The Art of Comity

In all of his writing, Richard Hofstadter has sought to define the nature of American society as it has expressed itself politically. His viewpoint has been essentially liberal, with emphasis upon the value of an open society. But he has rejected the optimism and complacency of traditional liberal thought. He has refused to accept the textbook view that American history records a continuous unfolding of the democratic ideal, and he is skeptical even about the commitment of the majority of Americans to such an ideal.

In many of his interpretations, in fact, Hofstadter has been an iconoclast. For instance, he refused to accept Jacksonianism either as coonskin democracy or as incipient nineteenth-century New Dealism; he diagnosed it instead as a movement to admit a new class of entrepreneurs into the economic privileges previously monopolized by the Bank of the United States. He saw Lincoln not as a “Great Emancipator” but as a politician who shrewdly combined the antislavery votes of those who wanted to keep the territories free and the anti-Negro votes of those who wanted to keep the new areas white. He rejected the idea that Progressivism was a pure, liberal reformism, pointing to the “sour” nativistic side of much Progressivism, as shown in Prohibition, the exclusion of the Japanese, and immigration restriction generally. Hofstadter denied the conventional view that the New Deal was merely an extension of Progressive Reform—and therefore “good” because sanctioned by precedents—and argued that in a number of ways, it marked “a drastic new departure… in the history of American reformism.” For instance, it brought urban, immigrant groups into the stream of American life (though it neglected Negroes), and recognized a new role for the government.

These views, which challenged tradition at many points, are, in their conclusions, not unlike some of the harsh revisionism of the current New Left. But the tone is different, for it is not hostile, nor even astringent. Hofstadter himself perhaps suggests the reason in The Age of Reform (1955): “I find that I have been critical of the Populist-Progressive tradition…. I say critical, but not hostile, for I am criticizing largely from within.” In short, while he saw many aspects of the American past in a realistic, unflattering light, recognizing that it was not what its uncritical admirers had supposed it to be, he cherished it nevertheless. Thus, interpretations which might be regarded as quite damaging were stated with a mellowness that made them seem less drastic than they really were. Perhaps this is an aspect of Hofstadter’s largeness of mind and his emotional sympathy for points of view which he reluctantly regards as rationally fallacious.

In his new book, a study of Turner, Beard, and Parrington, one again encounters conclusions damning in themselves but curiously blended with a tone that is almost affectionate. These three men were the giants of American historiography when Hofstadter entered the profession. “I have asked myself why I wrote this book,” he writes in his Preface, as if he never wondered until…

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