The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It

March 29th, 2009 at 7:08 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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Richard Hofstadter is a writer so famous that even people who have never read his books somehow feel they know what he had to say about “the paranoid style” and “anti-intellectualism in American life.”

At the same time, Hofstadter is so influential that those readers who do open his pages feel a vague sense of déjà vu – have I not read all this before? And of course they have, in quotations and at second hand.

I’m one of those guilty second-hand readers. I had never read any of Hoftstader’s works until this year. Now I’m working through a small shelf of them methodically, starting with his first major book, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It: a big and enduring success ever since its first publication in 1948.

You can see at once why people have liked it so much. A collection of essays on great American figures, it is at once deeply researched and elegantly written, with a keen eye for the ironic, incongruous, and revealing. (The essay on Theodore Roosevelt opens with this arresting quotation, totally new to me: “How I wish I wasn’t a reformer, oh, Senator! But I suppose I must live up to my part, like the Negro minstrel who blacked himself all over!” – Theodore Roosevelt to Chauncey Depew, a quote all the more startling since Depew, senator from New York and former general counsel to the Vanderbilt railway interests, represented everything that the half-hearted trust-buster Roosevelt supposedly opposed.)

Hofstadter proceeds swiftly from the Founders through the great men of the 19th century up to Franklin Roosevelt. The essays do not form a coherent whole, yet they are united by common assumptions and a common mood. Hofstadter had deeply absorbed the cultural alienation and political radicalism of his time and place. He was born into to a Polish Jewish father and a German Lutheran mother in 1916. He joined the communist party in 1938, but quit after the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939. He carried with him through most of the rest of his life however a dislike of free-market capitalism and a jaundiced view of the American political system and of American culture.

That jaundiced view is registered in the mocking chapter headings of The American Political Tradition: “Thomas Jefferson, The Aristocrat as Democrat”; “Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth”; “Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Patrician as Opportunist.” Hofstadter does not show much reverence, not even to the Founding generation, despite his general admiration for the constitutional document they produced.

[T]he men who met in Philadelphia were not interested in extending liberty to those classes in America, the Negro slaves and the indentured servants, who were most in need of it, for slavery was recognized in the organic structure of the Constitution and indentured servitude was no concern of the Convention. Nor was the regard of the delegates for civil liberties any too tender. It was the opponents of the Constitution who were most active in demanding such vital liberties as freedom of religion, freedom of speech and press jury trial, due process, and protection from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Turning to economic issues, it was not freedom of trade in the modern sense that the Fathers were striving for. Although they did not believe in impeding trade unnecessarily, they felt that the failure to regulate it was one of the central weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, and they stood closer to the mercantilists than to Adam Smith. Again, liberty to them did not mean free access to the nation’s unappropriated wealth. At least fourteen of them were land speculators. They did not believe in the right of the squatter to occupy unused land, but rather in the right of the absentee owner or speculator to preempt it.

It is this irreverent tone that has endeared The American Political Tradition to six decades of history students. And yet it seems to have come to embarrass Hofstadter himself. In later years he described his first grand success as a “young man’s book.” I think I understand what he meant.

“Irony” is a literary term for a situation in which words have a different meaning for the reader than they do for the speaker. The difference is always to the reader’s advantage. When Oedipus curses the murderer of the former king of Thebes, the audience knows what Oedipus does not: that Oedipus was the king’s killer.

In historical writing, this kind of irony is especially unearned. We know better than our predecessors not because we are wiser, but only because we come later. And this irony is all the more pitiful because after all others will come after us.

The awareness that our successors will smile at our errors is not an awareness that comes naturally to the young. They assume that they will have the last word forever, and by the time they realize they will not, they have ceased to be young.

It is this blindness to the flow of time that forms the great fault of The American Political Tradition. Writing in the middle 1940s, the 30ish Hofstadter feels certain he understands better than the men of his book the direction of events.

The frontier is closed. Henceforward, American politics must manage the problems of economic stasis rather than those of economic development. As a result, the country will have to continue to evolve away from the wide-open competition of the 19th century to a more planned economy in the 20th century.

For those American leaders who failed to appreciate this truth – Herbert Hoover say – Hofstadter can express nothing but pitying contempt, all the more condescending for being wrapped in sympathy.

For a generation managed economies had been developing in all the industrialized nations of the world. This trend had been enormously spurred by war. Hoover himself had said two years earlier that managed economies would “long continue over a large part of the earth.” Could he have seriously believed that free enterprise might be restored in the postwar world? In all history no more heroic setting-back of the clock had been proposed. … That there was anything natural, not to say inevitable, about this trend toward managed economies was a question Hoover could never acknowledge without abandoning the premise upon which his public life had been been built – that unmanaged capitalism was an economic system without a major flaw.

Well hardihee-har-har upon Mr. Hoover. Except that in the years after Hofstader wrote those words, free enterprise was to a great extent restored and the clock was set back if not all the way to the laissez-faire of 1913, certainly to an extent that would have seemed astonishing could Hofstadter have foreseen it in the halls of Columbia in those years when the federal government was still rationing credit, food, and gasoline. The ironic joke, it seems, is upon us all.

Which is not to repeat Hofstadter’s own error in his dismissal of Hoover. The American Political Tradition does not lose its value as a study of the past because of its inevitable errors in its assessment of the present or its anticipations of the future. The book pulses with lively insight and historical wisdom. And some of the readings – like his withering debunking of the contemporaneous Arthur Schlesinger hagiography of Andrew Jackson – grow only more powerful over time.

For those who have lived through the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt it is natural to see in Jacksonian democracy an earlier version of the New Deal …. But the two movements differed in a crucial respect … [The Jacksonian movement] was essentially a movement of laissez-faire, an attempt to divorce government and business. It is commonly recognized in American historical folklore that the Jacksonian movement was a phase in the expansion of democracy, but it is too little appreciated that it was also a phase in the expansion of liberated capitalism.

Needless to say, Hofstadter did not approve this in Jacksonianism. And he has some good points to make about how Jackson was wrong about the Bank of the United States, and did real harm to the emerging American national economy by terminating the bank. (Harm aggravated by Nicholas Biddle’s furious and unscrupulous defense of the institution.) This is history at its best, helping us to see the past more clearly – and work enough for any man, without adding to it the very different and ultimately impossible task of prophesying the future as well.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Johnnnymac66

    I’ve lived all of my 51 years in Chicago. I learned world politics by reading Gigi Geyer, Evans & Novak, George Will, and many, many others. I learned Chicago politics by reading Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, and many others.
    For me, the tipping point with Evans came when he “outted” Valerie Plame, a crime I believe was treasonous. I wrote him and told him exactly that, and was not surprised when I received no response.
    From that point on, I’d glance at his columns, but never again believed anything in them.
    When Hunter Thompson would inject himself into the stories he was writing, it was funny. Outting an undercover CIA operative because of a personal grudge wasn’t at all funny.
    I still believe Robert Evans committed treason against the United States.

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Novak comes off as a sort of American, Jewish-cum-Catholic verson of Evelyn Waugh: nasty, vindictive and palpably self loathing. But he wasn’t unpatriotic. Moreover, he was correct about the War on Terror and Iraq. Compare his foreign policy views to David Frum’s, and then tell me: who comes out looking better on the geopolitics of the past decade?

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Oh, and by the way Frum, you’d fail your mother-in-law’s course, too: it’s ABC 20/20, not “NBC 20/20.”

  • lolapowers

    Mr Frum, I so wholeheartedly agree with you, Novak was indeed a dark soul !

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