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The American Political Tradition and the Men who Made It by Richard Hofstadter

This article was originally published on Videri.org and is republished here with their permission.

Hofstadter’s 1948 epic continues to find new readers among undergrads and grad students, as well as the oft-mentioned-but-rarely-observed “educated general interest reader of history” 70 years after its publication. Trends in historiography may have left Hofstadter far behind, but that may be all to the good in the case of The American Political Tradition. The book’s twelve chapters offer largely psychological insight into major political figures such as the Founding Fathers and the pro-slavery aristocrat John Calhoun. He sets them against the social context of their time and probes the deeper casts of mind that led them to craft the Constitution, preserve the union, or oversee the corruption of the Gilded Age.

Hofstadter portrays the giants of US political history as men of their time and place, who were nonetheless caught up in circumstances they could dimly understand and scarcely control. Grover Cleveland was an honest but simple-minded public servant, a committed believer in bourgeois virtues of thrift and propriety – in other words, the perfect cipher for an age when moneyed interests were robbing the public blind. Hofstadter cast FDR as “the patrician as opportunist,” who never set out to become a figurehead of radical discontent but who still managed to employ his charms and charisma to take advantage of the moment. Lincoln’s “little engine” of ambition brought him to the pinnacle of power, but it also left him with a burden of wartime leadership that he shouldered with a tragic, vaguely Christian sense of responsibility. (If Lincoln was auditioning to be Christ, he was all too aware how the story would end – and that the outcome was out of his hands.)

The finest contribution of The American Political Tradition is its humane approach to people in the past. The book has often been described as “literary,” which is a nice way of saying it is not as stilted and dry as most academic history (or this post). It is literary in another way: like fiction, it goes beyond examining the significance of events to introduce us to recognizable human beings, people with hang-ups, anxieties, and mixed motivations who grope for the right path, as they understand it. Few historians do this well, even when they try. Hofstadter’s approach is marked by both irony and empathy for his historical subjects, including the vain and the powerful.

The book may benefit from lissome prose and keen insight, but it remains vulnerable to criticism. While not quite qualifying as "psychohistory," the book does examine the past by attempting to deduce the inner mental workings of long-dead historical figures. This effort is a reflection of the in vogue use of Freudian psychoanalysis after World War II. The book also focuses almost exclusively on men, but that fact is not surprising for a study written in 1948 that deals in large part with presidents (a largely male group in the US).

Although it is often classified within the work of “consensus” historians who celebrated America’s liberal democratic heritage in the 1940s and 1950s, the book’s larger insight was simply that basic assumptions about property rights and capitalism seemed to endure throughout US history, regardless of how many divergent personalities passed through the scene:

"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."

Hofstadter may have believed in the sturdiness of this creed, but he did not celebrate it. A recovering Marxist in 1948, he still viewed the grasping avariciousness and blind obedience to property that defined American history with bittersweet resignation. It may be that Hofstadter marked the boundaries of American discourse accurately; certainly, today’s political universe in the US seems pinched and impoverished, with even a Progressive president like Barack Obama unwilling to commit to policies that smack of socialism and “big government.”

He also may have overlooked the hints of native radicalism that other historians have found among the American revolutionaries, the populist farmers of the South, and the many Americans who made socialism a vital movement in the early twentieth century. Only the abolitionist Wendell Phillips comes across in Hofstadter’s study as a principled radical above the demands of self-interest and retail politics.

If The American Political Tradition had been subtitled And the People Who Made It, we might have seen a chapter on Victoria Woodhull, the radical proponent of women’s rights and free love who ran for president in 1872. How did she fit into the tradition? A book like that — which married Hofstadter’s keen eye for a character with a contemporary view of the past — might reveal a more extensive political tradition than the one found in this (still excellent) book.

Check out other great articles at Videri.org.

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