Richard Hofstadter

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Richard Hofstadter
File:Richard Hofstadter.jpg
Hofstadter circa 1970
Born (1916-08-06)August 6, 1916
Buffalo, New York, United States
Died October 24, 1970 (aged 54)
New York, NY,
United States
Nationality American
Institutions Columbia University
Alma mater University at Buffalo
Columbia University
Doctoral advisor Merle Curti
Known for History of American political culture
Influences Charles A. Beard, Merle Curti, Karl Marx, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H. L. Mencken, Karl Mannheim, Edmund Wilson, Vernon L. Parrington, Reinhold Niebuhr, Lionel Trilling, C. Wright Mills, Theodor Adorno, Seymour Martin Lipset
Influenced Eric Foner, Robert Dallek, Christopher Hitchens, Susan Jacoby, David W. Noble, Mike Wallace, C. Vann Woodward, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; David M. Potter, Howard Zinn, Christopher Lasch
Spouse Felice Swados (1936–45; her death)
Beatrice Kevitt (widowed in 1970)
Children Dan and Sarah

Richard Hofstadter (6 August 1916 – 24 October 1970) was an American historian and public intellectual of the mid-20th century. Hofstadter was the DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University. Rejecting his earlier approach to history from the far left, in the 1950s he embraced consensus history, becoming the "iconic historian of postwar liberal consensus", largely because of his emphasis on ideas and political culture rather than the day-to-day doings of politicians. His influence is ongoing, as modern critics profess admiration for the grace of his writing, and the depth of his insight.[1]

His most important works are Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860–1915 (1944); The American Political Tradition (1948); The Age of Reform (1955); Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963), and the essays collected in The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964). He was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize: in 1956 for The Age of Reform, an unsentimental analysis of the populism movement in the 1890s and the progressive movement of the early 20th century; and in 1964 for the cultural history Anti-intellectualism in American Life.[2]

Early life and education

Richard Hofstadter was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1916, to a Jewish father, Emil A. Hofstadter and a German American Lutheran mother, Katherine (née Hill), who died when Richard was ten.[3] He attended the Fosdick-Masten Park High School in Buffalo. Hofstadter then studied philosophy and history at the University at Buffalo, from 1933, under the diplomatic historian Julius W. Pratt. Despite opposition from both families, he married Felice Swados in 1936 after he and Felice spent several summers at Hunter Colony, New York, run by Margaret Lefranc, their close friend for years; they had one child, Dan.[4] Hofstadter was raised as an Episcopalian but later identified more with his Jewish roots. Antisemitism may have cost him fellowships at Columbia and attractive professorships.[5]

In 1936, Hofstadter entered the doctoral program in history at Columbia University, where his advisor Merle Curti was demonstrating how to synthesize intellectual, social, and political history based upon secondary sources rather than primary-source archival research.[6] In 1942, Hofstadter earned his doctorate in history and in 1944 published his dissertation Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860–1915, a pithy and commercially successful (200,000 copies) critique of late nineteenth-century American capitalism and its ruthless "dog-eat-dog" economic competition and Social Darwinian self-justification. Conservative critics, such as Irwin G. Wylie and Robert C. Bannister, disagree with his interpretation.[7][8][9] The sharpest criticism of Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860–1915 focused on Hofstadter's weakness as a research scholar: he did little or no research into manuscripts, newspapers, archival, or unpublished sources. Instead, he primarily relied upon secondary sources augmented by his lively style and wide-ranging interdisciplinary readings, this producing very well-written arguments based upon scattered evidence he found by reading other historians.[10]

Consensus historian

From 1942 to 1946 Hofstadter taught history at the University of Maryland, where he became fast friends with radical sociologist C. Wright Mills and read extensively in the fields of sociology and psychology, absorbing ideas of Max Weber, Karl Mannheim, Sigmund Freud, and the Frankfurt School. His later books frequently refer to behavioral concepts such as "status anxiety."[11][12]

In 1946 Hofstadter joined the Columbia University faculty and in 1959 succeeded Allan Nevins as the DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History, where he played a major role in directing Ph.D. dissertations in the field. After 1945 Hofstadter philosophically broke with Charles A. Beard and moved to the right, becoming leader of the "consensus historians", a term that Hofstadter disliked, but it was widely applied to his rejection of the Beardian idea that there was a fundamental conflict running throughout American history that pitted economic classes against each other.[13]

As early as his American Political Tradition (1948) Hofstadter rejected black-and-white polarization between pro-business and anti-business politicians.[14] Making explicit reference to Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Cleveland, Bryan, Wilson, and Hoover, Hofstadter made a compelling statement of the consensus model of the American political tradition:

The fierceness of the political struggles has often been misleading: for the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise. However much at odds on specific issues, the major political traditions have shared a belief in the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, the value of competition; they have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture as necessary qualities of man.[15]

As a consensus historian, Hofstadter rejected Beard's interpretation of history as a succession of socio-economic group conflicts. He thought that all historical periods could be understood as an implicit consensus, shared by antagonists, explaining that the generation of Beard and Vernon Louis Parrington had:

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...put such an excessive emphasis on conflict, that an antidote was needed... It seems to me to be clear that a political society cannot hang together, at all, unless there is some kind of consensus running through it, and yet that no society has such a total consensus as to be devoid of significant conflict. It is all a matter of proportion and emphasis, which is terribly important in history. Of course, obviously, we have had one total failure of consensus, which led to the Civil War. One could use that as the extreme case in which consensus breaks down.[16]

In 1948 he published The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, incisive interpretive studies of 12 major American political leaders from the 18th-20th centuries. Besides critical success, the book sold nearly a million copies at university campuses, where it was used as a history textbook; critics found it "skeptical, fresh, revisionary, occasionally ironical, without being harsh or merely destructive".[17] Although, as Bruce Kuklik notes, it still "owed much to Hofstadter's leftist background", it was ironic and paradoxical in dealing with political leaders from the Revolution to the present. Each chapter title illustrated a paradox: Thomas Jefferson is "The Aristocrat as Democrat"; John C. Calhoun is the "Marx of the Master Class"; and Franklin Roosevelt is "The Patrician as Opportunist".[18]

Later works

As an historian, Hofstadter's ground-breaking work came in using social psychology concepts to explain political history.[lower-alpha 1] He explored subconscious motives such as social status anxiety, anti-intellectualism, irrational fear, and paranoia—as they propel political discourse and action in politics.

The rural ethos

The Age of Reform (1955) analyzes the yeoman ideal in America's sentimental attachment to agrarianism and the moral superiority of the farm over the city. Hofstadter—himself very much a big-city person—noted the agrarian ethos was "a kind of homage that Americans have paid to the fancied innocence of their origins, however, to call it a myth does not imply falsity, because it effectively embodies the rural values of the American people, profoundly influencing their perception of the correct values, hence their political behavior." In this matter, the stress is upon the importance of Jefferson's writings, and of his followers, in the development of agrarianism in the US, as establishing the agrarian myth, and its importance, in American life and politics—despite the rural and urban industrialization that rendered the myth moot.[20][page needed]

Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. and Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. describe the provincialism in American society, warning it contains much anti-intellectual fear of the cosmopolitan city, presented as wicked by the xenophobic and anti-Semitic Populists of the 1890s. They trace the direct political and ideological lineage between the Populists and anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism, the political paranoia manifest in his contemporary time. His dissertation director Merle Curti noted about Hofstadter that: "His position is as biased, by his urban background... as the work of older historians was biased by their rural background and traditional agrarian sympathies".[21]

Irrational fear

Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. describes the origins of the First Party System as reflecting fears that the [other] political party threatened to destroy the republic. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. systematically analyzes and criticizes the intellectual foundations and historical validity of Charles Beard's historiography; the book "signalled a growing support for neoconservatism" by Hofstadter. While not publishing his harshest thoughts, Hofstadter said privately that Turner no longer was a useful guide to history, because he was too obsessed with the frontier and his ideas too often had "a pound of false-hood for every few ounces of truth".[lower-alpha 2]

Howe and Finn argue that rhetorically, Hofstadter's cultural interpretation drew upon concepts drawn from literary criticism, anthropology, and social psychology. He used them over and over: first: "irony," "paradox," "anomaly," "curiously". Second: "myth," "tradition," "legend," "folklore". Third: "projection," "unconsciously," "identity," "anxiety," and "paranoid." He artfully employed their explicit scholarly meanings and their informal prejudicial connotations. His goal, they argue, was "destroying certain cherished American traditions and myths derived from his conviction that they provided no trustworthy guide for action in the present."[23] Thus Hofstadter argued, "The application of depth psychology to politics, chancy though it is, has at least made us acutely aware that politics can be a projective arena for feelings and impulses that are only marginally related to the manifest issues."[24]

C. Vann Woodward stated that Hofstadter seemed "to have a solid understanding, if not a private affection" for "the odd, the warped, the "zanies" and the crazies of American life - left, right and middle".[25]

Political views

Hofstadter, influenced by his wife, was a member of the Young Communist League in college, and in April 1938 he joined the Communist Party of the USA; he quit in 1939.[26] Hofstadter had been reluctant to join, knowing the orthodoxy it imposed on intellectuals, and disillusioned by the spectacle of the Moscow Show Trials, but wrote: "I join without enthusiasm but with a sense of obligation... my fundamental reason for joining is that I don't like capitalism and want to get rid of it."[27] He remained anti-capitalist, writing: "I hate capitalism and everything that goes with it", but was similarly disillusioned with Stalinism, finding the Soviet Union "essentially undemocratic" and the Communist Party rigid and doctrinaire. In the 1940s Hofstadter abandoned political causes, feeling that intellectuals were no more likely to "find a comfortable home" under socialism than they were under capitalism.[27][28]

Biographer Susan Baker writes that Hofstadter, "was profoundly influenced by the political Left of the 1930s... The philosophical impact of Marxism was so intense and direct during Hofstadter's formative years that it formed a major part of his identity crisis... The impact of these years created his orientation to the American past, accompanied as it was by marriage, establishment of life-style, and choice of profession."[29]

Geary (2007) concludes that, "To Hofstadter, radicalism always offered more of a critical intellectual stance than a commitment to political activism. Although Hofstadter quickly became disillusioned with the Communist Party, he retained an independent left-wing standpoint well into the 1940s. Both his first book, Social Darwinism in American Thought (1944), and The American Political Tradition (1948) were written from a radical point of view."[30]

In the 1940s, Hofstadter cited Charles A. Beard as "the exciting influence on me".[31] Hofstadter specifically responded to Beard's social-conflict model of U.S. history, which emphasized the struggle among competing economic groups (primarily farmers, Southern slavers, Northern industrialists, and workers) and discounted abstract political rhetoric which rarely translated into action. Beard encouraged historians to search for the hidden self-interest and financial goals of the economic belligerents.

By the 1950s and 1960s Hofstadter had a strong reputation in liberal circles. Lawrence Cremin noted that "Hofstadter's central purpose in writing history . . . was to reformulate American liberalism so that it might stand more honestly and effectively against attacks from both left and right in a world which had accepted the essential insights of Darwin, Marx, and Freud."[32] Alfred Kazin identified his use of parody:

He was a derisive critic and parodist of every American Utopia and its wild prophets, a natural oppositionist to fashion and its satirist, a creature suspended between gloom and fun, between disdain for the expected and mad parody.[33]

Conservative commentator George Will in 2008 called Hofstadter "the iconic public intellectual of liberal condescension", who "dismissed conservatives as victims of character flaws and psychological disorders—a 'paranoid style' of politics rooted in 'status anxiety', etc. Conservatism rose on a tide of votes cast by people irritated by the liberalism of condescension."[34]

Later life

Angered by the radical politics of the 1960s, and especially by the student occupation and temporary closure of Columbia University in 1968, Hofstadter began to criticize student activist methods. His friend David Herbert Donald said: "as a liberal who criticized the liberal tradition from within, he was appalled by the growing radical, even revolutionary, sentiment that he sensed among his colleagues and his students. He could never share their simplistic, moralistic approach."[35] Brick says he regarded them as "simple-minded, moralistic, ruthless, and destructive."[36] Moreover, he was "extremely critical of student tactics, believing that they were based on irrational romantic ideas, rather than sensible plans for achievable change, that they undermined the unique status of the university, as an institutional bastion of free thought, and that they were bound to provoke a political reaction from the right".[37] Coates argues that his career saw a steady move from left to right, and that his 1968 Columbia Commencement Address, "represented the completion of his conversion to conservatism."[38]

Despite strongly disagreeing with their political methods, he invited his radical students to discuss goals and strategies with him. He even employed one, Mike Wallace, to collaborate with him on American Violence: A Documentary History (1970); about the book, Hofstadter student Eric Foner said that it "utterly contradicted the consensus vision of a nation placidly evolving without serious disagreements".[39]

Hofstadter planned to write a three-volume history of American society, but at his death he had only completed the first volume, America at 1750: A Social Portrait (1971).


He died from leukemia on October 24, 1970 at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan at age 54.[40]


Hofstadter showed more interest in his research than in his teaching. In undergraduate classes, he read aloud each day the draft of his next book.[41] As a senior professor at a leading graduate university, Hofstadter directed more than one hundred finished doctoral dissertations but gave his graduate students only cursory attention; Hofstadter believed that this academic latitude enabled them to find their own models of history. Among them were Herbert Gutman, Eric Foner, Lawrence W. Levine, Linda Kerber, and Paula Fass. Some such as Eric McKitrick and Stanley Elkins, were more conservative than he; hence, Hofstadter had few disciples and founded no school of history writing.[42][43]

Following Hofstadter's death, Columbia dedicated a locked bookcase of his works in Butler Library to him, but his widow Beatrice—who after his death married the journalist Theodore White—asked that it be removed when the physical conditions of the library deteriorated.

Published works

  • "The Tariff Issue on the Eve of the Civil War," The American Historical Review Vol. 44, No. 1 (Oct., 1938), pp. 50–55 full text in JSTOR
  • "William Graham Sumner, Social Darwinist," The New England Quarterly Vol. 14, No. 3 (Sep., 1941), pp. 457–77 online at JSTOR
  • "Parrington and the Jeffersonian Tradition," Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 2, No. 4 (Oct., 1941), pp. 391–400 JSTOR
  • "William Leggett, Spokesman of Jacksonian Democracy," Political Science Quarterly Vol. 58, No. 4 (Dec., 1943), pp. 581–94 JSTOR
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  • The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1948). online edition
  • "Beard and the Constitution: The History of an Idea," American Quarterly (1950) 2#3 pp. 195–213 JSTOR
  • The Age of Reform: from Bryan to FDR (New York: Knopf, 1955). online ed.
  • The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955) with Walter P. Metzger OCLC 175391
  • The United States: the History of a Republic (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1957), college textbook; several editions; coauthored with Daniel Aaron and William Miller
  • Anti-intellectualism in American Life (New York: Knopf, 1963).
  • The Progressive Movement, 1900-1915 (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963). edited excerpts. OCLC 265628
  • The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays (New York: Knopf, 1965). ISBN 978-0-226-34817-9
  • The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (New York: Knopf, 1968).
  • The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780–1840 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).
  • American Violence: A Documentary History, co-edited with Mike Wallace (1970) ISBN 978-0-394-41486-7
  • "America as a gun culture" American Heritage, 21(October), 4-10, 82-85.
  • America at 1750: A Social Portrait (1971)


  1. He was influenced by his friend sociologist C. Wright Mills.[19]
  2. The private letter was written to Merle Curti, probably in 1948.[22]

Further reading

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  • Brick, Howard. "The End of Ideology Thesis." in The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies (2013) pp: 90+
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  • Leonard, Thomas C. (2009). "Origins of the Myth of Social Darwinism: The Ambiguous Legacy of Richard Hofstadter's Social Darwinism in American Thought," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 71, pp. 37–51.
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  1. Geary (2007), pp. 430, 425
  2. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found..
  3. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  4. Brown 2006, pp. 18–19.
  5. Brown 2006, pp. 12, 21, 38, 53.
  6. Brown 2006, pp. 22, 29.
  7. Brown 2006, pp. 30–37.
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  10. Brown 2006, pp. 38, 113.
  11. Baker 1985, p. 184.
  12. Brown 2006, pp. 90–94.
  13. Brown (2006), p. 75
  14. Neil Jumonville, Henry Steele Commager : Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present (1999) pp 232-39
  15. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  16. In Pole (2000), pp. 73–74
  17. Pole (2000), p. 71
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  19. Brown (2006), p. 93
  20. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  21. In Brown (2006), p. 112
  22. Brown (2003), p. 531.
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  24. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  25. Quoted in John Wakeman, World Authors 1950-1970 : A Companion Volume to Twentieth Century Authors. New York : H.W. Wilson Company, 1975. ISBN 0824204190. (pp. 658-60).
  26. Baker 1985, pp. 89–90.
  27. 27.0 27.1 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  28. Geary (2007) p 429
  29. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found..
  30. Geary (2007) p 418
  31. Foner, 1992
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  33. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  34. Candidate on a High Horse, George Will, The Washington Post, April 15, 2008
  35. In Brown (2006), p. 180
  36. Howard Brick, "The End of Ideology Thesis." in The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies (2013) p 103
  37. Geary (2007), p. 430.
  38. Ryan Coates, "The Conservatism of Richard Hofstadter," History in the Making (2013) 2#1 pp 45-51 quote at p 50 online
  39. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found., in Hofstadter 1992
  40. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  41. Brown (2006), p. 66
  42. Brown (2006), pp. 66–71.
  43. Kazin (1999), p. 343

External links