Richard Hofstadter

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Richard Hofstadter
Born August 6, 1916(1916-08-06)
Died October 24, 1970 (aged 54)
Occupation Historian, professor, intellectual

Richard Hofstadter (August 6, 1916–October 24, 1970) was an American historian and DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University. One of the leading public intellectuals of the 1950s, his works include The Age of Reform (1955) and Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963), both of which won the Pulitzer Prize—the former for History and the latter for General Non-Fiction—as well as Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 (1944), The American Political Tradition (1948), and The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964). Hofstadter became the "iconic historian of postwar liberal consensus" and 21st century scholars continue to admire his books and essays for the grace of his writing, the depth of his insight, his use of the past to illuminate contemporary issues, and his ability to simultaneously engage a scholarly and a popular audience.[1]


[edit] Biography

Hofstadter was born in Buffalo, New York in 1916 to a Polish Jewish father and a German American Lutheran mother, who died when he was ten. He increasingly identified himself culturally as Jewish, and later perhaps lost academic appointments at Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Berkeley in the 1940s in part because he was considered too Jewish.[2] He attended high school at Fosdick-Masten Park High School (now City Honors School) and enrolled at the University at Buffalo in 1933, majoring in philosophy and minoring in history. He worked with the diplomatic historian Julius Pratt.

[edit] Marxist stage

As an undergraduate, Hofstadter became involved in left-wing politics, joining the Young Communist League and meeting a radical student named Felice Swados, whom he married in 1936; she died in 1945. After graduation in 1936, Hofstadter entered the PhD program in history at Columbia University in New York, where he was most influenced by Merle Curti, who synthesized intellectual, social and political history using published sources rather than archival research.[3] Hofstadter became more involved in Marxist circles, joining the Communist Party in 1938, though, in his words at the time, "I join without enthusiasm but with a sense of obligation... My fundamental reason for joining is that I don't like capitalism and want to get rid of it. I am tired of talking... The party is making a very profound contribution to the radicalization of the American people.... I prefer to go along with it now." By 1939, however, he had become disenchanted with the party and his participation began a steady decline; by the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in September, he was thoroughly and permanently disillusioned with the Communist Party, the Soviet Union, and Marxism itself. He did not, however, change his views on capitalism: "I hate capitalism and everything that goes with it."[4]

Hofstadter was left with a deep sense of cynicism that pervaded his academic work and thought. In 1942, he received his Ph.D. from Columbia after completing his dissertation which was published in 1944 as Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915. Selling 200,000 copies, it was a widely read Marxist critique of American capitalists of the late 19th century who, he argued, believed in a dog-eat-dog sort of ferocious competition endorsed by Social Darwinism as preached by William Graham Sumner. Later critics took issue with his evidence, showing that very few businessmen were Social Darwinists and that many practiced philanthropy in support of colleges and hospitals.[5] However, his misrepresentations of Herbert Spencer's views have been widely copied by later commentators on Spencer. [6]

[edit] Influence of Charles Beard

In the early and mid-1940s, Hofstadter was a disciple from afar of Charles Beard, stating "...Beard was really the exciting influence on me."[7] Beard's conflict model taught that American history was the struggle of competing economic groups, primarily farmers, plantation slaveowners, industrialists, and workers. The clashing rhetoric of political leaders meant little, said Beard. He argued that historians should instead look for hidden self-interest and financial goals. Beard viewed the Civil War as a transfer of political power from the Southern plantation elite to Northeastern capitalists; slavery was not especially important as a cause in his analysis.

[edit] The consensus historians

After 1945, Hofstadter broke with Beard and moved to the right, becoming associated with the "consensus historians".[8] In 1946, he joined the Columbia faculty and became DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History in 1959. His most well-known and influential work, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, was published in 1948. It comprised a series of 12 biographical portraits of major political leaders from the 1770s to 1930s. Like all of his books, it was based primarily on reading and synthesizing secondary sources. His essays are historiographical in nature and emphasize discursive analysis. Hofstadter was thinking theoretically about history and its representations. The American Political Tradition was a major publishing and critical success, selling a million copies and widely used in college history courses. Pole (2000) suggests the success was because it was "skeptical, fresh, revisionary, occasionally ironical, without being harsh or merely destructive."[9] The chapter titles themselves were ironic and revisionist, pointing up the paradoxes inherent in the American political idiom: Jefferson was labeled "The Aristocrat as Democrat"; John C. Calhoun was "the Marx of the Master Class"; FDR was "The Patrician as Opportunist". The only positive portrait in a generally debunking book dealt with abolitionist and labor agitator Wendell Phillips, who won praise for representing "the priceless provincial integrity that can be found in midcentury America wherever the seeds of the Puritans had been sown."

As a consensus historian, Hofstadter rejected Beard's interpretation of history as a succession of conflicts. Hofstadter believed that a historical period could be understood by an implicit consensus, shared by apparent antagonists. Hofstadter explained that the generation of Beard and Vernon Parrington had

...put such an excessive emphasis on conflict that an antidote was needed.... It seems to me to be clear that a political society cannot hang together at all unless there is some kind of consensus running through it, and yet that no society has such a total consensus as to be devoid of significant conflict. It is all a matter of proportion and emphasis, which is terribly important in history. Of course, obviously, we have had one total failure of consensus which led to the Civil War. One could use that as the extreme case in which consensus breaks down.[10]

[edit] Later work

[edit] Uses social psychology

Hofstadter broke new historiographical ground by exploring sociological aspects of historical structures,[11] and by probing unconscious psychological motives, status anxieties, irrational hatreds, and even "paranoia" (metaphorically speaking) as political motivators.

[edit] Attacks small town ethos

In The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Hofstadter described the provincial small-town dimensions of American society, warning that it harbored widespread fears of cosmopolitan ideas of the sort current in metropolitan centers. He depicted the Populists of the 1890s as xenophobic anti-Semites. Hofstadter saw a direct lineage from the Populists to the McCarthyism of his era. Historian Merle Curti, who knew Hofstadter well, complained that "His position is as biased by his urban background ... as the work of older historians was biased by their rural background and traditional agrarian sympathies."[12]

[edit] Identifies irrational fears

In other works, Hofstadter described irrational elements in American politics. In The Idea of a Party System, Hofstadter described the origins of the First Party System as reflecting fears that the other party threatened to destroy the republic. In The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (1968), Hofstadter set out to systematically demolish the intellectual foundations of Beardian historiography, and as Brown (2003) notes, "signalled a growing support for neoconservatism." Turner, said Hofstadter, was no longer a useful guide as his ideas were too isolationist and too often had "a pound of falsehood for every few ounces of truth."[13]

[edit] Conservative reaction against radicals of 1960s

As Brown (2006) shows, he had become more conservative in the wake of the radical sit-in and temporary closing of Columbia university in 1968. His friend David Herbert Donald recalled, "he was appalled by the growing radical, even revolutionary sentiment that he sensed among his colleagues and his students. He could never share their simplistic, moralistic approach."[14] As Geary reports, Hofstadter was "extremely critical of student tactics, believing that they were based on irrational romantic ideas rather than sensible plans for achievable change, that they undermined the unique status of the university as an institutional bastion of free thought, and that they were bound to provoke a political reaction from the right."[15] But others noted that, during and after the events of '68, he invited his students in to talk with him about their political goals and strategies, and invited one of the radical students, Mike Wallace, to collaborate with him on a history of violence in the US. In the words of his student Eric Foner, Hofstadter and Wallace's American Violence: A Documentary History "utterly contradicted the consensus vision of a nation placidly evolving without serious disagreements."

[edit] Death

Hofstadter planned to write a major three-volume history of American society, but at his death from leukemia in 1970 he had only partially completed the first volume, later published as America in 1750.

[edit] Criticism

The sharp criticism leveled at his Social Darwinism exposed one of Hofstadter's major weaknesses as a historian: he did little research in manuscripts, newspapers, or other archival or unpublished sources. Instead he relied primarily on his wide-ranging interdisciplinary imagination, spinning very well-written theories around a slender base of evidence drawn from published books.[16]

Hofstadter directed over 100 finished PhD dissertations, but gave his graduate students only cursory attention; the latitude enabled them to find their own models of history. Some adopted New Left perspectives that Hofstadter rejected, including Herbert Gutman, Eric Foner, Lawrence Levine, Linda Kerber, and Paula Fass, while others were much more conservative, such as Eric McKitrick and Stanley Elkins. Thus Hofstadter had few disciples and founded no school. He lectured to undergraduates by reading the text of his next book.[17]

Conservative commentator George Will called Hofstadter "the iconic public intellectual of liberal condescension," who "dismissed conservatives as victims of character flaws and psychological disorders—a 'paranoid style' of politics rooted in 'status anxiety,' etc. Conservatism rose on a tide of votes cast by people irritated by the liberalism of condescension."[18] Hofstadter's famous 1964 essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, articulates this partly psychological characterization of thinking on the radical right.[19]

[edit] Published works

  • "The Tariff Issue on the Eve of the Civil War," The American Historical Review Vol. 44, No. 1 (Oct., 1938), pp. 50-55 full text in JSTOR
  • "William Graham Sumner, Social Darwinist," The New England Quarterly> Vol. 14, No. 3 (Sep., 1941), pp. 457-477 online at JSTOR
  • "Parrington and the Jeffersonian Tradition," Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 2, No. 4 (Oct., 1941), pp. 391-400 JSTOR
  • "William Leggett, Spokesman of Jacksonian Democracy," Political Science Quarterly Vol. 58, No. 4 (Dec., 1943), pp. 581-594 JSTOR
  • "U. B. Phillips and The Plantation Legend," The Journal of Negro History Vol. 29, No. 2 (Apr., 1944), pp. 109-124 JSTOR
  • Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1944); 1992 edition with preface by Eric Foner
  • The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1948). online edition
  • "Beard and the Constitution: The History of an Idea," American Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 3 (Autumn, 1950), pp. 195-213 JSTOR
  • The Age of Reform: from Bryan to F.D.R (New York: Knopf, 1955). online edition
  • The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955). (with Walter P. Metzger)
  • The United States: the History of a Republic (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.,: Prentice-Hall, 1957), college textbook; several editions; coauthored with Daniel Aaron and William Miller
  • Anti-intellectualism in American Life (New York: Knopf, 1963).
  • The Progressive Movement, 1900-1915 (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963). edited excerpts
  • The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays (New York: Knopf, 1965).
  • The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (New York: Knopf, 1968).
  • The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780-1840 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).
  • American Violence: A Documentary History. co-edited with Mike Wallace (1970)
  • America at 1750: A Social Portrait (1971)

[edit] References

  • Alan Brinkley, "Richard Hofstadter's the Age of Reform: A Reconsideration," Reviews in American History Vol. 13, No. 3 (Sept., 1985), pp. 462-480 JSTOR
  • David S. Brown, Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography (U. of Chicago Press, 2006) full-scale biography; seen as "readable, informative, engaging, and provocative"[20]
  • David S. Brown, "Redefining American History: Ethnicity, Progressive Historiography and the Making of Richard Hofstadter," The History Teacher, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Aug., 2003), pp. 527-548 in JSTOR
  • Dane S. Claussen, Anti-Intellectualism in American Media, New York: Peter Lang Publishing (2004).
  • Robert M. Collins, "The Originality Trap: Richard Hofstadter on Populism," Journal of American History 76 (June 1989): 150-67 in JSTOR
  • Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, "Richard Hofstadter: A Progress," in their The Hofstadter Aegis (Knopf, 1974), pp 300-367.
  • Eric Foner, "The Education of Richard Hofstadter." The Nation . Volume: 254. Issue: 17. May 4, 1992. pp 597+.
  • Daniel Geary, "Richard Hofstadter Reconsidered," Reviews in American History, Volume 35, Number 3, September 2007, pp. 425-431 in Project Muse
  • David Greenberg, "Richard Hofstadter Reconsidered," Raritan Review Vol. 27, No. 2 (Fall 2007), pp.144-167.
  • Daniel Walker Howe and Peter Elliott Finn, "Richard Hofstadter: The Ironies of an American Historian," Pacific Historical Review 43 (February 1974): 1-18 in JSTOR
  • Michael Kazin, "Hofstadter Lives: Political Culture and Temperament in the Work of an American Historian,? Reviews in American History 27.2 (1999) 334-348 online in Project Muse
  • Jack Pole, "Richard Hofstadter," in Robert Allen Rutland, ed. "Clio's Favorites: Leading Historians of the United States, 1945-2000" U of Missouri Press. (2000) pp 68-83
  • Harry N. Scheiber, "Review: A Keen Sense of History and the Need to Act: Reflections on Richard Hofstadter and the American Political Tradition' Reviews in American History Vol. 2, No. 3 (Sep., 1974), pp. 445-452 JSTOR
  • Daniel J. Singal, "Beyond Consensus: Richard Hofstadter and American Historiography," American Historical Review 89 (October 1984): 976-1004. in JSTOR
  • Jon Wiener, "America, Through A Glass Darkly." The Nation, October 5, 2006.

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ Geary (2007) pp. 430, 425
  2. ^ Brown (2003) p. 38, 53.
  3. ^ Brown (2006) pp. 22, 29
  4. ^ Foner 1992
  5. ^ Brown (2006) p. 30-37; Irwin G. Wylie, "Social Darwinism and the Businessmen", Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 103 (1959), pp. 629-35, showed that few businessmen believed in Social Darwinism. Robert C. Bannister. Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought. (1989). Sumner had given up Social Darwinism by the early 1880s, a point Hofstadter de-emphasized by citing posthumous editions of Sumner's essays.
  6. ^
  7. ^ Foner, 1992
  8. ^ Brown(2006) p 75
  9. ^ Pole (2000)
  10. ^ quoted in Pole 2000 p. 73-74
  11. ^ He was probably influenced by his close friend sociologist C. Wright Mills; Brown (2006) p. 93.
  12. ^ Quoted in Brown (2006) p. 112
  13. ^ Quoted in Brown (2003) p. 531
  14. ^ quoted in Brown (2006) p. 180
  15. ^ Geary (2007) p. 430
  16. ^ Brown (2006) p. 38, 113
  17. ^ Brown (2006) pp. 66-71; Kazin (1999) p 343
  18. ^ Candidate on a High Horse, George Will, The Washington Post, April 15, 2008
  19. ^ The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter, Harper's Magazine, November 1964.
  20. ^ Geary (2007) p. 425
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