Book Review: The American Political Tradition

Posted: October 23, 2007 in blogging, book review, books, creative writing, entertainment, wisdom, writing

For those of you stuffy types that like to read book reviews, this post is for you.

book-review-of-american-traditions-final.doc

The best line in this particular review follows below:

The result is a history of American politics that stresses political commonalities, often at the cost of historical figures respectability—bespotting the memory of the great men of American history in much the same way pigeons alter public monuments.”

Catch the remainder below to see the full paper.

The America Political Tradition: “We are all republicans—we are all federalists.”[1]

    Frustrated progressive and Marxist historian, Richard Hofstadter, wrote American Political Tradition as a corrective to the trend during his time of “hero-worship and national self-congratulation.”[2] As a result of this Hofstadter admits that he was “somewhat disposed to downgrade the men [he] was writing about.”[3] Depending on the chapter this statement is either mildly exaggerated or a radical understatement. The result is a history of American politics that stresses political commonalities, often at the cost of historical figures respectability—bespotting the memory of the great men of American history in much the same way pigeons alter public monuments.[4]

 

Before engaging Hofstadter’s work it is important to understand his approach to history and his contemporary frustrations. Beyond the above issues with hero worship, Hofstadter increasingly grew upset with the way the works of prominent historians like Beard and Turner “put the conflict between groups of classes so firmly in the center of the historical frame,” so much so that many historians had missed the common assumptions shared by these men who so often fought ideological battles within a well defined ideological field of engagement.[5] Yet, in delving into the commonalities Hofstadter projects his main characters often as cynical, ideologically bankrupt, and sometimes even just plain unintelligent.

 

    A discussion of Hofstadter’s chapters on Jefferson (a sacrosanct American iconoclast) and William Jennings Bryan (a religious agrarian radical) will illuminate how his approach tends to paint his subjects in a much more unfavorable light then they are accustomed to in historical circles. Admittedly, Jefferson is graciously allowed to retain some level of dignity, while Bryan endures a brutal denigration of his intelligence—although he is magnanimously allowed to retain a level of authenticity.

    Jefferson, as reconstructed by Hofstadter, no longer the revolutionary iconoclast, becomes at best a closet radical. Hofstadter’s first example of Jefferson’s less-than-radical political realism was his effort to abolish entail, which according to Hofstadter “did not really exist in Virginia.”[6] However Hofstadter cites Clarence Keim’s flawed conclusions regarding primogeniture from Keim’s 1928 thesis which has since been thoroughly refuted by Holly Brewer—whose research showed that entail captured roughly half to three quarters of the entire “’seated’ area of Virginia.”[7] Moreover, although Hofstadter admits to Jefferson’s holding “unacceptable ideas” he states that Jefferson “avoided expressing [them] in public.”[8] Hofstadter’s Jefferson “shrank from asserting his principals” in the face of potential anger, sought conciliation in strategy, and compromise in economics. [9] And in what must have been incredibly frustrating to Jefferson himself, the one time (according to Hofstadter) that he stood behind a “doctrinaire and impractical measure”—the 1807 Embargo Act—it proved to be a miserable failure.[10] Indeed, at times it appears that Hofstadter chose Jefferson for no other reason than to stress the irony that the same Republicans who in 1798 decried the banking interests and strong central government of the federalists by the 1820s had “out-Federalized Federalism.”[11]

    If Jefferson’s image is only slightly tarnished by Hofstadter, Hofstadter’s portrayal of William Jennings Bryan is beyond uncomplimentary—it is both polemical and at times seemingly personal. Hofstadter is consistent in his negative imagery of Bryan as “crude,” “superficial,” “simple,” and “desolately lacking in…in…intellectuality.”[12] Bryan’s crusade for the silver standard proves to be little more than a distraction from the real problems of the day as Hofstadter sees them: “tariffs, railroads, middlemen, speculators, [et al.].”[13] But if one can avoid getting lost in what seems like endless attacks against Bryan there is an important point to be made for Hofstadter’s thesis. Despite the seeming radical populism of Bryan in his day, like almost all the figures depicted by Hofstadter he remains well within the framework of assumptions of his day—indeed his own ideas are directly linked to Jefferson’s agrarianism.[14] Bryan, much like Jefferson, ends up arguing and promoting one form of property over another, “not two kinds of philosophy.”[15]

 

    While Hofstadter’s work is interesting and no doubt highly influential some of his claims are dubious at best. As seen above his claims regarding entail have since been disproven. Moreover, his claim in the first chapter that “nor was the regard of the delegates for civil liberties any too tender” rests on a seeming difference in opinion over liberty that is disingenuous.[16] While his work is valuable as corrective of and preferable to self-congratulatory nationalism, Hofstadter seems to have bypassed detachment and taken joy in a feigned objectivity that drops its mask quite clearly in his chapter on Bryan—one would not be alone to assume that Hofstadter appears to label Bryan as intellectually inferior in large part due to his religious beliefs.


[1] Richard Hofstadter, the American Political Tradition: and the Men Who Made It, (New York: Knopf Inc., 1948; New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 45.

[2] Ibid., ix.

[3] Ibid., xxx.

[4] Daniel Aaron, “[Untitled review],” American Quarterly 1(1) (Spring, 1994), 94. “[Hofstadter’s] portraits of men like Lincoln or Jefferson, for instance, may read to some like studies in denigration.”

[5] Hofstadter, xxviii.

[6] Ibid., 28.

[7] Ibid., 464; Holly Brewer, “Entailing Aristocracy in Colonial Virginia: “Ancient Feudal Restraints” and Revolutionary Reform,” William and Mary Quarterly 54(2) (Apr., 1997), 311. “The article suggests that entail and primogeniture were feudal institutions critical to the growth and perpetuation of aristocracy and slavery in the South. Close examination of Keim’s study reveals that his data cannot bear the weight of the thesis Keim drew from them. Simply put, in calculating the effect of entail, Keim overlooked the fact that land, once entailed, remained entailed until the tail was broken. Consequently, his study is deeply, irredeemably flawed.” Ibid. , Citing a contemporary observer whose conclusion Brewer endorses.

[8] Hofstadter, 33.

[9] Ibid., 34, 46.

[10] Ibid., 51.

[11] Ibid., 54.

[12] Ibid., 242, 244, 246, 250. Hofstadter seems to bristle at the thought of Bryan being included among the “celebrated American radicals.” Ibid., 250.

[13] Ibid., 244.

[14] Ibid., 247.

[15] Ibid., 42.

[16] Ibid., 14. While his arguments imply that the ant-federalists were the most “active for in demanding [] vital liberties,” he is being at the least imprecise. The battle wasn’t over liberties, but instead over the best way to protect them. While the anti-federalists called for a written Bill of Rights, federalists like Madison insisted that none was needed. As Madison wrote in Federalist 84, “They would contain various exceptions to powers which are not granted; and on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted. For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why for instance, should it be said, that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?”

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Comments
  1. titus2woman says:

    I love a good book review, even though politics are always over my head. I pay attention a little better when it’s (‘cuz I heart) Tony Blankley though! LOL! Your post on bloggy friendships warmed my heart! Isn’t it AMAZING how much total strangers do for you? In comparison to IRL family and friends even? What a different world we live in~my life has been so enriched! (((((HUGS)))))) sandi

  2. […] totaltransformation wrote an interesting post today on Book Review: The American Political TraditionHere’s a quick excerptFor those of you stuffy types that like to read book reviews, this post is for you. book-review-of-american-traditions-final.doc. The best line in this particular review follows below:. “The result is a history of American politics that … […]

  3. euandus says:

    I suspect that the latest compromise regarding state banking regulation points to the influence of large corporations on the Congress as a culprit in the on-going eclipse of federalism. Pls see my blog if interested. Thanks.

  4. i have been following this blog for some time now, good job by the way

  5. […] The American Political Tradition by Richard Hofstadter […]

  6. […] The American Political Tradition by Richard Hofstadter. While Hofstadter’s book sometimes comes with harsh criticism, it also serves as an important reminder that citizens should not blindly follow long-held beliefs or reputations without questioning why. […]

  7. […] The American Political Tradition by Richard Hofstadter. While Hofstadter’s book sometimes comes with harsh criticism, it also serves as an important reminder that citizens should not blindly follow long-held beliefs or reputations without questioning why. […]

  8. […] The American Political Tradition by Richard Hofstadter. While Hofstadter’s book sometimes comes with harsh criticism, it also serves as an important reminder that citizens should not blindly follow long-held beliefs or reputations without questioning why. […]

  9. […] The American Political Tradition by Richard Hofstadter. While Hofstadter’s book sometimes comes with harsh criticism, it also serves as an important reminder that citizens should not blindly follow long-held beliefs or reputations without questioning why. […]

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