Ideology, Power, and Principle

Merle Curti Letter

Letter from Merle Curti, 1946.

In 1938, Hofstadter completed a master's in American history at Columbia and made the decision to continue on as a doctoral student in the same department. That fall, Hofstadter met the historian Merle Curti, who would serve as a fitting mentor both because of his left-wing sympathies and for his pioneering work in the field of intellectual history. Up until this point, Hofstadter had written works of political history that were supported with economic statistics, vote tallies, and close readings of legislative debates. Through Curti, he had found an approach to history that combined social analysis with his interest in ideas -- and, in particular, political ideology [24]. 

Included in this exhibition are portions of a term paper that Hofstadter wrote, entitled "Jefferson's Ideas on Class Relations," for Curti's course on "The History of American Social Thought." In this essay, Hofstadter argues that Jefferson's disappointment with the course of American history in the nineteenth century -- the development of cities, the concentration of economic and political power, the stratification of social classes -- stemmed from his naïve expectation that westward settlement would lead to an egalitarian distribution of property. Hofstadter, moreover, employs a somewhat crude Marxist ideology-critique, attributing Jefferson's "fail[ure] to make class struggle an integral part of his social theory" to the Virginian's status as a "slave-owning aristocrat" [25]. In his impassioned and militant conclusion, Hofstadter notes that Jefferson's ideas are of no use to those living through the present social crisis: "The small farmers have been outnumbered and crushed; the landed Southerners have become servitors rather than opponents of the great capitalists, into whose hand control has fallen; and the city 'mobs' -- those 'panders [sic] of vice and the instruments by which the libeties of a country are generally overturned' -- have become 'the people,' upon whom the preservation of democracy depends" [26].

A similar sense of urgency pervades a research paper that Hofstadter wrote about the politics of the urban working class in the 1830s and '40s. The essay, pages of which are reproduced below, suggests that his worldview in the 1930s was, like that of many of his young contemporaries, shaped by his involvement in radical politics. Unlike his essay on Jefferson and his undergraduate thesis on the sectional crisis, this essay concerns the ideas not of elites but of the "plain people" (specifically, the mechanics of New York City). On the third page excerpted below, Hofstadter writes that he intends to clarify "the social controls which kept [their] class consciousness from getting out of reasonable and safe bounds," and to ultimately examine "the dynamics of mass political attitudes during the critical depression of 1837" [27].

Evicted sharecroppers along Highway 60, New Madrid County, Missouri

Evicted sharecroppers in Missouri, 1939. Credit: Library of Congress.

In his master's thesis, Hofstadter made an even more explicit political intervention, choosing to study a contemporary subject captured in his title: "the Southeastern Cotton Tenants Under the AAA, 1933-1935." His analysis showed that the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which was enacted under President Franklin D. Roosevelt in order to provide relief to struggling farmers, instead primarily benefited powerful Southern landowners to the detriment of the rural poor. Hofstadter grounded his critique in history, showing how the legacies of slavery and the post-emancipation sharecropping system had contributed to the failings of current policies [28].

Late in his life, Hofstadter would comment that all of his work was "in a certain sense, topical in [its] inspiration. That is to say, I have always begun with a concern with some present reality and have been led to see the past in the light of current problems and controversies" [29]. In the case of the Great Depression, he noted, "the first [political campaign] that engaged my feelings [was] that of 1932. Moreover, I came of age in a great industrial center, Buffalo, New York, which was fast in the grip of the depression. My mind, in common with others of my generation, was formed on the politics of the depression and the New Deal. It was also shaped by an uncomfortable awareness of the advance of fascism in Europe, and by the threat of a great world war" [30]. Hofstadter's writings from the late 1930s, when he was a graduate student at Columbia University, evince not only "topical inspiration," but also a strong commitment to social justice.