Richard Hofstadter's Tradition

Fifty years ago, amid trying personal circumstances, an audacious young historian wrote a book of lasting merit about American Presidents and their politics

WORKS of philosophy can last for millennia, novels for centuries. Works of history, if they're really good, survive maybe a generation. But Richard Hofstadter's is now celebrating its fiftieth year in print and remains a solid backlist seller. High school students, undergraduates, and graduate students read it, as do lay readers. Journalists grab it off the shelf when they need to pepper a column with a dash of historical authority. Academic historians revere it too: whenever they set out to write about it, they end up producing panegyrics. Like a robust octogenarian, the vigorous old book invites us to inquire of it the secrets of its longevity.
Begun in 1943, when Hofstadter was just twenty-seven years old, and completed four years later, The American Political Tradition launched the young scholar on his career as the pre-eminent historian of his time. He had already written one book, Social Darwinism in American Thought; it had been his graduate thesis, under Merle Curti, at Columbia University, and it remains one of the most important books on the subject. After graduating, Hofstadter taught briefly at the University of Maryland but soon returned to Columbia, where he taught for the balance of his career.

There he wrote not only The American Political Tradition but several other provocative and enduring works. Of these perhaps the most notable was his 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Reform, which introduced his idea of "status politics" -- the notion that people act less from pure economic self-interest than from a desire to preserve their social standing -- and controversially portrayed the late-nineteenth-century Populists as moved by fears of modernity, nostalgia for an agrarian past, and no small amount of bigotry. Revisionists have since poked fatal holes in this portrait (for example, Hofstadter overstated the Populists' nativism and gave short shrift to their legitimate and well-developed critique of Gilded Age capitalism), yet the book still serves for historians of populism (and progressivism) as the point of departure for their work. Among his other influential books were Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), another Pulitzer Prize winner, and the oft-cited (1965).

however, remains Hofstadter's most read and most loved book. It comprises a series of mini-biographies -- ten individual lives, from Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson to Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and two group portraits (the Founding Fathers, the robber barons) -- that span the nation's history. Hofstadter subjected America's heroes, and a few villains, to a critical scrutiny they had previously escaped, yet he did so without the bloodthirsty zeal we have come to associate with "revisionist" history. The American Political Tradition exudes an air of maturity belying its author's later claim that it was "visibly a young man's book."

It presumes no inherent tradeoff between accessibility and profundity. Hofstadter's sentences are crisp -- epigrammatic but not opaque. For example: "To become President, Lincoln had had to talk more radically on occasion than he actually felt; to be an effective President he was compelled to act more conservatively than he wanted." Or: Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison, of the Gilded Age, "were as innocent of distinction as they were of corruption and they have become famous in American annals chiefly for their obscurity."

Hofstadter's lapidary style is important for more than just the pleasure it affords. It also reflects his conviction that, as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put it, "history is a part of literature and therefore should be as much a conscious art as fiction or poetry." Though Hofstadter made use of psychological and sociological research and concepts, he never kidded himself that history was a science, or that one could "prove" a historical point. He preferred the beauty of insight to the brawn of proof. Long after proofs have been disproved, he knew, insights remain fresh.

Though The American Political Tradition abstains from the inside-the-field nitpicking that characterizes many of today's academic histories, it does implicitly -- sometimes explicitly -- take issue with its predecessors. Hofstadter loved nothing more than replacing myth with history. His takedown of Thomas Jefferson begins, "The mythology that has grown up around Thomas Jefferson is as massive and imposing as any in American history," and what follows is an effort to cut through the thicket. A portrait emerges not of a rigorous philosopher but of a man inconstant in his views and approaches to governing -- almost fickle. Hofstadter wrote, "The Lincoln legend has come to have a hold on the American imagination that defies comparison with anything else in political mythology." Revision follows, and we get a new sense of Lincoln, as a tragic hostage to his own ambition. These arguments, however, are profound quarrels with obdurate myths, not hairsplitting quibbles with rival academics or gleeful "gotcha" attacks against Oedipal fathers.

THERE is one historian whose specter unduly haunts The American Political Tradition: Charles A. Beard, the great Progressive historian of the generation before Hofstadter's. Hofstadter never shook his fixation with Beard, even to the point of visiting it on his readers a little too often (later in life he wrote a book about Beard, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Vernon L. Parrington -- The Progressive Historians). But at least this rebellion was of major import. Beard and his fellow Progressives had highlighted as the central thread of American history unremitting conflict between moneyed interests and the popular will. Hofstadter instead saw continuities and unities in America's past, a surprising absence of conflict. As he wrote in the book's introduction,

The fierceness of the political struggles [in American history] has often been misleading; for the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise.... The sanctity of private property, the right of the individual to dispose of and invest it, the value of opportunity, and the natural evolution of self-interest and self-assertion, within broad legal limits, into a beneficent social order have been staple tenets of the central faith in American political ideologies; these conceptions have been shared in large part by men as diverse as Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Cleveland, Bryan, Wilson, and Hoover.

Thus some historians have placed The American Political Tradition, along with some of Hofstadter's other works, at the heart of the "consensus" school of history that defined the postwar era. The historian John Higham famously grouped Hofstadter's writings with Louis Hartz's Liberal Tradition in America and Daniel Boorstin's Genius of American Politics as works that expressed gratitude for the absence in this country of the class strife and political instability that had devastated Europe over the previous 200 years. Some readers even came to criticize Hofstadter as excessively celebratory of America.

Presented by

David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism & media studies at Rutgers University, is the author of several books of presidential history. He writes the History Lesson column for Slate.

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