Richard Hildreth

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Richard Hildreth (June 28, 1807 in Deerfield, Mass. - July 10/11, 1865 in Florence, Italy), was an American historian, lawyer, journalist, novelist, reformer, anti-slavery activist, and philosopher. He is best known for his well-researched, highly accurate, but passionless and dull History of the United States of America in six volumes.


He was the first child of Sarah McLeod and Hosea Hildreth (1782-1835). From 1811 to 1825, Hosea Hildreth was professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy, N.H., where he also taught English, ancient and modern and especially American history, and chemistry. In 1825, Hosea Hildreth was ordained as priest by Abiel Holmes, the father of Oliver Wendell Holmes. Before he became for eight years a Congregational minister in Gloucester in 1825, in a parish much ridden by the controversies between orthodox Congregationalists and Unitarians, he already had been for four years a minister at the Second Congregational Church in Exeter.

Richard Hildreth visited Phillips Exeter Academy from 1816 on, and Harvard College since 1822, graduating there in 1826. For a short time he was a teacher in Concord, which neither fitted his interests nor his ambition. In 1827, he began studying law at Newburyport, Massachusetts, and in 1829 he became an attorney in Boston, where he became a partner, at No. 10 State Street, of the wellknown Richard Fletcher. Nevertheless, he disliked this profession too, since the American law and jurisdiction called forth his critique.

He wished writing for a large audience, so he became joint founder and editor of the Boston Daily Atlas. Its first issue appeared on July 2, 1832, and the paper was anti-Jacksonian and critical towards the corrupt cabals of the administration. From autumn 1834 to spring 1836, he lived in Florida because of his poor health. During these months, he wrote the first American anti-slavery novel The Slave; or, Memoirs of Archy Moore (1836, later retitled and revised) and made notes for a polemical-critical essay on slavery, published in 1840 as Despotism in America, which gained him some fame in Abolitionist circles. After his return, Hildreth lived with his mother and siblings in Gloucester.

Since February 1837, his work for the Atlas intisified: not least because of the depression, he reported from late summer 1837 to April 1838 from Washington, where his articles sometimes caused severe criticisms and anger. Early in 1839, his younger brother Samuel died.

He was led by what he witnessed of the evils of slavery (chiefly in Florida). In 1837 he wrote for the Atlas a series of articles vigorously opposing the annexation of Texas. In the same year he published Banks, Banking, and Paper Currencies, a work which helped to promote the growth of the free banking system in America. In 1838 he resumed his editorial duties on the Atlas, but in 1840 removed, on account of his health, to British Guiana, where he lived for three years and was editor of two weekly newspapers in succession at Georgetown, Guyana. From September 1846 to September 1847, Hildreth lived again in Demerara. In 1849 he published the first three volumes of his History of the United States, adding two more volumes in 1851 and the sixth and last in 1852. The first three volumes of this history, his most important work, deal with the period from 1492 to 1789, and the second three with the period up to 1821. The history is notable for its painstaking accuracy and candor. The later volumes favor the Federalist Party. In dealing with the Jeffersonians, Hildreth calls them both "Republicans" and "Democrats" on the same page, but never "Democratic Republicans." Hildreth's Japan as It Was and Is (1855) was at the time a valuable digest of the information contained in other works on that country (new ed., 1906). He also wrote a campaign biography of William Henry Harrison (1839); Theory of Morals (1844); and Theory of Politics (1853), as well as Lives of Atrocious Judges (1856), compiled from Lord Campbell's two works. Between 1857 and 1860 Hildreth wrote several anti-slavery tracts for the fledgling Republican party under various pseudonyms.

In the middle of the 1850's he moved to New York, where he began writing for Horace Greeley's radical New York Tribune. In 1857, due to a financial crisis, he lost almost all of his savings, which he had invested in railway loans. His health was so bad, that he decided once more to leave the United States and to live alone in Demerara. This was the third time he did so.

Poor health forced him to retire from his writing career in 1860. Massachusetts Governor Nathaniel Prentiss Banks and Senator Charles Sumner successfully lobbied for Hildreth's appointment as the United States consul at Trieste in 1861. But his health deteriorated so severely that he had to resign. Under humiliating conditions, he and his wife had to travel through Italy to give her the chance to earn their livelihood by portrait paintings. He died in Florence, Italy, where he is buried in the Protestant Cemetery, called the English Cemetery, beside the grave of Theodore Parker. His wife died two years later of cholera, on August 18, 1867 in Naples.