Commentary Magazine

Richard Hofstadter by David S. Brown

Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography
by David S. Brown
Chicago. 291 pp. $27.50

Even now, a half-century later, one looks back with a certain nostalgia on the liberalism of the 1950’s. Its characteristic cast of mind—pluralistic, ironic, mindful of complexity and tragic possibilities—continues to recommend itself. This was, all in all, a civilized politics in a civilized time, and the temptation to wish it back into existence, however unrealistic, is difficult to resist.

Nostalgia for 50’s liberalism is compounded by what came after it. In the 1960’s things went terribly bad for America in general and for liberalism in particular. Although liberals remained dominant in both politics and culture throughout most of the decade, their pervasive ineffectuality—encompassing the war in Vietnam, racial violence, and disorder in the universities—brought America almost to its knees, and discredit to their cause. The story of liberalism’s self-destruction in the 60’s and beyond is the key to America’s recent history, but it is a story whose precise telling we still have not mastered.

David S. Brown’s biography of the historian Richard Hofstadter, who in the 1950’s and 60’s fundamentally challenged the conventional understanding of the liberal tradition in America, is not directly addressed to that story, but it illuminates it nonetheless. Although Hofstadter was only very marginally a political actor, the path of his life offers a poignant commentary on liberalism’s decline—a decline he tried, and failed, to resist.



From his birth in Buffalo, New York, in 1916, Hofstadter fit into no comfortable niche. His father was a nonobservant Polish Jew, his mother a devout German Lutheran. He was baptized and reared a Christian, but his own religious observance lapsed soon after his mother died of cancer when he was ten.

Ideologically, the man who would become the champion of the liberal center started his career on the radical Left. As an undergraduate at the University of Buffalo in the mid-1930’s, Hofstadter was an antiwar activist. As a graduate student at Columbia, he joined the Communist party in October 1938; but within four months, appalled by the rigidity of its dogma and fundamentally alienated by its anti-intellectualism, he resigned. It is noteworthy that Hofstadter, who would become best known as an opponent of anti-intellectual tendencies on the Right, first rebelled against those same impulses on the Left.

Rejecting radicalism, Hofstadter did not thereby become a political conservative. For intellectuals of his generation, the Right was an unimaginable country, occupied, as it seemed to them, by McCarthyites, opponents of civil rights, and economic purists for whom any interference with market mechanisms was akin to socialism. For most on the Left, Lionel Trilling’s dismissive summary of conservatism as an accumulation of “irritable mental gestures” said all that needing saying.

But if Hofstadter assumed the correctness of the New Deal and accepted liberalism as the natural order of things, he was never, after his youthful flirtation, truly a man of the Left. What made him an interesting thinker was his quarrel with liberalism from within. Never an enemy, he was instead its shrewdly sympathetic critic.



As a historian, Hofstadter broke with the prevailing Progressive tradition, represented most notably by Charles Beard, that saw the story of America as an ongoing conflict between ideological heroes and villains: the people versus the interests, democrats versus aristocrats, the underprivileged versus the wealthy. In Hofstadter’s view, this account was vastly oversimplified, ignoring, among other things, the socio-cultural divisions—ethnicity and religion in particular—that modified and complicated class relations.

The book that established Hofstadter’s reputation, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948), was a series of essays on major figures from the founders through FDR that emphasized their shared strand of Lockean, or, as Brown puts it, “property-rights” liberalism. Decidedly non-Progressive, it subjected American liberal icons—Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson—to unwonted scrutiny. It was not so much a debunking book as a knowing, distanced one, and it benefited greatly from what Brown rightly calls the “brilliant aphoristic style” that would characterize virtually everything Hofstadter wrote.

The American Political Tradition made Hofstadter known, but it was The Age of Reform (1955) that made him the most prominent historian of modern American liberalism. Without, for the most part, questioning the substance of pre-New Deal reforms, whether of the Populist or Progressive variety, Hofstadter took issue with the reformers’ habits of thought. He was particularly hard on the Populists, emphasizing their anti-urban provincialism, their susceptibility to conspiracy theories, and their tendency to anti-Semitism.

The Age of Reform had an extraordinary impact: it won a Pulitzer Prize and was for years thereafter a consuming subject of debate among historians. Radicals rejected Hofstadter’s questioning of the reformers’ virtue. Liberals worried that his emphasis on psychological and sociological analysis—for example, of the reformers’ presumed susceptibility to status anxiety—diverted attention from substantive issues. They chided Hofstadter for not acknowledging the degree to which anti-Semitism was a commonplace of American society rather than a peculiar inclination of its rural population, and they bridled at his identification of Populism as a precursor of McCarthyite political tendencies.

When Hofstadter widened his lens to encompass American political pathologies on the Right—as in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), which won him a second Pulitzer, and The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965)—he came in for not dissimilar criticism from conservatives. In Hofstadter’s universe, wrote William F. Buckley, Jr., Left-liberals were analyzed, but radical conservatives were diagnosed. Whether the rebukes came from the Left or from the Right, there was something to them: the bounds of Hofstadter’s own pluralism were located within the New Deal consensus, excluding those outside it from serious consideration.



What really united Hofstadter’s critiques of the Left and the Right was a suspicion of the popular mind. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was something of an intellectual snob. The masses—and mass movements—were not to be trusted. For such older dichotomies as the people versus the interests, the historian David Potter would later observe, Hofstadter tended to substitute the equally misleading dichotomy of the rational versus the irrational. It is not surprising that his greatest political hero was Adlai Stevenson, who to intellectuals of the 1950’s seemed the very model of political rationality.

But Hofstadter’s moderate liberalism could not maintain itself against the onslaught of radical emotivism in the 60’s. The formative issue was civil rights; for supporters of the cause, this was a matter not of moral nuance but of moral necessity. Whatever his reservations about this absolutizing cast of mind, Hofstadter himself participated in a voting-rights demonstration in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, and when the energies mobilized by the civil-rights crusade spilled over into mounting protests against the war in Vietnam, he joined with fellow liberals at Columbia in urging the Johnson administration to pursue a “radical re-examination” of its course.

Civil rights and Vietnam mattered deeply to Hofstadter, but the issue that tore at him personally and brought him to the edge of political despair was the coming-apart of the university community. Rational discourse was Hofstadter’s faith, and Columbia (where he taught for most of his career) his church; neither withstood the antinomian passions of the period. On the specific issues that divided Columbia in 1968—relations with the Defense Department, conflicts with the nearby Harlem community, university governance—Hofstadter generally sided with student protesters, but he was appalled by their unappeasable radicalism and by their seizure and occupation of university buildings.

Inveterate liberal that he was, he attempted to hold a middle position, keeping himself available to student radicals even as he wavered uncertainly between sympathy with their concerns and outrage over their tactics. One gathers from Brown that he was more outspoken privately than in public. To friends, he indicated his fear that the softness and weakness displayed by liberalism in response to assaults from the Left would end up making it vulnerable to assaults from the Right. If it had been radically conservative students who had taken over Columbia’s buildings, he noted, the faculty would have united in favor of their removal.

In the end, unable either to side with conservatives or to identify himself with those on the Left for whom, in his view, politics had come to fill the transcendent role of religion, Hofstadter simply withdrew. If he ever wrote a history of the 60’s, he said, he would call it The Age of Rubbish. What kept him going was his sense of vocation. Despairing of politics, he directed his energies more fully than ever to historical analysis, producing a series of further explorations of the origins and development of liberalism. Months before his death from leukemia at the age of fifty-four, Hofstadter, ambitious to the end, contracted to produce a three-volume history of American political culture.



Brown’s account of this life and career is thoughtful, balanced, and sympathetic. Broadly researched, the story he tells is enlivened by dozens of interviews conducted with Hofstadter’s family and friends. As an analyst, Brown does better the closer he sticks to his subject; his generalizations about American history are sometimes vague and imprecise, his attempts to tie Hofstadter to contemporary developments intrusive.

What emerges most poignantly from this biography is that, by the end of his career as a historian, Hofstadter had come to be perceived in much the same way he had perceived his own predecessors: as an anachronism. The kind of political and intellectual history he practiced had increasingly given way to various forms of social history, and his emphasis on complexity was seen by younger radical scholars as an evasion of moral responsibility. For his part, Hofstadter regarded the faults of his successors as he had the faults of his predecessors: both, in his view, indulged in political sentimentality toward those whom they considered victims of social conflict.

It was, indeed, Hofstadter’s rejection of sentimentality that made him, and other 50’s intellectuals like him, outsiders in their own political community. If 50’s liberalism prided itself on its sense of irony, theirs was an irony within an irony, too fragile by far to contend with the newly radicalized forces that were pushing liberalism leftward and for whom both irony and moderation constituted forms of betrayal. So it was that, politically speaking, Richard Hofstadter would die a disappointed man.

He deserved better, and his legacy deserves to be pondered. Why the liberalism for which he stood should have proved unable to defend itself against self-destruction remains a central question even today, posed and to some degree answered by his life and career.


About the Author

James Nuechterlein, a former professor of American studies and political thought at Valparaiso University, is a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.

Pin It on Pinterest