Richard Hofstadter: Consensus Historian & Voice for Today

17 Jun

Historian Richard Hofstadter

Richard Hofstadter’s (Aug. 6, 1916 – October 24, 1970) influence and school of thought as a “consensus historian” and noted intellectual of the 1950s has stature and relevance today. Born and raised through the tumultuous eras of the First World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War, these trying times helped to shape his zest for critical thought on the social and political issues of his own day, and their historical impact.[1] Hofstadter has been widely regarded to be as much a part of the history in which he wrote. Hofstadter’s writing on historical issues spanned the three decades of the 40s, 50s and 60s. His untimely passing came while working on a three-volume set on American political culture in 1970. His wife, Beatrice Hofstadter ensured that his first contribution to the three-volume set, America at 1750 (1971) saw publication per her late husband’s wish. His books are still highly regarded and widely utilized as text books in colleges and universities today. Most comfortable in academia, Hofstadter decided against a family-influenced entry into law school in favor of graduate and doctoral study at Columbia University in New York following graduation from the University of Buffalo.[2]  Hofstadter’s first published work Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944) happened to be his doctoral dissertation and a portent of future distinction. Influenced early on in his academic career at Columbia by famous historian Charles Beard (Nov. 27, 1874 – Sept. 1, 1948) Hofstadter broke from Beard’s school of thought which held that “economic and environmental explanations for historical causation” were the basis for historical movement.[3] Hofstadter held that Progressive historians (conflict model) had taken their ideas and school of thought as far as it could go: “Historians were now eager to emphasize the multiple roots of causation (rather than a single economic interpretation) and borrowed heavily from the social sciences to explore the moods and mentalities of their subjects.” [4]Hofstadter’s most important publications as books include: Social Darwinism in American Thought, (1944) The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, (1948) The Paranoid Style in American Politics, (1952) The Age of Reform, (1955) and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. (1962) These five contributions to historical thought have defined Hofstadter as historian and provide a showcase for the liberal consensus view. Also noteworthy contributions however comprising less contemporary times for Hofstadter are: Great Issues in American History: From Settlement to Revolution, 1584-1776, (1958) Great Issues in American History: From the Revolution to the Civil War, 1975-1865, (1958) Great Issues in American History: From Reconstruction to the Present Day, 1864-1981, (1958; revised by Beatrice Hofstadter in 1982) and America at 1750: A Social Portrait. (1971; published after the author’s passing)

Hofstadter’s Consensus View Relevant Today
Social Darwinism, Hofstadter’s first slice of brilliance written in 1944 as his doctoral dissertation holds the most promise as a single body of work and one that could have easily been revised and marketed today. Criticized at the time for its lack of primary research and sources, Social Darwinism theorizes that under the guise of “only the fittest shall survive” (Spencer) the less fortunate and able in our society cannot advance. Hofstadter cites the sociological/biological theories of men like Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, Lester Ward and the Origin of Species (1859) by Charles Darwin to great effect. Driving his point home through the usage of related quotes by notable names from businessmen of the era, Hofstadter solidifies the work and its thesis of natural selection in American society. From John D. Rockefeller: “The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest…. The American Beauty rose can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it.” [5]

Hofstadter closes Social Darwinism by adding that: “… such biological ideas as the ‘survival of the fittest,’ whatever their doubtful value in natural science, are utterly useless in attempting to understand society…” [6] Just as quickly as he postulates the validity of biological theory to understanding society Hofstadter refutes the ideas. Some of the theories do hold relevance today, most notably in today’s business climate and need no further elucidation here.

No “sophomore slump” for the newly-minted preeminent historian Hofstadter four years later with his next book The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. In this enduring classic Hofstadter dares to shed new light and interpretation on American heavyweight leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Herbert Hoover, and FDR. With no concern for historic sentiment, Abraham Lincoln is cast in a new light which only a liberal consensus historian as Hofstadter can achieve… or get away with: “Had he lived to seventy, he would have seen the generation brought up on self-help come into its own, build oppressive business corporations, and begin to close off those treasured opportunities for the little man.” [7] Ever the skeptic, Hofstadter has his most fun with fellow liberal FDR whom he calls “The Patrician as Opportunist”. While the President did come from a privileged background, there was no blueprint for successful leadership in these difficult times as Hofstadter adds. [8]  Hofstadter’s writing in this second literary contribution borders on cynicism and provocation but never loses its brilliance.  Hofstadter expressed his doubts at Roosevelt’s ability to affect his post-war plan for America with its sweeping utopian vision. FDR’s legacy remains intact as a result of his untimely death while in office:

“Roosevelt died in the midst of things, and it is still possible for those under his spell to believe that everything would have been different if only he had survived to set the world on the right path in the postwar period. Further, the very lack of confidence in the American future and of a positive program of ideas increases popular faith in the wonder-working powers of the great man.” [9]

In this post-war period now devoid of Roosevelt’s vision, Hofstadter gains solid footing as an historian and intellectual. The emergence of the Cold War in 1947 and the political turmoil in America with McCarthyism became a fertile backdrop for Hofstadter. In his view the Cold War was in fact brewing at the end of the Second World War: “At the time of his [Roosevelt] death the pattern of the ‘cold war’ was only beginning to emerge.” [10]

Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics written in 1952 is a collection of essays written over the course of 14 years of which the author explores the recurrence of extremist views of conspiracy in politics throughout American history. In what Hofstadter terms “pseudo-conservatism”, his profile of the right-wing authoritarian appears throughout his writings and career:

“The restlessness, suspicion, and fear shown in various phases of the pseudo-conservative revolt give evidence of the anguish which the pseudo-conservative experiences in his capacity as a citizen. He believes himself to be living in a world in which he is spied upon, plotted against, betrayed, and very likely destined for total ruin. He feels that his liberties have been arbitrarily and outrageously invaded. He is opposed to almost everything that has happened in American politics in the past twenty years.”

Hofstadter’s efforts in The Paranoid Style mark the first time we begin to see his brilliance in challenging the conservative political right; one that had remained an underlying tone for the remainder of his career.

Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Age of Reform from 1955 still resonates today: “The Age of Reform, Columbia historian Alan Brinkley declared thirty years after its 1955 publication, ‘is the most influential book ever published on the history of twentieth-century America.’ It remains in our own day a sparkling achievement in historical analysis, widely read, provocative, and persuasive.” [11]

Hofstadter’s political analysis of the Populist to Progressive movements in The Age of Reform is highlighted by the industrialization of America and this transitional phase. Taking dead aim at the Populist movement, Hofstadter shows his disdain for the farmers in the chapter From Pathos to Parity. Section three entitled The Vanishing Hayseed leaves little room for doubt of his stance.

Balancing views of anti-Semitism against this backdrop opened up criticism from those close to him before the book’s publication: “A full history of modern anti-Semitism in the United States would reveal, I believe, its substantial Populist lineage…” [12] Despite his harsh tone of the agrarian society and the farmers the book was still well-received among historians.

Hofstadter was every bit as part of the history in which he wrote, and was especially quite at home in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life written in 1962. At war with McCarthyism and the political “right” in the 1950’s, Hofstadter found great ease as an historical actor himself, fighting the anti-intellectualism which he saw. Reaching back to 18th century America, Hofstadter wrestles with the beginnings of this phenomenon in Protestantism in New England. An obvious intellectual himself, he highlights the vacillations of anti-intellectualism in the business world between the “self-made men” such as Andrew Carnegie and others and the ultimate necessity for educated men in the business world at the beginning of the 20th century. America’s evolution from an agricultural society to that of more industrialized culture and society provides the impetus for the continued rise in educational attainment as Hofstadter sees it. This growth in education leads not only to better “big business” but to more efficiently operated farms from the 1800s and into the 1900s. Hofstadter shifts his emphasis from the rise in intellectualism in business to the educational systems itself. His analyses of the problems faced by educators in America’s school systems at the time of this book’s writing are still topical today.

Whether Richard Hofstadter has earned his place at the forefront of the elite group of 19th and 20th Century historians such as Charles Beard, C. Vann Woodward, Frederick Jackson Turner and others will be debated. The legacy left by Hofstadter is two-fold: he was very much an actor in the history of which he wrote. At times his writing may have breached the dreaded barriers of bias, challenged by his own passion and closeness to the subject matter. It is in his passion for contemporary history where the liberal Hofstadter puts his stake in the ground.  The writing he has left has behind serves as a model for critical thought in academia and intellectual circles for the intertwined social and political issues of today.

Had Hofstadter lived to see America in the 21st century he would have gained an even greater and more appreciative audience. He would have relished revising Anti-Intellectualism in American Life for example, arguably his greatest work, to include the current cultural, social, and political chaos in America.

Or is it better that Hofstadter and his genius remain fixed to their place in history, just as the greatness of Roosevelt and his post-war vision was never tested?

Brown, David S. Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform. 1955. Reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1960.
———. America at 1750. 1971. Reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1973.
———. The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It. 1948. Reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
———. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. 1962. Reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1966.
———. Great Issues in American History, Vol. I: From Settlement to Revolution, 1584-1776. 1958. Reprint, New York: Vintage, 1969.
———. Great Issues in American History, Vol. II: From the Revolution to the Civil War, 1765-1865. 1958. Reprint, New York: Vintage, 1969.
———. Great Issues in American History, Vol. III: From Reconstruction to the Present Day, 1864-1981. 1958. Reprint, New York: Vintage, 1982.
———. The Paranoid Style in American Politics. 1952. Reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 2008.
———. Social Darwinism in American Thought. 1944. Reprint, Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

[1] David S. Brown, Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), xv.

[2] Ibid, 18.
[3] David S. Brown, Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 33.
[4] Ibid., 53.
[5] Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944; repr., Boston: Beacon Hill, 1992), 45.
[6] Ibid., 204.
[7] Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948; repr., New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 137.
[8] Ibid., 414.
[9] Ibid., 455-456.
[10] Ibid., 454
[11] David S. Brown, Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 99.
[12] Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (New York: Vintage Books, 1955) 81.

Posted by on June 17, 2012 in Historians


2 responses to “Richard Hofstadter: Consensus Historian & Voice for Today

  1. TR

    June 22, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    Hofstadter’s work figured prominently in my required readings for my undergraduate degree in the mid ’70s.

    Interesting that he is still relevant today.

  2. Scott M.H. Lyons

    June 22, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    Hofstadter really was a true historian and voice for his time. It would have been interesting and fun to have been in one of his classes.


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