The American Political Tradition (1948)

In 1942, Hofstadter completed his Ph.D. at Columbia and took a job at the University of Maryland, where his colleagues included the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills and the historian Kenneth Stampp. While living in Maryland, Felice gave birth to a son, Dan. Soon thereafter, she fell ill with terminal cancer. It was in the shadow of impending tragedy, during the 1944-45 academic year, that Hofstadter set to work on his second book, a survey of ideas in American politics. Alfred Kazin recalls that Hofstadter wrote "on a pad in [Felice's] darkened sickroom; he could not see the first words, but he finished the book" [41]. By the time he had completed the manuscript, Felice was dead.
American Political Tradition Book Jacket.

Book jacket for original edition of The American Political Tradition.

Hofstadter had produced the work that many still consider to be his finest: The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. Despite the celebratory ring of its title, this book of short biographical sketches ("not painted in roseate colors," he warned) offers an intensely critical look behind the sentimentalities of American politics: in the introduction, Hofstadter announces his intention to peel away the "national nostalgia," the deceptive symbols of apparent controversy, to reveal a "central faith," a fundamental consensus around property rights, the philosophy of economic individualism, and the prerogatives of private enterprise [42, 43]. The result of his efforts, according to historian Eric Foner, is "one of the most devastating indictments of American political culture ever written," a narrative that suggests the hollowness of the American political tradtion and its inapplicability to the needs of the present moment [44]. At the same time, Hofstadter managed to make The American Political Tradition thrilling and even, at certain moments, uproariously funny. His highly readable and entertaining satire would serve as a resource for generations of specialists and lay readers alike.

Hofstadter structured his narrative around the country's leading political figures, from the Founding Fathers up through Franklin D. Roosevelt. Again challenging Charles Beard's emphasis on conflict, he began by demonstrating that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 ("a fraternity of types of absentee ownership") was marked by a fundamental consensus based around the need to head off radical challenges to property rights [45]. He then moved on to Thomas Jefferson, another "overdramatized" figure in need of sober scrutiny, further developing some of the ideas in his graduate school essay on the third president [46]. Hofstadter's central argument was that despite his reputation for opposing Federalist elitism and the spread of market relations in the name of agrarian democracy, Jefferson did more than any other officeholder to advance the creation of an urban, industrialized society.

Cover page, "William Leggett, Spokesman of Jacksonian Democracy"

Hofstadter's 1943 article, "William Leggett: Spokesman of Jacksonian Democracy," laid the basis for his discussion of Andrew Jackson in The American Political Tradition.

Notes on "the Spoilsmen," page one

Notes for Chapter 7 of The American Political Tradition: "The Spoilsmen: An Age of Cynicism."

Further paradoxes defined the career of Andrew Jackson. Far from opposing the monied elite, as many believed, this brutal slaver, rapacious lawyer, and wealthy landowner was simply a political opportunist who actually "disapproved of" the populist uprising that he rode into office [47]. Hofstadter challenged Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s influential interpretation of Jackson as a champion of the people against the oligarchs, arguing that he was better understood as an advocate of business enterprise, laissez-faire economics, and the expansion of capitalist property relations.

Hofstadter slayed many sacred cows in The American Political Tradition, but he also sanctified some profane ones (albeit with his tongued firmly in his cheek). The hated Southern secessionist John C. Calhoun, in Hofstadter's unforgettable formulation, is "the Marx of the Master-Class," a surprising source of fresh insights who stands outside of liberal consensus and stubbornly resists America's deepest political traditions. (Hofstadter followed up this chapter with a 1949 journal article, entitled "From Calhoun to the Dixiecrats," in which he connected the 19th century secessionist to his segregationist heirs in the Southern wing of the postwar Democratic Party.) Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, has been made the subject of a poignant and tragic "legend," but he merely reacted to circumstances that he was unable to master, only responding to the crises of his presidency under the pressure of public opinion; even the Emancipation Proclamation, for Hofstadter, contained "all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading" [48].

The only character in Hofstadter's comedy of errors to emerge unscathed is the New England abolitionist Wendell Phillips, who is also (perhaps not coincidentally) the only one of his subjects to have never held political office. The chapter on Phillips, in many ways at odds with the rest of The American Political Tradition, finds Hofstadter striking a rare note of admiration. He clearly identifies with Phillips' lifelong solemn opposition to the powerful and the corrupt, even if he is put off by the Bostonian's extreme moral inflexibility. By contrast, in his chapter on the Gilded Age elite, or "the Spoilsmen," Hofstadter gleefully skewers his subjects with scintillating one-liners and well-chosen quotations. Take, for instance, his deadpan verdict on James G. Blaine: "'When I want a thing,' the Plumed Knight once said to his wife, 'I want it dreadfully.' It might have been the motto of a whole generation of Americans who wanted things dreadfully, and took them" [49]. 

The closer that Hofstadter approaches to his own moment, the more cynical his prose becomes. The great Populist orator William Jennings Bryan, for instance, is not the tireless partisan of social justice that so many imagine, but rather, a backward-looking provincial who has failed to accept modern cultural norms. Theodore Roosevelt is not a gentlemanly guardian of the public interest, but rather, a conservative posing as a reformer - a "stabilizer of the status quo" - who sometimes betrays a frightening "penchant for sudden violence" [50, 51].

"From Calhoun to the Dixiecrats"

Cover page of a draft of Hofstadter's 1949 article, "From Calhoun to the Dixiecrats."

In the final chapter of The American Political Tradition, Hofstadter offers a dim assessment of Franklin D. Roosevelt and works to deflate the "legend" that has sprung up among those who have fallen "under his spell [52]. Like Lincoln, he argues, Roosevelt has received far more credit for his accomplishments than he deserves. As president, he inspired confidence with his genial demeanor and his positive attitude, but in fact he did little to resolve the various crises over which he presided [53]. Reminding his readers that mobilization for war, and not the New Deal, brought the country out of the Depression, Hofstadter writes: "The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor did for [FDR] what the Confederate attack on Sumter had done for Lincoln" [54]. 

The American Political Tradition ends on an ambiguous note. Hofstadter suggests that Franklin D. Roosevelt's legacy has brought liberalism to a crossroads: the long tradition of individualism that his book describes had finally given way to a new collectivism and a managerial conception of the economy, but the New Deal would be better characterized as "a chaos of experimentation" than as the expression of a systematic and fully-articulated social theory [55]. As such, the new liberalism remains under-developed, incoherent, and without direction.

Clearly, Hofstadter was concerned with challenging the complacencies of the New Deal liberalism and with pointing out the inadequacies of the American liberal tradition that preceded it. As the historian Christopher Lasch has written, he was again at least implicitly challenging Charles Beard and the Progressive historians: where they had seen "clear-cut" differences between, say, Jefferson and the Federalists, Hofstadter pointed to a consensus in favor of business interests that often took on the appearance of opposition [56]. But unlike the "consensus historians" of the 1950s, who would celebrate ideological harmony as a source of American strength and stability, Hofstadter, in Lasch's terms, "saw this agreement as a form of intellectual bankruptcy and as a reflection, moreover, not of a healthy sense of the practical but of the domination of American political thought by popular mythologies" [57].