College Years: The Making of A Scholar
Richard Hofstadter entered the University of Buffalo in the Fall of 1933. He began his studies as a philosophy major before shifting to history, in large part due to the influence of Professor Julius Pratt .
Pratt was a critic of the Progressive school of historians, who interpreted American history as a set of clashes between competing economic interests. For instance, in their influential 1927 book, The Rise of American Civilization, historians Charles and Mary Ritter Beard had argued that the sectional crisis leading up to the Civil War was symptomatic of an underlying economic struggle between manufacturers in the industrializing North and large planters in the agrarian South.
Hofstadter followed Pratt in challenging the Beards' interpretation of antebellum sectional conflict . In his senior thesis - the title page of which appears at right - he concluded that they had overstated the degree to which Northern businessmen were united in favor of protective tariffs and the homestead bill, and that the evidence suggested that a substantial fraction of “the capitalist class of the North” opposed Lincoln’s Republican Party, “this opposition being based upon economic reasons” . Crucial to understanding the election of 1860, moreover, was something that previous historians had overlooked: the central role played by immigrant voters in the Northwest, who, lured by the homestead issue, switched their allegiance to the Republican Party in sufficient numbers to affect the outcome .
Hofstadter's senior thesis eventually became his first published work of history, appearing in the October 1938 issue of The American Historical Review under the title, "The Tariff Issue on the Eve of the Civil War."
Hofstadter would later write: "all of my books have been, in a certain sense, topical in their inspiration" . Indeed, his interpretation of the election of 1860 reflected the politics of the mid-1930s, in that the Democratic Party at the time depended on the support of an ethnically diverse and largely urban coalition of voters. But if much of his work was inspired by contemporary events, a core set of preoccupations nonetheless unify it. As the historian Christopher Lasch writes, "The continuity of Hofstadter's altogether remarkable career is all the more apparent if one remembers that his first published essay, appearing in 1938, dealt with Charles A. Beard's interpretation of the Civil War, and that other early writings included essays on Frederick Jackson Turner, on V.L. Parrington, and once again on Beard -- the same writers to whom in The Progressive Historians he returned toward the end of his life" . While Hofstadter viewed the intellectual and political traditions of the Progressive era as in many respects inadequate, he was, at the same time, deeply indebted to them.