The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It

The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It



The Pequod Review:

The American Political Tradition is a structured as a series of ten mini-biographies of American politicians, including Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt. Richard Hofstadter’s profiles of each politician are so sharp and well-drawn that they resist generalization, but a common theme running through the book is frequency with which these national heroes operated within narrow Overton windows that were anti-democratic in important ways:

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.

This is revisionist history at its best; Hofstadter doesn’t merely seek to reinterpret prior figures through his own politics, nor does he aim to diminish the status of our founding fathers for its own sake. Instead, his profiles are rigorous and fair, highlighting the strengths and flaws and complexities of each individual. And through it all is Hofstadter’s aphoristic wit, on par with Gibbon:

[Herbert] Hoover, had he been challenged with the overpowering implausibility of his notion that economic life is a race that is won by the ablest runner, would have had a ready answer from his own biography: had he not started in life as a poor orphan and worked in the mines for a pittance, and had he not become first a millionaire and then President of the United States? There are times when nothing is more misleading than personal experience, and the man whose experience has embraced only success is likely to be a forlorn and alien figure when his whole world begins to fail.


[Benjamin Harrison and Rutherford B. Hayes] were as innocent of distinction as they were of corruption and they have become famous in American annals chiefly for their obscurity.

Richard Hofstadter was an uncommonly insightful historian, and The American Political Tradition is by far his crowning achievement.