Historic Staff Spotlight: Richard McCulley, Historian of the Records of Congress

We’re taking a look at past staff and their many contributions to the National Archives throughout history. Today’s staff spotlight is in memory of Richard McCulley, who served was Historian at the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives in Washington, DC. 

A native of Texas, Richard Todd McCulley earned his B.A. in government, M.A. in history, and Ph.D. in history—all from the University of Texas at Austin. Richard had a long affiliation with the National Archives via the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library before officially joining the National Archives staff in 1993. 

From 1979 to 1987, Richard served as a research associate tasked with writing the administrative history of the LBJ Presidency. It was a National Endowment for the Humanities–funded project based at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. From 1985 to 1990 he also served as a lecturer there and spent countless hours researching at the LBJ Presidential Library. 

During this time, he published three books that used numerous National Archives resources and contributed greatly to our understanding of federal history: White House Operations: The Johnson Presidency (1986), The Social Safety Net Reexamined: FDR to Reagan (1989), and Banks and Politics During the Progressive Era: Origins of the Federal Reserve System, 1897–1913 (1992).

In 1990 Congress passed legislation that created the Advisory Committee on the Records of Congress and established the position of specialist in congressional history within the Center for Legislative Archives—the part of the National Archives responsible for the official records of Congress. This specialist became known as the Center for Legislative Archives Historian. The Historian was to be responsible for preparing scholarly narrative histories about Congress and promoting the use of the records of Congress archived within the National Archives. 

Richard was hired as the first Center Historian in 1993 and moved to Washington, DC. During his time at the Center, Richard wrote numerous articles and gave countless presentations on subjects found in the Records of Congress. Richard’s work not only promoted the use of archival records, it furthered our understanding of Congress as an institution. 

He also wrote the introduction and promotional materials for the National Archives exhibit Treasures of Congress, which was timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Congress’s move to Washington, DC.

One of Richard’s biggest projects, however, was researching and writing the history of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He compiled an impressive 500-page manuscript using exclusively primary source research. Unfortunately, the history’s sponsor left the Senate before its publication, but it nevertheless remains one of the most comprehensive committee histories to ever be written.  

During the 14th annual Archives Fair in 2010, Richard sat on a panel titled, “The Diverse Role of the Agency Historian.” The panelists highlighted the critical role federal historians play and advocated for the creation of an official historian at the National Archives. This talk helped pave the way for the creation of the position of National Archives Historian in 2013.

In 2011 Richard was instrumental in creating and administering a fellowship program at the Center that existed from 2011 to 2014. The fellowship was designed to support scholarly work in U.S. history that is based on research in the records of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Out of the fellowship grew a series of brown bag discussions whereby fellowship applicants talked to staff about their projects. These were so popular with staff that Richard was asked to make them publicly available. From that was born a series of researcher talks whereby historians spoke about their research projects based on the records at the National Archives. Many of these talks can be viewed on the National Archives YouTube channel.

Richard was also a liaison with many historical organizations and an active member of the Society for History in the Federal Government—an organization that promotes federal history. He served in numerous capacities including as its treasurer, vice president, and president. He often spoke at conferences and other events and gave workshops on researching legislative branch records.

Richard’s legacy isn’t limited to scholarly research; he also contributed enormously to the camaraderie of the Center for Legislative Archives. He and his husband, Robert, generously hosted numerous holiday parties and work get-togethers at his home on Capitol Hill. Personally, some of my fondest memories from my own time at the Center were made at Richard and Bob’s house. 

Richard retired from the National Archives in 2016 and passed away on March 15, 2024. He is remembered by countless friends and colleagues whose lives have been forever touched by him. 

You can learn more about Richard McCulley in his 2016 oral history interview.

His 2009 Prologue magazine article, “Cartography, Politics—and Mischief: Ephraim Gilman’s 1848 Map of the United States, Now Expanded Coast to Coast,” co-authored with Mark J. Stegmaier, is also available online.

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