the party in the 1870s, and it suddenly hit me that I was writing a very old fashioned history of what seemed to be a grand total of about six old white men. My books until that point had been designed to advance a new kind of political history that followed the interplay of popular opinion and political change and downplayed individual “great men.” I found myself in an intellectual quandary. How could I reconcile my previous “zeitgeist” political history with this new, “great man”-type stuff? I did finally solve it with the help of friends who study politics in developing countries, and who thus seemed to have a very down-to-earth view of political change, but for a few bleak months I actually thought I might have to abandon the project.
What kinds of sources did you read?
I based everything in this book on public primary documents. This turned out to be a great approach, since it quickly became clear that much that we think we “know” is wrong because policies and events have been spun in secondary sources for political reasons. For background, I also read everything I could get my hands on about the changing political climate of America in the eras about which I wrote. I found some wonderful books. Perhaps even more important, though, were the books that were appalling history, designed to advance a political position, because I found myself arguing with them, and I could then hone those arguments and put them in the book.
What is the most controversial argument you make in the book?
Probably that the modern-day Republican Party does not reflect the party’s history, but rather reflects the very ideology the party initially rose to combat.
What is the most interesting thing you learned writing this book?
Can I have three?
1) Grant wasn’t corrupt.
2) Republicans deliberately crashed the economy in 1893 (that was a HUGE shock!)
3) William F. Buckley, Jr. provided the intellectual justification for the modern Republican Party
If you could choose anyone to read the unabridged audio version, who would you choose?
Meryl Streep. I am horrified by how few women’s voices we have in political history and in politics these days. I would like to have a smart charismatic woman take back some of that territory for all of us.