chapter  41
The American Political Tradition and the Men Who
ByMade It (Richard Hofstadter, 1916–1970)
Pages 5

Hofstadter was an admired and widely read American historian. Most of his academic career was spent at Columbia University. His doctoral dissertation and first book, Social Darwinism in American Thought, remains a standard work on the subject. The book on America’s political tradition was begun in 1943 when he was 27 years old and completed four years later. He called it a “young man’s book,” but its depth of scholarship and maturity of thought belie the modest characterization. He won the Pulitzer Prize twice, first for The Age of Reform and

then for Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Premature death of leukemia at age 54 was lamented by the historical profession as an irreplaceable loss. He had no illusions that history is a science capable of supplying proofs about the past. What matters are usable insights. He did no archival work. Although he used mainly printed materials in the public domain, his mastery in that respect was wide and deep, suggested by informative bibliographical essays on each chapter, 37 pages of text, which were used to write his book. The American Political Tradition discusses historical patterns, events,

trends, and personalities marking successive phases of American history from the Founders to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The account of Lincoln’s career, for example, includes political, social, and ideological currents of the age he grappled with, and explains persuasively transformations of the slavery issue in his mind and its tangled connections with his goal to preserve the Union. This interplay of personality with events is organized into 12 chapters of 349 pages focused on Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, Abraham Lincoln, Wendell Phillips (the abolitionist), William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin Roosevelt. Two chapters are collective portraits of the Founding Fathers and Robber Barons of the Gilded Age. Every chapter marshals telling quotations from players in each historical era, colorful portraits of leading figures, and an abundance of instructive notes. Within this panorama of presidents, politicians, businessmen, and

social activists he follows the ups and downs of a political tradition that dominated American history from its beginnings to at least the 1930s: “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 of American ideologies” (viii). This was the broad outlook of every president, most politicians, and the general public until the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, when the “common man” was down and out and government was compelled to intervene aggressively in economic affairs during the Great Depression. The tension for more than a century was between special interests and the aspirations of ordinary people to better themselves without obstruction. Hovering in the background was a government obliged in theory to provide nothing more than conditions of fairness and justice. Hofstadter traces this “faith” through the nation’s history, explain-

ing when and how it flourished, however imperfectly, when it served as a hypocritical mask to excuse or justify economic and political abuse, or when it simply degenerated into a pious myth. The faith was intact with Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln, dominated the postCivil War era until the 1893 recession, and picked up steam again until the crash of 1929 and the end of Herbert Hoover’s administration: “ … the keynote of Hoover’s public career remained the same-a return to the conditions, real or imagined, of the past. Free trade, free enterprise, competition, open markets, open opportunities-this was the logic … projected on a larger scale. The future would be just like the past, but more so” (312). Franklin Roosevelt initially affirmed Hooverism but soon decided it was a dead end, defied his own privileged class, and embraced welfare of the masses: “He became an individual sounding-board for the grievances and remedies of the nation” (328). Meanwhile, whatever the grim realities of politics and economy,

few dissented from the core tradition or favored revolutionary options. They were a small minority with little enduring influence on practical politics. While politicians might be sharply divided during campaigns for office, after an election they usually shared a rough framework of ideas centered on personal achievement and open enterprise: “In these pages I have tried, without neglecting significant conflicts, to keep sight of the central faith and to trace its adaptation to varying times and various interests” (ix). Viewed as an ideal type, the tradition’s hero was the common man

who lifted himself to wealth, power, and status through hard work, frugality, and ingenuity in a political system that ideally encouraged opportunity and protected success. The role of government was to provide fairness and justice. For much of the American experience,

especially following the Civil War, after advancement through land ownership and craftsmanship had its day, the economic setting for personal advancement was industrial capitalism. The evil staved off by aggressive individualism was perceived as fixed class relationships impeding opportunities for advancement-the specter of aristocracy: “Failure to rise in the economic scale was generally viewed as a fault in the individual, not in society. It was the outward sign of an inward lack of grace-of idleness, indulgence, waste, or incapacity … It was the belief not only of those who had arrived but also of those who were pushing their way to the top” (104). This “Protestant ethic” revered the self-made man, whose strength

lay in self-help in a competitive system seconded by divine Providence (see essay 34 in this volume): “Jefferson rejected from his political philosophy the idea that one man has any intrinsic superiority over another, but he implicitly took it back again when he accepted competitive laissez-faire economics with its assumption that, so long as men were equal in law, and government played no favorites, wealth would be distributed in accordance with ‘industry and skill’” (39). Jackson was fully attuned to this philosophy of merit versus privilege: “He understood the old Jeffersonian bias against overgrown government machinery, The Westerner’s resentment of the entrenched East, the new politician’s dislike of the old bureaucracy, and the aspiring citizen’s hatred of privilege” (59). Lincoln thought of himself as a common man. The issue for him

was entrenched privilege and its contempt for men at the lower end of the social scale. In due time, black labor and white labor were seen resting on the same principles: “ … the equality of man [before the law], the dignity of labor, and the right to move upward in the social scale. It [privilege] defied the beliefs of millions of free men in the North who, like Lincoln, were ambitious to move forward and believed that the most sacred thing free society could do was to give the common man freedom and opportunity to make his own way” (119). Despite much waffling and reluctance, these principles were extended by Lincoln to negroes on behalf of free labor and not just to win a war by destroying the South’s labor system. The Robber Barons who dominated the American scene between

1865 and the end of the century illustrate a one-sided adaptation of the faith:

They directed the proliferation of the country’s wealth, they seized its opportunities, they managed its corruption, and from them the era took its tone and color. In business and politics the

captains of industry did their work boldly, blandly, and cynically. Exploiting workers and milking farmers, bribing Congressmen, buying legislatures, spying upon competitors, hiring armed guards, dynamiting property, using threats and intrigues and force, they made a mockery of the ideals of the simple gentry who imagined that the nation’s development could take place with dignity and restraint under the regime of laissez-faire.