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Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition, like all
writings, was greatly influenced by the ideology of the time period in which
wrote. The book was written at a time when progressive ideas were the most
prevalent school of thought. Hofstadter was part of a growing number of
who challenged these self-glorifying ideas. In the mid-thirties America had
practically all critical content in favor of a “resurgence of American
chauvinism, a tiresome celebration of the American past.” This mentality
partially fueled by the New Deal , where the government helped pull the
out of The Depression. The emergence of Communism also played a big role.
There was a strong reaction to those who believed that communism should
become the new Americanism. Suddenly anti-American thought and critical
writing gave way to a “literature of hero worship” and “national self-
congratulation.” This reaction to communism caused many Americans to rally
behind democracy, becoming more patriotic and less critical of American
its heroes and their flaws. Going against the fashion, Hofstadter wrote true
own philosophy that “American political heroes are not saints in plaster but
and vulnerable figures of controversy.”
Much of Hofstadter’s early writing was influenced by Marxism as an
intellectual alternative to capitalism. Although not a supporter of Stalin,
agree with the Marxist economic interpretation of history. He did not,
buy into the whole cultural transformation. It is these early roots in
ideology that also contribute to Hofstadter’s critical eye on American
These Marxist ideas inspired a desire to find flaws in the American political
system and its key figures. “The Partisan Review” was one such magazine
which expressed this ideology. Although Marxist in intellectual approach,
Partisan Review” was anti-Stalinist in its politics. This magazine most
criticized the new “American Renaissance,” as they called it. Both The
Political Tradition and the “Partisan review” focus on American traditions,
instead of praising them, they criticized their inadequacies.
Hofstadter’s critical approach to writing affected practically
wrote. Hofstadter is almost always writing to criticize the progressive
as much as or more than the subject matter he is writing about. In The
Political Tradition, every chapter is filled with his criticism. In the case
Phillips the criticism is not so much directed at Phillips, but actually
towards the progressive historian’s negative opinion of him. Hofstadter’s
progressive ideology and cynical approach is evident in his writings on
Lincoln, Wendell Phillips, and the spoilsmen.
Abraham Lincoln, despite the fact that he is considered to have
one of the greatest, if not the greatest president of The United State, was
of Hofstadter’s critique. This is evident right in the beginning of the
when looking at the chapter title, ” Abraham Lincoln and the Self- Made
myth implies something false. For America, the legends of Abe Lincoln’s
beginnings and rail splitting are all part of his hero status. Hofstadter’s
tone in his
writing as well as his words reveal Lincoln the politician, using his past
political gain. Hofstadter also points out, how brief these humble beginnings
were, and how rapidly Lincoln actually rose. Hofstadter by no means believed
that Lincoln was a bad president, he just felt that Lincoln’s sparkling clean
image was a little extreme. Because of the fact that to many Americans
personified the American dream, progressive historians overlooked Lincoln’s
flaws and exaggerated his good qualities. Hofstadter sensed this and
he made sure he included every minor shortcoming that was ignored by others
an effort to polish Lincoln’s heroic status. Throughout the chapter one can
Lincoln’s character flaws such as his physical laziness and his political
obsession. Hofstadter is quick to display insults, quoting William Herndon
he states, “How are you going to make a great lawyer out of Lincoln? His
was afire with its own ambition and that was not law.” By being so critical
Hofstadter was not trying to be cruel but rather he was attempting to show
America the reality that even the distinguished figures in American history
human and therefore imperfect.
The chapter on Wendell Phillips is another chapter that
Hofstadter’s critical writing approach. The difference is that in this
Hofstadter is praising the subject and criticizing Phillip’s critics. This
entitled “Wendell Phillips: The Patrician as an Agitator,” is unique in that
it is the
only chapter which is written about a non-politician. Phillips was an
never ran for any office. This raises two important questions: Why then does
Hofstadter included Wendell Phillips in his book on American politics? Also,
does Hofstadter praise Phillips instead of criticize? The answer lies in the
that Phillips was a key subject of negative criticism by progressives.
in regard to progressive Historians’ opinion of Phillips, states, “Finding
chiefly as a foil to Abraham Lincoln, historians have stereotyped him as the
wrongheaded radical of the Civil War crisis.”2 Hofstadter disagreed
with their opinion of Phillips. Hofstadter states that these historians ”
been indulgent with men who exaggerated because they wanted to be elected
have been extremely severe with men who exaggerated because they wanted to
free slaves.”2 The general historical opinion of Phillips angered Hofstadter
enough to include a chapter in a book on politics on a non-politician. In
defend Phillips and insult his critics Hofstadter aggressively states,
in some ways more sophisticated than those who condemn him. Certainly he
had attained a higher level of intellectual self-awareness.”2 This chapter
Wendell Phillips, while not critical to his study of American politics, is
important in that it demonstrates that Hofstadter’s purpose in writing The
American Political Tradition was more to denounce the progressive ideology
less to criticize the actual figures and systems in American political
Hofstadter’s cynical and anti-progressive approach is also
he writes his chapter entitled, “The Spoilsmen: An Age of Cynicism.” When
historians of Hofstadter’s times were praising the wealthy entrepreneurs for
demonstrating how great the American economic system was, Hofstadter went
the other direction. He pointed out the corruption which filled the Nation
economical powerhouses take control of politics. Hofstadter believed that
truly what had happened and was very critical of a time period which some
historians see as a great time in American past. Hofstadter emphasizes the
corruption when he states, “In business and in politics the captains of
their work boldly, blandly , and cynically. Exploiting workers and milking
bribing Congressmen, buying legislatures, spying upon competitors, hiring
guards .they made a mockery of the simple gentry who imagined that the
nation’s development could place dignity and restraint under the regime of
laissez-faire.”2 Hofstadter writes this way in order to show the dark side of
American industrial revolution. He made sure it was known that this time
politically and economically was certainly not as glamorous as many
made it out to be.
Throughout his book, The American Political tradition, Richard
is constantly being cynical and critical. Critical, that is, not necessarily
subject matter he is writing about, but of the progressive ideology.
was in disagreement with the what most historians at the time were writing
Hofstadter would criticize when other historians would praise and vice versa.
Hofstadter would realistically write about history even if it meant
reputation of American historical heroes. His basis for this thinking was
influenced by Marxism and other factors. Hofstadter’s anti-progressive
was clearly demonstrated in his chapter’s on Abraham Lincoln, where he
out that the American hero was not without flaws, Wendell Phillips, where he
criticized Phillip’s critics, and The Spoilsmen, in which he revealed the
reality of industrialization and its effect on politics and the economy.
was part of a cynical undertow in a wave of progressive writing. The American
Political Tradition is a very satisfying contradiction to all the hero
progressive historical writings of its time.
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