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How an alarmed U.S. historian became a Substack superstar

To help cope with an overwhelming feeling that “American democracy truly is on the ropes,” she started publishing daily essays—and she’s not stopping anytime soon.

How an alarmed U.S. historian became a Substack superstar
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For Boston College professor Heather Cox Richardson—an authority on the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction—the last couple of years have felt “very much like a war,” she says. “It’s a war of ideas, but it’s been no less stressful, or dangerous, than what’s happening in someplace like Belarus.” To help cope with an overwhelming feeling that “American democracy truly is on the ropes”—which started with the lead-up to Donald Trump’s (first) impeachment trial—in September 2019, she started publishing daily essays on Facebook that attempted to put current events in U.S. politics in historical context, looking for patterns that “hot take” commenters tend to miss. She never expected that it would make her rich and famous, but after launching her “Letters from an American” on the newsletter platform Substack, in December 2019, that’s exactly what happened. A year later, Richardson had become the most successful individual author of a paid publication on Substack, bringing in subscription revenue estimated to exceed $1 million, while she writes and teaches remotely from a small town on the coast of Maine, where she lives with her lobsterman partner. “They’re called letters for a reason,” Richardson says. “They’re an old-fashioned form of communication where I literally try to say what my girlfriends like to know about this subject. And sometimes it’s not what you would read in the Wall Street Journal.” Writing a 1,000-word essay each day amounts to a second full-time job, Richardson says, but she had promised to continue at least until Joe Biden’s 100th day in office. and has gone longer, especially given Republicans’ rejection of an independent bipartisan investigation of the January 6th insurrection. “I’m in it till I feel like democracy is secure,” she says. “And it’s really not now.”

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