The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR, by Richard Hofstadter
No service of the historian is more valuable, or less rewarded, than his helping us to identify and break up the stereotypes through which we have been seeing our past. It is a service, moreover, which the historian must often render indirectly, by influencing the ideas of other historians; he must first persuade his fellow scholars, and through them his views will eventually reach the public mind. Professor Hofstadter’s book is in some ways an epoch-making reinterpretation of the Populist and Progressive eras in American political life. But because of its subtlety and originality, its hostility to cliché, The Age of Reform is unlikely to have the wide appeal of books that tell people what they already know or wish to believe.
During the New Deal era, it was customary for American “liberals” to look backward through American history and see a long straight corridor in which stood the heroes of American reform and revolt. FDR, of course, as the champion of the forgotten man dominated the foreground, with Wilson and his New Freedom just behind. Still further back came Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives, and right behind them the Populists. Way down the corridor where the shadows of the past gather, the line trailed off with Lincoln, the Abolitionists, Jackson, and Jefferson. All these different figures were supposed to be, in something like the same sense, champions of the “little man,” the “underdog,” “minorities,” or the “underprivileged” against the forces of lucre, power, and social status. Professor Hofstadter’s volume forces us to realize how naive a conception this was. The truth may be that the gallery was an attempt to give the New Deal historical depth and respectability.
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