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The American Political Tradition and the Men…
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The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made it (1948)

by Richard Hofstadter

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Hofstadter writes very well and makes big claims, which is a pleasant change from a lot of contemporary history. The book's general thesis - that the American Political Tradition is by and large an ongoing defense of the property rights of the well-off - seems correct. The book itself lags a bit. It's odd but understandable that the worst chapters are about people who are just transparently evil and or idiots; he's at his best as a debunker (i.e., Andrew Jackson was no champion of the oppressed) and obviously doesn't much care to take yet another swipe at the Grant presidency.

The most entertaining part of this book, though, is hearing from my historian friend that Hofstadter is regarded as an arch-conservative. I know he changed some later on in his career, but this book would be considered an unpublishable incitement to class war these days. Meanwhile the self-professed radical professors and graduate students are writing about the Disabled Phillipino-American Bisexual Communities of Northern Montana from 1863-1864. Sometimes you just have to throw yourselves on the gears of power, right? ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
I read this book in my AP U.S. History class in H.S., was the first book to whet my appetite for politics. ( )
  Brent.Hall | Apr 12, 2011 |
Rereading this book after 30 years, I was amazed how well it holds up after 60 years (it was first published in 1948 and it's still in print). It's a work of interpretation, rather than narrative history, and assumes a knowledge of the broad sweep of American history. Hofstadter tells his story through the lives, thought and activities of key political leaders of the past 200 years. He's not afraid to take (still) controversial stands, many of which have been challenged by other scholars. But it's a measure of the book's staying power that, even today, if you're going to write about Jefferson, Jackson, Roosevelt (both), Wilson, you're still obliged to address Hofstadter's analysis of these men and their policies.

Many of his insights into the character, ideas, and significance of American political icons still impress (me, at least):

On Jefferson's differences with the drafters of the Constitution: "While his friends at home were watching the failure of the Articles of Confederation, looking anxiously upon the political advances of the dirt farmers, and turning rightward in their politics, he was touring Europe, taking the measure of feudal and monarchical institutions, observing the bitter exploitation of the workers of England and the peasantry of France, and confirming his republicanism.”

On the significance of Jackson's election: “The election of 1828 was not an uprising of the West against the East nor a triumph of the frontier: outside of New England and its colonized areas in the West, Federalist Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland, Jackson swept the country. Nor was his election a mandate for economic reform; no financial changes, no crusades against the national bank, were promised. The main themes of Jacksonian democracy thus far were militant nationalism and equal access to office. Jackson's election was more a result than a cause of the rise of democracy, and the 'revolution of 1828' more an overturn of personnel than of ideas or programs.”

On TR as a Progressive reformer: “In retrospect...it is hard to understand how Roosevelt managed to keep his reputation as a strenuous reformer. Unlike Bryan, he had no passionate interest in the humane goals of reform; unlike LaFollette, no mastery of its practical details.... Reform in his mind did not mean a thoroughgoing purgation; it was meant to heal only the most conspicuous sores on the body politic. And yet many people were willing and eager to accept his reform role at its face value.”

And his take on FDR, and comparision with Hoover, strikes some chords today (2009):

“At the heart of the New Deal there was not a philosophy but a temperament. The essence of this temperament was Roosevelt's confidence that even when he was operating in unfamiliar territory he could do no wrong, commit no serious mistakes. From the standpoint of an economic technician this assurance seemed almost mad at times.... And yet there was a kind of intuitive wisdom under the harum-scarum surface of his methods.When he came to power, the people had seen stagnation go dangerously far. They wanted experiment, activity, trial and error, anything that would convey a sense of movement and novelty...."

"Although...Roosevelt had been reared on a social and economic philosophy rather similar to Hoover's, he succeeded at once in communicating the fact that his temperament was antithetical. When Hoover bumbled that it was necessary only to restore confidence, the nation laughed bitterly. When Roosevelt said: 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,' essentially the same thread-bare half-true idea, the nation was thrilled. Hoover had lacked motion; Roosevelt lacked direction. But his capacity for growth, or at least for change, was enormous."

Hofstadter was among the first of the postwar historians to cross the line into "popular history," in the sense that his books made the best seller lists, but he never pandered to the popular desire for simple narratives and patriotic celebration. His analyses were always trenchant, often controversial, and invariably well-written; he could be challenged, but it took serious effort to best him. I recommend all of his works (most or perhaps all remain in print), as well as the excellent biography by David S. Brown, "Richard Hofstadter : An Intellectual Biography". ( )
1 vote walbat | May 16, 2009 |
Brilliant but tedious. To be fair, I did have to read this for school. I might actually like it now... though who knows. This is so densely written it's hard to take it all in at once. I would probably get more out of it by reading it again. ( )
  bfertig | Apr 14, 2009 |
Hofstadter's tone is at times a bit - I would go so far to say - obnoxious in the way that he presents himself and his arguments in an overly self-important light. Perhaps when the book was first published, it brought forth a different response from its audience; however, at this point in time any person remotely interested in history should be familiar with what Hofstadter seems to consider his avant garde arguments. ( )
  SandSing7 | Aug 27, 2008 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Richard Hofstadterprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Lasch, ChristopherForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Introduction -- Since Americans have recently found it more comfortable to see where they have been than to think of where they are going, their state of mind has become increasingly passive and spectatorial.
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Twelve biographical portraits of US leaders from the founding fathers to FDR, considered in light of their political policies.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679723153, Paperback)

A revised edition of the clasic study of American politics from the Founding Fathers to FDR.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:20:56 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

The classic study of American politics from the Founding Fathers to FDR.

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