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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.

Hofstadter, though, was never comfortable with Higham's label. He claimed he didn't even have a central theme or argument in mind when he wrote the book. Even the six-page introduction, he later said, was coughed up only at the insistence of his editor. In a stroke he downgraded the much-scrutinized "thesis" of his book to the status of an afterthought.

The debate over whether Hofstadter was celebrating, lamenting, or indicting the narrow boundaries of the American political tradition underscores an important ambiguity in his work. I would argue that Hofstadter was doing all these things. Frustrated as he was with the tradition, he also esteemed it. "Critical of many aspects of American life," the historian C. Vann Woodward said at a memorial when Hofstadter died, "he never joined the fashionable cult of anti-Americanism."

IN debunking patriotic platitudes while still cherishing our national heritage, The American Political Tradition embodies some of the best qualities of twentieth-century liberalism, and the book's continued popularity may be owing as much to its philosophy as to its literary charms or the singular historiographical niche it occupies. More than the volumes by Hartz and Boorstin, such contemporaneous works as Schlesinger's The Vital Center and Lionel Trilling's The Liberal Imagination are the book's true bedfellows. Hofstadter not only was personally close to the authors of these books but shared with them a modernist determination to position liberalism between poles of hidebound conservatism and knee-jerk sentimentalism.

As the political scientist Ira Katznelson has said, Hofstadter wrote The American Political Tradition during "dark times" for Enlightenment liberalism. Though fascism was going down to defeat in Europe, the prospect of its revival remained harrowing, as the Red scare blanketed America. Soviet communism was seducing the left all over again, and jaded intellectuals were suggesting, diabolically, that liberalism and rationalism were somehow responsible for Nazism and the Holocaust. Frightened by these trends, Hofstadter and the others joined the battle for liberalism's soul. In The American Political Tradition, Hofstadter warned of the dangers of turning the past into an ideological tool. This was a belief he shared with the anti-Stalinist literary critics of the Partisan Review, but one that as a historian he was uniquely positioned to express.

Hofstadter was reacting not just to the left- and right-wing ideologues of his own day but also to Charles Beard (again), Van Wyck Brooks, and other forerunners who had sought what Brooks called a "usable past" -- history that could be put in the service of social justice. In Brooks's era the notion seemed an advance, a step in the march of progress. By Hofstadter's day the Nazis and Stalinists, by manipulating history for their own evil purposes, had exposed the naiveté of the "usable past" doctrine. Hofstadter preferred not to "use" the past but, as Christopher Lasch pointed out, to "assimilate" it -- to understand how history shaped his own political and intellectual climate without boiling it down to practical lessons. Throughout The American Political Tradition,Hofstadter reminded the reader that history yields few simple verdicts and that American ideals are frequently irreconcilable.

Most notably, Hofstadter pointed out how liberty and democracy often clash. His chapter on the Founding Fathers, in particular, borrows from Beard a cynicism about those aristocrats' unflattering view of the masses. But Hofstadter departed from Beard's dualistic view of the founding as a war between the selfish rich and the virtuous commonfolk. Far more than Beard, he seemed grateful for the Founders' sagacity. Again taking on his favorite target, Hofstadter wrote that modern American folklore

assumes that democracy and liberty are all but identical, and when democratic writers take the trouble to make the distinction, they usually assume that democracy is necessary to liberty. But the Founding Fathers thought that the liberty with which they were most concerned was menaced by democracy. In their minds liberty was linked not to democracy but to property.

If this view of the Founders strips away some of their sheen, so be it; Hofstadter scorned their "rigid adherence to property rights." Yet he also credited them with an admirable realism: "The result was that while they thought self-interest the most dangerous and unbrookable quality of man, they necessarily underwrote it in trying to control it." He quoted the clergyman Jeremy Belknap: "Let it stand as a principle that government originates from the people; but let the people be taught ... that they are not able to govern themselves." Hofstadter knew this was an unpleasant thing to say. But he was not so much the idealist that he chose to declare it untrue.

In Hofstadter's sketches almost every one of America's liberal heroes comes through as a less-than-ardent democrat. Andrew Jackson was an "unreflective man" who "swung to the democratic camp when the democratic camp swung to him." For Lincoln, "democracy was not broad enough to transcend color lines." Woodrow Wilson believed only that "the nation must steer a middle course between the plutocracy and the masses." And Franklin Roosevelt's view of foreign affairs, "however democratic as to ends, was far from democratic as to means."

Why did Hofstadter need to point out that nearly every American hero had imperfect credentials as a democrat? His corrective remarks were aimed, I think, not at the historical actors themselves (for he did not entirely hold it against them) but at the mythmakers, at the purveyors of the "literature of hero-worship and national self-congratulation," whom he derided in his introduction.

THE literary critic Alfred Kazin recalled in his journals his close friendship with Hofstadter and Hofstadter's first wife, Felice Swados, a writer and editor, who died at age twenty-nine. Kazin remembered most of all Hofstadter's riotous sense of humor. During the Depression, Kazin wrote,

Felice seriously tried to get Dick work in a nightclub as a stand-up comic. We all howled when he did his imitation of FDR and of the Ozark farmer whose daughter had fallen into the well. "Must get her out of there one of these days."

C. Vann Woodward wrote that Hofstadter possessed "a mischievous wit and a marvelous gift for spotting the absurd.... the talents out of which great satirists and caricaturists are made."

Hofstadter's books aren't laugh-out-loud funny. Serious scholarship has a way of filtering out the belly laughs. It does, however, allow for a softer kind of wit, and Hofstadter's irony in The American Political Tradition is both cutting and amusing. "Because the abiding significance of their deeds would be so great and so good," he wrote of the Gilded Age moguls, "they did not need to fret about their day-to-day knaveries." Of Hoover he wrote dryly, if poignantly, "The man who had fed Europe had become a symbol of hunger, the brilliant administrator a symbol of disaster."

Like his literary gifts, Hofstadter's sardonic humor was more than adornment. It demonstrated his taste for what he liked to call "complexity" -- the refusal to settle for neat answers. He took inordinate pains to complicate every picture. In discussing Lincoln, for example, he carefully steered between vaunting Lincoln's "plainness" and revealing that Lincoln was "thoroughly and completely the politician." He wrote, "Lincoln's simplicity was very real.... But he was also a complex man, easily complex enough to know the value of his own simplicity." And then, backtracking once more, "But self-conscious as the device was ... there was still no imposture in it."

This sort of seesawing can seem timid, wishy-washy. But with the hoar of the years, this tentativeness seems a welcome sign of humility. Besides, Hofstadter counterbalanced it with a brazen confidence, like an invigorating spike of alcohol in a sweet punch. After all, this twenty-seven-year-old one-time author was daring to pronounce on every major political figure and period in U.S. history, and there are plenty of places where Hofstadter's callowness makes the reader cringe slightly. The criticisms he leveled at his subjects resemble one another just a little too much: not only were his subjects all imperfect democrats, but many were overweening moralists, too. William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson -- very different men -- were all bashed for their self-righteousness. Many others failed to measure up intellectually. A bit too haughtily, Hofstadter fired away at three of the few Presidents who might be called intellectuals: TR's mind, he wrote, "did not usually cut very deep"; Wilson failed "to grapple with economics" as President; and even Jefferson, the sage of Monticello, "never attempted to write a systematic book of political theory -- which was well, because he had no system." (In addition, his all-male revue of the men who made the tradition strikes the modern ear as embarrassingly incomplete -- though of course his omission says more about the 1940s than about Hofstadter personally.)

It's tempting to turn to Hofstadter's biography for clues to the source of his remarkable self-assurance. His mother had died when he was ten, and his first wife, Felice, was gripped by illness while still in her twenties. In his journals Alfred Kazin hinted tantalizingly about how Felice's ordeal affected her husband: "Dick, looking after her, sitting by her side in a darkened room, began The American Political Tradition in the dark, on a yellow pad, not always able to see his words." One can read only so much into this sentence. But it's easy to imagine the young Hofstadter struck anew by the evanescence of life, determined to record, while he had the chance, his "distillation" of all he had learned. Kazin's own poetic language -- the repetition of "dark" creating a sense of enveloping doom -- suggests a certain no-time-to-waste determination on the part of his friend, a realization that to busy himself with the little questions would be to betray life. No wonder C. Vann Woodward described Hofstadter as a hard man to vacation with, one who always had typewriter and bibliographies in tow.

So it turned out that when his own life was cut short, by leukemia, at age fifty-four in 1970, Hofstadter had already written a lifetime's worth of lasting history. "It seems almost unkind to speak of Richard Hofstadter as a fulfilled historian -- when he was cut down so cruelly in his prime," Woodward said at the memorial service. "Yet in quantity as well as quality, in grace of style as well as in subtlety of scholarship ... the richness and abundance of his creative work proclaim a valorous fulfillment."

David Greenberg, formerly the acting editor of The New Republic, is a Richard Hofstadter fellow in American history at Columbia University.

Illustration by Mark Summers

The Atlantic Monthly; November 1998; Richard Hofstadter's Tradition; Volume 282, No. 5; pages 132-137.