The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. Richard Hofstadter. New York, Vintage, 1940; reprinted 1989 with new forward by Christopher Lasch.
In this sweeping survey of United States political history, Richard Hofstadter identifies individuals emblematic of beginnings, ends, or transformations in the fundamental nature of American government. The author argues from a testy Hamiltonian position that the central thesis of government is indelibly entwined with the needs of business and labor. Hofstadter develops the growth of business, from aristocratic merchants to international corporations, from craftsmen to labor unions, and how politicians have negotiated the call of individualism and equal opportunity with the dislocating demands of free market capitalism. The men who rise in his estimation, those who have mastered the American political tradition, are those who practice a forward-looking pragmatism.
Realpolitik began with the Founders, but Jeffersonian ideals—if not the practice of Jefferson himself—fixed the prospect of equal opportunity for the nation of farmers and workmen. Jackson arose on the wave of opportunity. He carried a healthy skepticism for the crushing power of banks and business, but the democratizing impulses in his wake were ultimately highly permissive of moneyed interests. Lincoln embodied—and further cultivated—American mobility but his presidency ushered in a socio-political system hostile to the very elements that contributed to the rail-splitter’s success. His emergent identification of labor as an organized political interest, of course, did not survive Booth’s bullet, and found no purchase in the post-war Republican bonanza. Government became the handmaiden to triumphant and un-fettered business, incapable of voicing the least concern for the demise of Jeffersonian ideals of equal opportunity or Jacksonian distrust of concentrated wealth. As a brake to business excesses Teddy Roosevelt suggested moralistic solutions while Wilson’s Progressive programs were sunk by German u-boats. Business and the free markets lumbered to a halt on their own, and Hofstadter marks Hoover as important for his hapless reliance on the “old faith” to solve new problems. The preeminent figure here, after Jefferson, of course, is Franklin Roosevelt, whose genius lay not in his political prowess, but in his realization that government could no longer not restrain business. Presumably, FDR ushered in a phase in American history when government actively worked to ensure Jeffersonian ideals.
That American government and political life have revolved around the nexus of markets and labor is difficult to dispute and is the expected analysis from a New Dealer like Hofstadter. And, in 1949, he made a powerfully cogent argument for looking at his subjects with a cynical eye. Yet his treatment of “the men who made” the American political tradition, is awfully uneven. Their primary attribute is pragmatism and the ability to manipulate their own ideals to confront political reality. But Hofstadter proceeds to praise some (Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR) but condemn others (Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, TR) for doing just that. The most striking example is his withering assault on Bryan for not having a well-developed theory of silver before 1893 and his absolute praise for FDR for actually lacking a coherent economic thought in 1932. Crass opportunism for Bryan and admirable adaptability for FDR. In fact, despite the focus on pragmatism, Hofstadter is often curiously unforgiving of his actors who do not enter youthfully onto the political stage with a consistent and thoughtful philosophy of government. We’re left with an odd, glowing, chapter on Wendell Phillips for being an uncompromising reformer, and skepticism of Lincoln’s changing attitude about slavery. One suspects he wanted to promote Hoover except that he stood for a system then out of favor (and that Hoover was a mid-westerner, for whom Hofstadter seems to harbor a particular animus.) This reviewer does not wish to make this a political debate, but one can’t help but notice the author’s comment “A generation of artist and intellectuals was nursed through a trying period and became welded to the New Deal and devoted to Roosevelt liberalism.” (414) For Hofstadter, this is apparent throughout.
Attached to this edition is a new forward by Christopher Lasch. Were it not composed in 1973, one might consider it a satire on leftist infighting and scisms as Lasch seems to describe an ever-shrinking circle of politically uncompromised—and therefore acceptable--critics of American culture. Apparently, according to Lasch, Hofstadter has some relevance for them, but the commentary is so unreadable that I didn’t finish.