Even though his career was cut short in its prime, leaving us immeasurably impoverished by his loss, Richard Hofstadter left a full and rounded body of work, not merely one or two important books, the best that most historians can hope for. Each of Hofstadter’s books bore an important relation to its predecessors and to those that were to come; none, accordingly, can be seen in isolation from the others. Hofstadter’s imagination never rested for long, and his thought ranged widely, embracing political, social, and cultural history—he was impatient with such distinctions—and extending to all periods of American history.

Yet his ideas constantly return to certain central preoccupations, stated at the outset of his career. A continuing encounter with the progressive tradition—the tradition on which he and most other intellectuals had been “reared,” as he put it in the introduction to The Age of Reform, but in which he found much to criticize—informs all Hofstadter’s work and provides a direct link, for example, between The American Political Tradition, first published in 1948, and The Progressive Historians, which came out twenty years later.

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.1

Hofstadter’s lifelong engagement with the progressive historians immediately tells us something about The American Political Tradition—the witty, caustic, daring book that first brought Hofstadter’s writing to general attention. That book took shape in a confrontation not only with liberalism in politics but with liberal historiography, and specifically with the three towering figures who had exercised such a powerful influence on the generation of historians immediately preceding Hofstadter’s own, and for that matter on Hofstadter himself, as he tells us in The Progressive Historians. Having taken up American history in the Thirties “under the inspiration that came from Charles and Mary Beard’s The Rise of American Civilization” (just as another generation was to take up American history under the inspiration that came from The American Political Tradition), Hofstadter quickly became dissatisfied with the distortions and simplifications associated with the interpretation of American history as a continuing conflict between antagonistic forms of property—more crudely, as a conflict between the people and “the interests.”2

By the middle Thirties, this progressive or populist interpretation of the American past had lost whatever critical content it might once have possessed and had become identified with a resurgence of American cultural chauvinism, a tiresome celebration of the American past—its indigenous traditions of popular radicalism, the crude vitality of its popular culture, and the national regeneration allegedly in progress under the New Deal. The progressive interpretation of American history, in other words, had helped to bring into being a “literature of hero-worship and national self-congratulation,” which it was one of the stated purposes of The American Political Tradition to deflate.

The most curious aspect of this degeneration of a once critical tradition of thought into a form of cultural nationalism is that it occurred under left-wing auspices. The emergence of the Popular Front in 1935 and the Communist Party’s reassuring announcement that communism could be regarded as “twentieth-century Americanism” had given the signal for the repatriation of a generation of alienated intellectuals. Aestheticism, anti-Americanism, and the cultivation of the inner life went abruptly out of fashion along with the superrevolutionism of “third-period” communism, which had dismissed the reform tradition in the United States as petty bourgeois reaction and the New Deal as incipient fascism. Progressivism and the progressive interpretation of history underwent a revival, and the search for native traditions of politics and culture became a minor industry.

Van Wyck Brooks, formerly an astringent critic of American culture, embarked on his nostalgic evocations of the nineteenth century in Makers and Finders. The debunking biographical essays of the Twenties and early Thirties gave way to filiopietistic commemorations of popular heroes—Sandburg’s Lincoln, Van Doren’s Franklin, Freeman’s Lee—in which the sheer accumulation of empirical detail served to lull readers into an acquiescent, appreciative mood. Archibald MacLeish, always a reliable weathervane, forsook the avant-gardism of his Poundian phase and threw down what he described as

…loudmouthed, disrespectful, horselaughing challenges to those who tell us poetry is “pure”…[and] written about the feeling of being dreadfully alone.

Other poets responded eagerly to his call for “public speech.” Thomas Hart Benton underwent a similar conversion, moving from New York to Missouri and from abstract art to populist neoregionalism, proclaiming the death of “the great cities.” Frank Lloyd Wright and Lewis Mumford exalted regionalism over urbanism. “Instead of clinging to the sardonic funeral towers of metropolitan finance,” wrote the latter, “ours to march out to newly plowed fields, to create fresh patterns of political action, to alter for human purposes the perverse mechanisms of our economic regime, to conceive and to germinate fresh forms of human culture.”3


The most effective criticism of the excesses and absurdities associated with this latest and much-acclaimed “American renaissance” came from the left, like the “renaissance” itself—notably from the group of intellectuals affiliated with or close to Partisan Review. This magazine broke away from the Stalinist literary movement in 1936 and re-emerged a year later as an independent journal, Marxist in its general intellectual outlook, anti-Stalinist in its politics, and resolutely opposed to the subordination of art and culture to the political needs of the moment. The Partisan Review critics charged neopopulist writers with “ransacking” the past, as Richard Chase put it in an attack on Mumford—that is, with “conducting armed raids on history” so as to build up an ersatz cultural tradition, a mythical organic community.

Without denying the connection between culture and politics or the need for historical criticism of both, these intellectuals drew a distinction between history conceived as a “usable past”—the conception promoted by Brooks, Beard, and Carl Becker—and history seen as an accumulation of experience; between “using” the past and assimilating it. Just as children do not “use” their mothers but are formed by them, so, they insisted, each generation is formed by its predecessors, and the problem for historical analysis is not to invent a past relevant to the needs of the present but to become critically conscious of these influences.4

The position formulated by the Partisan Review critics implied an emphatic rejection of the progressive historiography of Parrington, Beard, and Carl Becker, and also, it should be noted, of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier theory of American history. American progressivism, these writers correctly perceived, was historically bound up with “the optimistic idea of an expanding American world,” a vision of “limitless space” that “idealizes an earlier stage of popular rule as a norm of democracy constantly threatened and regained.”5 Not only the superficiality of progressivism but the radical discontinuity of American culture, it seemed to these writers, derived from the ceaseless search for beginnings of which the frontier had provided the most durable set of images—the flight from complexity, the flight from the past, the belief that the past is an encumbrance that can painlessly be discarded in the restless search for a better future.

It is not difficult to recognize in this critique of progressive political culture and its “Marxist” offshoots of the Thirties the central themes of Hofstadter’s early work. Like the Partisan Review critics, Hofstadter had been drawn to Marxism and to the economic interpretation of history, only to witness at close range their degeneration into an official culture (as Meyer Schapiro put it in his polemic against Benton) “local in content, national in scale.”

Personally as well as temperamentally Hofstadter was close to the PR group. Schapiro, Chase, F. W. Dupee, Lionel Trilling, Eric Bentley, and C. Wright Mills were his colleagues at Columbia. His friend Alfred Kazin, a frequent contributor to Partisan Review, wrote one of the most convincing indictments of the nationalist revival in the last chapter—“America, America!”—of his brilliant study of American letters, On Native Grounds. It is possible to see The American Political Tradition, which appeared only six years after Kazin’s book, as an attempt to do for the study of American politics something of what Kazin had done for literary history. Both books place the problem of American traditions at the center of attention (thereby revealing their origins in the literary wars of the late Thirties); but instead of celebrating these traditions, in the manner of progressive and neopopulist historians, they remorselessly reveal their inadequacies.

Highly critical of their predecessors, both writers nevertheless absorbed whatever was valuable in their work. Just as Kazin’s book retains the best of Van Wyck Brooks, Hofstadter’s analysis still shows the influence of Beard. Like Beard, Hofstadter admires the political realism of the founding fathers and associates this quality, throughout The American Political Tradition, with an understanding of the “economic basis of politics.” But whereas Beard had seen the Jeffersonian tradition as a clear-cut alternative to the Federalist tradition and the continuing conflict between the two as the major theme of American history, Hofstadter treats Jefferson precisely as the first in a long series of opportunists whose principal role in American politics was to blur ideological conflicts and to promote business interests while rhetorically denouncing them in the name of agrarian democracy.

Instead of two clearly defined and opposing traditions à la Beard and Parrington, Hofstadter finds in American history a series of opportunistic evasions, compromises, and self-delusions. The ironic juxtapositions so often emphasized in the titles of these essays are intended not merely to debunk the literature of hero worship—forcing us to see Lincoln, for example, as an important source of the self-help ideology or Theodore Roosevelt as a conservative—but to point up the confusion of roles, the bizarre disguises leading statesmen have been forced to adopt, the conflicts between intentions and consequences that abound in a political system lacking any firm ideological basis (except in so far as the tradition of economic realism survived as an undercurrent).


In stressing the lack of serious ideological conflict in American society—as when he brilliantly revised the conventional interpretation of the Jacksonians as a movement of embattled farmers confronting the money power, showing them instead to have been aspiring capitalists chafing under centralized restraints—Hofstadter undoubtedly helped to prepare the way for the consensus theorists of the 1950s, who saw ideological agreement not only as a principal feature of the American system but as the source of its stability.

Hofstadter’s intention in The American Political Tradition, however, had nothing in common with the celebration of American “pragmatism.” On the contrary, he 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: the frontier, the sturdy yeoman, self-help, and God and motherhood. An urbanite to the core, writing at a time when the best writers and critics were in recoil from the updated version of the agrarian myth associated with the neopopulism of the Thirties, Hofstadter found in sentimental agrarianism a particularly flagrant example of the unreality of American political rhetoric—a nation of industrialists, clerks, and workers pretending to be sturdy sons of the soil. His attack on the agrarian illusion reaches comic heights in the essay on Bryan—a representative figure, in Hofstadter’s view, not only because he clung to the agrarian myth long after it had lost all semblance of reality but because he gave his constituents “not so much leadership as expression,” thereby “freezing the popular cause at its lowest level of understanding.”

Ostensibly a book about politics. The American Political Tradition is really a study of popular political culture, which treats politicians “as leaders of popular thought”—“not their most impressive function,” Hofstadter cannot resist adding. The impulse behind the book has much in common with the impulse that gave rise, in the same period—the middle Forties—to Dwight Macdonald’s polemics against the lib-lab mentality and “cultural Bolshevism,” and to Irving Howe’s attack on “sentimental fellow-traveling” and the neopopulist mystique of the folk.

In the Thirties, those who condemned the culture of the Popular Front did so in the name of an independent socialist movement, which they imagined was about to emerge from the Depression and the struggle against fascism—a movement that would be equally critical of capitalism and of the perversion of socialism in the Soviet Union. “My own assertion of consensus history in 1948,” Hofstadter says elsewhere, “had its sources in the Marxism of the 1930s.”6 By the middle Forties, however, this Marxism had been greatly modified by the need to defend the autonomy of culture against literary Stalinism and “the intellectuals’ tradition” of independent critical thought against the intellectuals’ own “deep-seated need to accept as its own—if only periodically—the official voice of society.”7 As cultural issues increasingly predominated over political issues, the Marxist content of this criticism became progressively diluted.

The Marxism of the Thirties had also been transformed by the fading of hopes for a radical social movement, in the absence of which Marxism appeared more and more as a purely intellectual alternative to capitalism. As the prospects for socialism grew increasingly dim, many intellectuals shifted their attention to the criticism of popular culture. “Their earlier economic criticism of capitalistic society,” as Edward Shils perceptively noted in an otherwise superficial essay, “has been transformed into a moral and cultural criticism of the large scale industrial society.”8

This “transmogrified Marxism” did not come into being, however, because capitalism had eliminated the economic injustices to which socialists had formerly addressed themselves—Shils’s explanation—but because the possibilities of a political attack on capitalism appeared by the middle Forties to be so greatly diminished, and because in any case a purely political analysis no longer seemed adequate to an understanding of the international crisis that had produced fascism, Stalinism, and the vast technological destruction of the Second World War. As Dwight Macdonald wrote in 1946, “The difficulties lie much deeper, I now think, than is assumed by the Progressives, and the crisis is much more serious.”9

The political culture of progressivism now came to be seen as itself part of the modern crisis rather than its solution. In the face of the organized barbarism of modern life, the progressive still clung to a naïve trust in science, progress, and the “march” of history, while the genuine radical, according to Macdonald, made man rather than history the center of his politics. “The Progressive thinks in collective terms (the interests of society or of the working class); the Radical stresses individual conscience.”10 These distinctions also figure in The American Political Tradition, which criticizes the intellectual poverty of the progressive tradition while dealing sympathetically with Wendell Phillips, the agitator—the only figure in Hofstadter’s selection (as has frequently been pointed out) who never held a public office or even aspired to one, and who conforms closely to Macdonald’s definition of the radical as one who “is pleased if history is also going his way, but…is stubborn about following his own road, that of ‘ought’ rather than ‘is.’ “11

Since a cult of history and historical progress was a central feature of the progressive mentality, it was impossible for Hofstadter to criticize the progressive political tradition without also criticizing the progressive or “Whig” interpretation of history, as he later came to call it. In The Progressive Historians, where these historical writings are discussed in detail, he attributes to the Whig interpretation the following characteristics:

It is avowedly partisan, it takes the side of dissenters and protestants against establishments…; it seems to be telling a story of steady progress, pointing toward a certain satisfaction with the enlightened ideas of the present.12

Because of their one-sided partisanship, progressive historians like Vernon Parrington simplify conflict in order to create opposing traditions, the antagonism between which is seen as persisting throughout history in a sort of timeless vacuum: liberalism and conservatism, Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians, debtors and creditors, agrarians and their oppressors. Among other things, this procedure, according to The Progressive Historians, leads to a “lack of concern with the immediate terms on which intellectual problems present themselves to the makers of history.”13 Thus Parrington’s “tendency to see two sets of completely opposed ideas in conflict made it impossible for him to see the shared Calvinism of Roger Williams and John Cotton, the basic similarity of the ideas of Thomas Hooker and the Massachusetts theocrats, or the common Whiggery between the friends and opponents of the Constitution.”14

The preface to The American Political Tradition strikes a very similar note, and the essays that follow are devoted to an exploration of the common ground that was shared by the Federalists and the Jeffersonians, the Jacksonians and their enemies, and by twentieth-century liberals and “conservatives:” In the preface, Hofstadter explains that his principal reason for stressing agreement rather than conflict is a desire to avoid the excessive partisanship characteristic of the progressive tradition, which causes historians endlessly to repeat the controversies of the past.

Later generations, finding certain broad resemblances between their own problems and those of an earlier age, will implicitly take sides with the campaigners of former years; historians, who can hardly be quite free of partisanship, reconstruct the original conflict from the surviving ideas that seem most intelligible in the light of current experience and current conviction. Hence the issues of the twentieth century are still debated in the language of Jefferson’s time, and our histories of the Jefferson era are likewise influenced by twentieth-century preconceptions that both Jefferson and his opponents might have found strange. While the conflicts of Jefferson’s day are constantly reactivated and thus constantly brought to mind, the commonly shared convictions are neglected.

The “principle” that these common convictions are often more important than the conflicts of the past (in this case, for example, helping to explain “the common end at which, willy-nilly, both Jefferson and the Federalists arrived”) became the basis not only of much of Hofstadter’s later work but of some of the best historical writing of the 1950s.

Much of this work sprang from the same impatience with the way in which a narrow partisanship had caused historians to debate issues in the same terms in which they were debated by contemporaries. Stanley Elkins’s path-breaking study of slavery, for example, begins with a complaint similar to Hofstadter’s: “There is a coerciveness about the debate over slavery: it continues to be the same debate. The same tests for the rightness or wrongness of slavery remain in use year in and year out.”15 The determination to achieve a certain detachment from the moral coercions of former debates—not to be confused with the illusion of scientific “objectivity” that characterizes the work of many social scientists—produced a body of historical writing that is now stigmatized, often either wrongly or irrelevantly, as “consensus history,” deeply conservative in its political implications.

It is true that in the writings of those who tried to convert “consensus” into a general principle of historical interpretation the idea of consensus—originally rooted in a criticism of progressive historiography launched from a position to the left of progressivism—eventually came to be identified with a celebration of American “pragmatism” and with what Daniel Bell referred to as the “end of ideology.”16 Even this work, however, is full of insights that remain to be absorbed and put to full use—insights, indeed, which in many cases still remain even to be understood.

Instead of attempting to distinguish between what is useful in consensus history and what is patently ideological, too many historians have returned to a position in many ways indistinguishable from that of the progressive historians themselves. The worst features of progressive historiography reappear under the auspices of the “new left”: drastic simplification of issues; synthetic contrivance of political and intellectual “traditions” by reading present concerns back into the past; strident partisanship.17 Worse still, the new emphasis on conflict has given rise to demands that historians cultivate an “activist outlook” and that history be subordinated to the needs of the “movement.” Thus Howard Zinn asks historians to decide “from a particular ethical base what is the action-need of the moment, and to concentrate on that aspect of the truth-complex which fulfills that need.”18 In the face of such critics, the consensus historians need no defense.

This is not the place to discuss Hofstadter’s own later work, his relation (always ambiguous) to the consensus theorists and to the political and cultural currents of the 1950s, or the considerations that made him decide, at the end of the Sixties, that consensus history “no longer seems as satisfactory to me as it did ten or twenty years ago.”19 The leading themes of this later work, as I have already indicated, are implicit in The American Political Tradition and in the cultural battles out of which that book emerged. His highly critical treatment of populism in The Age of Reform and of rightist movements as a form of perverted populism in The Paranoid Style in American Politics extended the criticism of neopopulism formulated by Marxist intellectuals in the late Thirties.

His later preoccupation with anti-intellectualism grew out of the traumas of the McCarthy period but had deeper origins in the attempt of left-wing intellectuals to discover a tradition of their own, at a time when they found themselves increasingly isolated from left political movements and saw intellectual values to be under attack from all political positions. The germ of Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is already present in William Phillips’s essay of 1941, “The Intellectuals’ Tradition,” in which Phillips treats the best of modern art and thought as an expression of the “distinct group culture” of the intelligentsia, formed in its “permanent mutiny against the regime of utility and conformity.”20

On the whole, Hofstadter’s later books seem to me more vulnerable to criticism than The American Political Tradition. The interpretation of populism as a nostalgic and backward-looking movement glosses too easily over the genuinely radical elements in populism. The defense of the intellectuals’ tradition against popular anti-intellectualism ignores the anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals themselves and confuses intellect with the interests of intellectuals as a class.21 Even as I write these reservations, however, I am struck by their inadequacy in the face of the richness and complexity of Hofstadter’s work, and of the difficulty of arriving at an assessment of it. There is one other aspect of that work that particularly commands our attention: its sheer bulk. I mention this not because quantity is necessarily equivalent to quality but because it conveys something essential about the man and perhaps also about the times through which we are passing.

In order to have produced such a large body of first-rate work, Hofstadter had to have not only super-abundant energy but an undivided devotion to his craft. It sometimes puzzled me that he refused to be diverted from the writing of his books even by the need to defend them against attacks that were outrageously ill-tempered and unfair.22 It was not simply that he regarded other things as more important. He had supreme confidence in the historical profession itself and its ability to reach reasonable judgments on work in the field, including his own.23 This confidence, together with his faith in Columbia University as a center of disinterested scholarship, his younger colleagues have not always found it possible to share. We find ourselves uncomfortable in academic life and often at odds with the profession and the university; and it is for this reason, perhaps, that we find it so difficult to match the unswerving devotion to history as a calling that was the mark of the best historians of Hofstadter’s generation.

For whatever reasons, we have written much less history than they did; nor can we console ourselves that at least we have reformed the university and the political system of which it is a part. More than a decade has passed since the first peremptory challenges to the consensus historians were bravely thrown down; the university and the political system remain essentially unreformed (though the prospects are by no means hopeless), while the new history—the history that was to have represented so striking an advance over the work of the Forties and Fifties—remains largely unwritten.

Our generation has seen too many brave beginnings, too many claims that came to nothing, too many books unfinished and even unbegun, too many broken and truncated careers. As activists, we have achieved far less than we hoped; as scholars, our record is undistinguished on the whole. It is not too late to achieve something better, but it is no longer possible to be complacent about our accomplishments or the superiority of our own understanding of American society to that of the generation before us, whose finest historian was Richard Hofstadter.

Copyright © 1973 by Alfred A. Knopf

This Issue

March 8, 1973