The American Political Tradition, Revisited


Tropics of Meta is excited to announce a new initiative that we hope can bring together leading historians and emerging scholars around a unique proposal: an update of Richard Hofstadter’s seminal The American Political Tradition, which brings the great historian’s perceptive and often acerbic assessment of American political figures from the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the more recent past. Hofstadter ended at FDR in his 1948 classic, bringing a jaundiced eye to the then-most recent US president. From Jefferson to Lincoln, Wendell Phillips to Woodrow Wilson, Hofstadter employed his svelte prose and acid cynicism to provide apt profiles of major figures in what he defined as the “American political tradition.”

We would like to bring this up-to-date.

Indeed, we have often asked our students–who might Hofstadter include in a version of the book that was written today?  Would Frederick Douglass or Victoria Woodhull make the cut? Maybe Eugene Debs?

Rather than rewrite the original book, though, we propose turning our attention to the more recent past–extending Hofstadter’s vision rather than revising it. Indeed, we will pick up where the Columbia professor left off.  Who would be in a new, post-1945 American Political Tradition? Certainly Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton.  Hillary Clinton, to be sure.  But who else? Activists and social critics like Phyllis Schlafly, Malcolm X, Tom Hayden, Cesar Chavez, James Baldwin, Gloria Steinem, Grace Lee Boggs? Other prominent political figures who either pursued the presidency or approached the pinnacle of power, such as Newt Gingrich, Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, Mike Dukakis, or Nancy Pelosi perhaps?

We have in mind an engaging and accessible series of profiles of figures who represent different dimensions of America’s political tradition in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.  Whereas Hofstadter made the unfortunate choice to append his title The American Political Tradition with “and the Men Who Made It,” we are interested in providing a more robust picture, one that takes into account the part played by women and people of color in our traditions of local and national politics. And we are particularly interested in bringing the voices of a diverse range of scholars (in terms of race, gender or sexual identity, age, ability, and immigration status) into the project.

In the coming months we will be reaching out and soliciting pieces for this project, with the aim of publishing an edited collection with a major university or trade press.  If you have ideas, proposals, suggestions, please let us know!  We can be reached at, and we plan to move forward quickly.

For more of ToM’s past political coverage — and our disgusting Gingrich fixation/fetish — check out the Politics section here