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Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition, like all

his other

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

to his

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,

he did

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

everything he

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

of Wendell

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

not free

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.” A

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

agitator but

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

him useful

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 ”

who have

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

order to

defend Phillips and insult his critics Hofstadter aggressively states,

“Phillips was

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

evident when

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

this is

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

industry did

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

of the

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

tarnishing the

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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