Heather Cox Richardson talks about her “Letters from an American”

Heather-Richardson_online

Many readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home are familiar with historian Heather Cox Richardson‘s “Letters from an American.” Check out Bill Moyers’s interview with Richardson.

Here is a taste:

BILL MOYERS: When you write, do you imagine who might be reading? Can you see particular people or individuals that enables you to connect almost personally with them, as if your letter was to me or to someone else who is among those 400- 500,000 people who read you every day?

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: I have always been a letter writer, and I found when my numbers got over half a million, I couldn’t think about how many people there were out there. I had to think as if I were writing a letter to my brothers and sisters, to my good friends with whom I have had a correspondence since I could hold a pen. I think if it were truly a private letter, I would, you know, make jokes more, or probably use less formal language in some cases. But I always have to think that I’m writing to my friends, and I think maybe that comes through.

BILL MOYERS: Many of the letters are postmarked after midnight, 1:30, 2:20, 3:10. When we wake up, there you are. What toll does it take to keep writing at that hour night after night?

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON: I’m very tired. And it definitely takes a toll. Producing 1,200 words every day, when you’re already working a full-time job is a lot. That being said, it feels like this is a crisis moment in America. And I certainly would not have been doing this ten years ago. But you think of all the sacrifices that people have made to keep this country a democracy and to keep it healthy and to try and keep it equal. It seems to me to be a small price for me to pay to take the extraordinary training I’ve had and all the privilege I’ve had in my life and, you know, stay up a little bit later than I would like to. So the people who really deserve credits are the people in my family who are really understanding about the fact that every night the minute we finish eating, I usually actually put my head down on the dining room table or on my desk and sleep for an hour or two. And then they’ve all gone to bed when I pick my head back up and start typing. And they’ve been really good about it. And I have promised them that it won’t go on forever.

Read the entire interview here.

Heather Cox Richardson on Alan Dershowitz’s Absurd Argument on the Senate Floor

Dershowitz Senate

Here is Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson at her site, “Letters from an American“:

Today, on the floor of the Senate, retired Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz said the quiet part out loud. Trying to argue that it was okay for Trump to withhold congressionally approved funds from Ukraine until Ukraine’s president agreed to smear Trump’s key rival in the 2020 election, Dershowitz said that Trump’s actions were in the public interest because Trump believes that his reelection is what’s best for the country. “Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest… and if a president did something that he believes will help him get elected, in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”

Dershowitz is so far out on a limb on this one he’s dangling out there on the fuzzy tips. Other legal scholars note that his interpretation of what is acceptable behavior from a president quite literally means that the president can do anything to stay in power. Republicans are flocking to Dershowitz’s argument, although some are willing to concede that if a president breaks a law, that would be an impeachable offense. That concession is marred in this case, of course, by the fact that the Government Accountability Office has concluded that Trump did, in fact, break a law by withholding funds from Ukraine, and also by the complication that currently, a 1973 Department of Justice memo does not permit a sitting president to be indicted. Trump’s lawyers are currently in court arguing that a sitting president cannot be investigated, either. So… how would we establish that a president had committed a crime?

In any case, this interpretation is so completely ahistorical and bonkers that lawyers and constitutional scholars are chewing it to bits all over the media tonight. If a president can do anything to get reelected, including using the power of the American government to pressure a foreign country into smearing a rival, under what possible circumstances would we ever have a change in president? He or his selected replacements will rule forever.

But this chilling perversion of the American presidency does say a great deal about today’s Republican leaders. They have bought into the idea that they, and only they, should rule. This has been a long time coming.

Read the rest here.

The Twitterstorians and Trump

Twitter

Historians on Twitter have caught the attention of The New Yorker.  Check out Lizzie Widdicombe’s piece “The Twitterstorians Trying to De-Trumpify U.S. History.”  It covers a Twitterstorians reception at the recent meeting of the American Historical Association in New York City.

The piece includes references to Kevin Kruse (of course), Kevin “The Tattooed Prof” Gannon, Jason Herbert, Robin Mitchell, Heather Cox Richardson, Joanne Freeman, Kevin Levin, Aidine Bettine, Leah LaGrone Ochoa, Ed O’Donnell, and David Trowbridge.

Here is a taste:

“I think it’s a real opportunity for us,” Gannon, who teaches at Grand View University, and whose Twitter handle is @TheTattoedProf, said. “We’re in these public spaces and, to quote Liam Neeson in ‘Taken,’ we have a very particular set of skills.” Gannon, whose burly arms are heavily tattooed, has almost seventy thousand followers and has tangled with D’Souza, too. He has reservations about Twitter as a teaching forum. “It’s not a deliberative space,” he said. “The real struggle for me is it’s very easy to be angry online all the time. But, if all you’re doing is yelling, there’s nothing of substance there.”

David Trowbridge, an associate professor at Marshall University, said, “It’s not us at our best.”

“Well, sometimes it is,” Edward T. O’Donnell, an associate professor at the College of the Holy Cross, said. O’Donnell, whose Twitter handle is @InThePastLane, is the creator of the annual Weemsy Awards, for “the biggest history fails of the year.” He crowdsources the nominations from Twitterstorians. Last year’s winners included President Trump, who said during a Fourth of July speech that George Washington’s army “took over the airports” from the British, and the conservative writer Erick Erickson, who, in criticizing the Times’s 1619 Project, opined about “the cost white people paid to free slaves.”

Gannon argued, “We’re at a particularly dangerous moment, historically speaking,” noting the way that “history, or versions of it, have been weaponized against marginalized communities.” He went on, “When people are reading history and thinking, ‘I wonder what it would be like to live during the Civil War? I certainly would have been one of the good guys,’ well, what you’re doing now is probably what you would have done then.”

“Somebody said that on Twitter a while ago,” O’Donnell said. “It was, like, ‘Remember that time in history class when you were reading about the abolitionist movement and said, ‘I definitely would have stood up’? Well, now is one of those times.”

Trowbridge cleared his throat. “My small viral moment was that one,” he said.

“Oh, that was you?” O’Donnell said. “I instantly retweeted that!”

Trowbridge looked pleased. “I think I went from five followers to five hundred.”

Read the entire piece here.

How Will Historians Remember the Decade (2010-2019)?

Trump iN Dallas

Politico asked historians how the history books will cover the past decade.  Contributors include David Kennedy, Tom Nichols, David Greenberg, Keisha Blain, Peniel Joseph, Heather Cox Richardson, George Nash, Kevin Kruse, Andrew Bacevich, Claire Potter, David Hollinger, Nicole Hemmer, Jack Rakove, and Jeremi Suri.

Here is Heather Cox Richardson:

Polarization and the rise of politically active women

The perfect symbol of the 2010s came in February 2015, when an image of a dress went viral on social media as Americans fought over whether its pattern was #blackandblue or #whiteandgold. America was divided in this decade, with splits over economics, politics, religion and culture exacerbated by social media. A set of increasingly extreme Republicans stayed in power by convincing voters that Democrats under biracial president Barack Obama, whose signature piece of legislation was the Affordable Care Act making health care accessible, were intent on destroying America by giving tax dollars to lazy people of color and feminists who wanted to murder babies. And in 2016, Republicans leaders weaponized social media with the help of Russians to elect to the White House Donald J. Trump, who promised to end this “American carnage.” On the other side, in 2013, the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement helped galvanize those who believed the system was stacked against them. And in January 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration, the Women’s March became the largest single-day protest in American history. By the end of that year, the #MeToo Movement took off as women shared their ubiquitous experiences with sexual harassment and demanded an end to male dominance. In 2018, when Republicans forced through the Senate the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, who had been creditably accused of sexual assault, they helped convinced voters to elect a historic number of women and racial minorities to Congress in in the 2018 midterm elections, almost entirely on the Democratic side. The story of the 2010s is of increasing American polarization, but also the rise of politically active women to defend American democracy against the growing power of a Republican oligarchy.

Read the other entries here.

A Writing Group of Boston-Area American Historians Gets a Story in *Publishers Weekly*

GeorginiCheck out Alex Green’s piece at Publishers Weekly.  The writers group, known as “The Squad,” includes historians Kevin Levin, Liz Covart, Sara Georgini, Megan Kate Nelson, Heather Cox Richardson, and Nina Silber.  (Covart and Georgini have been guests on the The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Listen to our conversation with Covart here.  Georgini here).

Here is a taste of Green’s piece:

Kevin Levin got his first taste of having his work reviewed by the historians in the Book Squad as they finished their obligatory postdinner course of mint chip ice cream. “It took me a little bit of time to pick my ego up off the floor,” Levin said. Despite the intensity of the critique, Levin (who is a faculty colleague of the author of this article at Gann Academy) came to depend on the process for writing Searching for the Black Confederates (Univ. of North Carolina, Sept.). “I don’t think I would have finished the book without it,” he said.

The Book Squad first gathered when Liz Covart, host of the history podcast Ben Franklin’s World, wanted to create a writing group to motivate her to write. Levin signed on, as did historians Sara Georgini, Megan Kate Nelson, Heather Cox Richardson, and Nina Silber.

The group began meeting monthly at each other’s houses in 2015. The host is responsible for dinner and a piece of writing for review. For Georgini, who was completing her dissertation and converting it into a trade title, the group offered an opportunity to share her work with published writers.

“We didn’t do the traditional fetishizing of the person’s work with comments like ‘I really love what you did here,’ ” Georgini said. “We went straight into it.” Her Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family was published by Oxford University Press in February.Black Confeds

In one instance, Heather Cox Richardson told Nelson, “You went the first 18 pages of this chapter before you had a single color.” Nelson, whose The Three-Cornered War will be published by Scribner in February 2020, said the advice has stayed with her, and as a result, she often thinks about ways to bring a more vivid sense of place into all of her writing.

After each session, each member sends written manuscript edits to the author who presented that night, which Silber said was invaluable as she finalized her edits for This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, which was published by UNC Press in 2018.

For Silber, who is an academic, working with the group was challenging at times. “Being in the group, I thought a lot more about how to make my writing lively and engaged and compelling,” she said. “But it was very hard for me to tell this as a story and not add a lot of analysis.”

Silber’s struggle reflects a wider issue. “We’re in this moment where historians are torn between writing for an academic audience or a trade audience,” Georgini said. “What does it mean to write for both? So a lot of these conversations in the Book Squad were about these readers who we were imagining and also the readers we hoped to attract. That was some of the richest dialogue we had.”

Read the entire piece here.

Stacy Abrams Meets With American Historians

Abrams

Stacy Abrams, who lost a very close race for Georgia governor in November, was in Philadelphia on Friday to talk to American historians in town for the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  The topic was voter suppression.  Here is a taste of  Jennifer Schuessler‘s piece at The New York Times:

...last Friday, Ms. Abrams dropped in on a much quieter venue: the Library Company of Philadelphia, founded in 1731 by Ben Franklin, which bills itself as the oldest cultural institution in the United States.

It wasn’t a stop on Ms. Abrams’s book tour. Instead, she was there to participate in an intimate two-hour conversation about the history of voter suppression with four leading scholars. It will be published next year by the University of Georgia Press as part of a new series called History in the Headlines, which aims to bring historical expertise to bear on today’s most hotly debated issues.The Trump era has been a red-alert moment for many historians, who have mobilized in the classroom, on op-ed pages and on social media to combat what they see as the erosion of democratic norms and an attack on truth itself.

For the conversation, the moderator, Jim Downs, a professor at Connecticut College, had recruited what he called a “dream team”: Carol Anderson, the author of “One Person, No Vote;” Heather Cox Richardson, an expert in the history of the Republican Party; Heather Ann Thompson, the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the Attica prison revolt; and Kevin Kruse, who has become famous for his epic Twitter threads smiting the dubious historical claims of pundits and politicians.

Before the event, they seemed galvanized at the prospect of talking with someone who has, as Mr. Kruse put it, skin in the game.

“When the email went out saying she was coming, I was like —,” Dr. Anderson, a professor at Emory University, said, clutching her heart. A few minutes later, Ms. Abrams approached.

Read the entire piece here.

Best History Tweets of 2018

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Over at Slate, Rebecca Onion picks the best historian Twitter threads of 2018.  Click here to read threads from Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Joshua Rothman, Beth Lewis-Williams, Kevin Kruse, Jenny Bann, David Walsh, Seth Cotlar, Keri Leigh Merritt, Heather Cox Richardson, R.L. Barnes, Kevin Gannon, and Joshua Clark Davis.

By the way, you can listen to interviews with Onion and Gannon on episodes of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Onion was our guest on Episode 12 and Gannon was our guest on Episode 26.

Has America Failed?

Russia US Summit in Helsinki, Finland - 16 Jul 2018

Historian Heather Cox Richardson asks this question in a piece at CNN titled “Americans are right to wonder if the Great Experiment has failed.”  Here is a taste:

Americans are right to wonder if, at long last, what George Washington called the Great Experiment has failed, and that our founders have lost their extraordinary wager that regular people could govern themselves better than a few rich men could.

Consider that in his disastrous press conference in Helsinki Monday — and again in a comment before a Cabinet meeting Wednesday — President Donald Trump sided with a hostile foreign oligarchy over our own democracy.

Asked by a reporter Wednesday, “Is Russia still targeting the U.S., Mr. President?,” Trump responded, shaking his head “Thank you very much. No.” (Later, his press secretary, Sarah Sanders, offered that he was saying “no” to answering questions.)

Trump’s alliance with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, in defiance of America’s own intelligence community, the Department of Justice, and the bipartisan report of the Senate Intelligence Committee, forces us to face that the fundamental principles of our nation are under attack.

History suggests the game is not yet lost. Three times before, in the 1850s, the 1890s, and the 1920s, oligarchs took over the American government and threatened to destroy democracy. In each case, they overreached, and regular folks took back their government.

Read the entire piece here.

Why Trump Sees Government as a “Series of Deals”

 

J.P. Morgan

J.P. Morgan

Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson argues that “deal making” in politics is a clear sign of oligarchy.

 

Here is a taste of her recent op-ed at The Washington Post:

His view of government as a broker of bargains rather than an expression of democratic will is nothing new. In fact, it’s been a common feature of oligarchic politics for nearly all of American history. In the light of the oligarchs of the past, Trump’s insistence that some deal could have prevented the Civil War has plenty in common with the anti-democratic wheeling and dealing of big bankers and slaveholders, and their fate bodes ill for the Trump administration.

“Why could that one not have been worked out?” sounds a lot like banking mogul J.P. Morgan’s comment to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902, when Morgan found out that the government was about to slap his giant railroad conglomerate with an antitrust suit. “If we have done anything wrong,” the astonished Morgan said to Roosevelt, “send your man to my man and they can fix it up.”

Read the entire piece here.

Historian Heather Cox Richardson on Trump’s Muslim Ban: “It’s a Shock Event”

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Heather Cox Richardson of Boston College is one of my favorite historians.  I highly recommend her most recent book To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party

Today Richardson gave me permission to publish a piece she recently posted to her Facebook page.

Richardson is probably right in assuming that Steve Bannon is behind Trump’s recent Executive Order on Muslim refugees.  She describes what Bannon is doing as a “shock event.” This is an attempt to throw the country into confusion and chaos so that the administration can present itself as the only entity capable of restoring order.

Richardson explains:

What Bannon is doing, most dramatically with last night’s ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries– is creating what is known as a “shock event.” Such an event is unexpected and confusing and throws a society into chaos. People scramble to react to the event, usually along some fault line that those responsible for the event can widen by claiming that they alone know how to restore order. When opponents speak out, the authors of the shock event call them enemies. As society reels and tempers run high, those responsible for the shock event perform a sleight of hand to achieve their real goal, a goal they know to be hugely unpopular, but from which everyone has been distracted as they fight over the initial event. There is no longer concerted opposition to the real goal; opposition divides along the partisan lines established by the shock event.

Last night’s Executive Order has all the hallmarks of a shock event. It was not reviewed by any governmental agencies or lawyers before it was released, and counterterrorism experts insist they did not ask for it. People charged with enforcing it got no instructions about how to do so. Courts immediately have declared parts of it unconstitutional, but border police in some airports are refusing to stop enforcing it.

Predictably, chaos has followed and tempers are hot.

My point today is this: unless you are the person setting it up, it is in no one’s interest to play the shock event game. It is designed explicitly to divide people who might otherwise come together so they cannot stand against something its authors think they won’t like. I don’t know what Bannon is up to– although I have some guesses– but because I know Bannon’s ideas well, I am positive that there is not a single person whom I consider a friend on either side of the aisle– and my friends range pretty widely– who will benefit from whatever it is. If the shock event strategy works, though, many of you will blame each other, rather than Bannon, for the fallout. And the country will have been tricked into accepting their real goal.richardson

But because shock events destabilize a society, they can also be used positively. We do not have to respond along old fault lines. We could just as easily reorganize into a different pattern that threatens the people who sparked the event. A successful shock event depends on speed and chaos because it requires knee-jerk reactions so that people divide along established lines. This, for example, is how Confederate leaders railroaded the initial southern states out of the Union. If people realize they are being played, though, they can reach across old lines and reorganize to challenge the leaders who are pulling the strings. This was Lincoln’s strategy when he joined together Whigs, Democrats, Free-Soilers, anti-Nebraska voters, and nativists into the new Republican Party to stand against the Slave Power. Five years before, such a coalition would have been unimaginable. Members of those groups agreed on very little other than that they wanted all Americans to have equal economic opportunity. Once they began to work together to promote a fair economic system, though, they found much common ground. They ended up rededicating the nation to a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Confederate leaders and Lincoln both knew about the political potential of a shock event. As we are in the midst of one, it seems worth noting that Lincoln seemed to have the better idea about how to use it.

What Would a Civil War Course Look Like With An All-Female Reading List?

When I think of Civil War buffs I think of middle-aged white men–the kind of men who go to Civil War roundtables, tour battlefields, and read books about generals.  


Does the same thing apply to Civil War scholarship?  Perhaps. But Kevin Levin, the author of the blog Civil War Memory, argues that a darn good undergraduate or graduate course on the Civil War could be designed using only books written by female authors.  

Here are a few of the titles that would make his reading list:
Read his whole book list here.  

The Republican Party and the Income Tax

Ah, the irony of it all.

Heather Cox Richardson reminds us that the Republican Party once championed the federal income tax.  Here is a taste of her post at Bloomsberg:

The government has the right to “demand” 99 percent of a man’s property when the nation needs it.

That was the argument made by a Republican congressman in 1862 to introduce a novel idea: the federal income tax.

The Civil War was then costing the Treasury $2 million a day. To pay for uniforms, guns, food, mules, wagons, bounties and burials, Congress had issued hundreds of millions of dollars of bonds and paper money. But Republicans had a horror of debt and the runaway inflation that paper currency usually caused.

Taxes were the obvious answer. A conservative Republican newspaper declared: “There is not the slightest objection raised in any loyal quarter to as much taxation as may be necessary.”

Until then, taxes in the U.S. had always been apportioned by state according to population, and were generally levied on land holdings. But when it came to the huge sums necessary to fight the Civil War, such direct taxes would ruin farmers.

Instead, Republicans turned to what they called “indirect taxes,” which were essentially sales taxes of 3 percent on all manufactured goods. These, however, wouldn’t be sufficient to raise the needed revenue without making basic necessities prohibitively expensive for most Americans. 

Read the rest here.