Dog Days Classics: The American Political Tradition

As the combined impact of climate change and the sweltering plague known as Atlanta in August settles upon us, we decided to take advantage of the slow-thinking stupor to go on a walk down memory lane. This nostalgia trip takes us to the books that we found most influential in undergrad and graduate school — the texts that were inspiring, that made us want to learn more, or that shaped the way we write about or conceptualize the past. Each post will look at one book, generally an academic text (if we were writing about fiction or poetry, it would be a very different list), and consider why it was so powerful in its impact. It would be a pretty dull discussion if each post consisted of “This was a great book!” and “It was very well-written!” so we will also be revisiting these books with an eye to their shortcomings, and how our own take on them has changed in the intervening years. The earlier books will come first, and generally the ones we read as doe-eyed college kids, before moving on to more recent works that are classics in the making. But the first book will be one dear to my heart, that I read in the first year of grad school:

Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It

Hofstadter’s 1948 epic continues to find new readers among undergrads and grad students, as well as the oft-mentioned-but-rarely-observed “educated general interest reader of history.” Trends in historiography may have left Hofstadter far behind, but that may be all to the good in the case of The American Political Tradition. The book’s twelve chapters offer largely psychological insight into major political figures such as the Founding Fathers and the pro-slavery aristocrat John Calhoun, setting them against the social context of their time and probing the deeper casts of mind that led them to craft the Constitution, preserve the union, or oversee the corruption of the Gilded Age in their own particular way. Hofstadter portrays the giants of US political history as men of their time and place, who were nonetheless caught up in circumstances they could dimly understand and scarcely control. Grover Cleveland was an honest but simple-minded public servant, a committed believer in bourgeois virtues of thrift and propriety – in other words, the perfect cipher for an age when moneyed interests were robbing the public blind. Hofstadter cast FDR as “the patrician as opportunist,” who never set out to become a figurehead of radical discontent but who still managed to employ his personal charms and charisma to take advantage of the moment. Lincoln’s “little engine” of ambition brought him to the pinnacle of power, but it also left him with a burden of wartime leadership that he shouldered with a tragic, vaguely Christian sense of responsibility. (If Lincoln was auditioning to be Christ, he was all too aware how the story would end – and that the outcome was out of his hands.)

For me, the finest contribution of The American Political Tradition is its humane approach to people in the past. The book has often been described as “literary,” which is a way of saying it is not as stilted and dry as most academic history (or this blog post). Yet it is literary in another way: like fiction, it goes beyond examining the significance of events to introduce us to recognizable human beings, people with hang-ups, anxieties, and mixed motivations who grope for the right path, as they understand it. Not a lot of historians do this very well, even when they try. Hofstadter’s approach is marked by both irony and empathy for his historical subjects, including the vain and the powerful.

Victoria Woodhull: Non-traditional

The book may benefit from lissome prose and keen insight, but it remains vulnerable to criticism. While not quite qualifying as “psychohistory,” the book does examine the past by attempting to deduce the inner mental workings of long-dead historical figures, a reflection of the vogue for Freudian psychoanalysis after World War II. It focuces almost exclusively on men, but that fact is not surprising for a study written in 1948 that deals in large part with presidents (a largely male group in the US). Although it is often classified with the work of “consensus” historians who celebrated America’s liberal democratic heritage in the 1940s and 1950s, the book’s larger insight was simply that basic assumptions about property rights and capitalism seemed to endure throughout US history, regardless of how many divergent personalities passed through the scene:

The sanctity of private property, the right of the individual to dispose of and invest it, the value of opportunity, and the natural evolution of self-interest and self-assertion, within broad legal limits, into a beneficent social order have been staple tenets of the central faith in American political ideologies; these conceptions have been shared in large part by men as diverse as Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Cleveland, Bryan, Wilson, and Hoover.

Hofstadter may have believed in the sturdiness of this creed, but he did not celebrate it. A recovering Marxist in 1948, he still viewed the grasping avariciousness and blind obedience to property that defined American history with bittersweet resignation. It may be that Hofstadter marked the boundaries of American discourse accurately; certainly, today’s political universe in the US seems pinched and impoverished, with even a progressive president like Barack Obama unwilling to commit to policies that smack of socialism and “big government.” Yet he also may have overlooked the hints of native radicalism that other historians have found among the American revolutionaries, the populist farmers of the South, and the many Americans who made socialism a vital movement in the early twentieth century. Only the abolitionist Wendell Phillips comes across in Hofstadter’s study as a principled radical above the demands of self-interest and retail politics. If The American Political Tradition had been subtitled And the People Who Made It, we might have seen a chapter on Victoria Woodhull, the radical proponent of women’s rights and free love who ran for president in 1872. How did she fit into the tradition? A book like that — which married Hofstadter’s keen eye for character with a contemporary view of the past — might reveal a more capacious political tradition than the one found in this (still very good) book.