The American Political Tradition Essay, Research Paper
The American Political Tradition, written by Richard Hofstadter, is an extremely influential book highlighting America s political past. Hofstadter wrote the book at the age of 27 and did not hesitate to include his rather strong ideals and beliefs. He rejected the progressive historians like Charles A. Beard and Carl Becker. He managed to point out flaws in virtually every revered political figure he came across; in his eyes it was difficult to be truly great.
As the political scientist Ira Katznelson has said, Hofstadter wrote The American Political Tradition during “dark times” for Enlightenment liberalism. Frightened by topics such as the possible revival of fascism and Soviet communism, Hofstadter joined the battle for liberalism s soul. In this book he warns of the dangers of turning the past into an ideological tool. He was reacting not just to the left and right-wing ideas of his own day but also to Charles Beard and other forerunners who had sought a “usable past” — history that could be put in the service of social justice. Hofstadter preferred not to “use” the past but, as Christopher Lasch pointed out, to “assimilate” it — to understand how history shaped his own political and intellectual climate without boiling it down to practical lessons. In opposing the Progressive views, Hofstadter assumed a radical position in which he viewed each person as having their own conscience and opinions.
In attacking Lincoln, Hofstadter proclaims he is a self made myth . He doesn t buy any of the hype about Lincoln being the honest, innocent man . He argues,
In a world that works through ambition and self-help, while inculcating an ethic that looks upon their results with disdain, how can an earnest man, a public figure living in a time of crisis, gratify his aspirations and yet remain morally whole?
Hofstadter believed Lincoln was thoroughly and completely the politician. He describes his political tendencies and habits, even from childhood. He goes on to point out that for a youth with such habits as listening to lawyers arguments, the greatest opportunities were in the ministry, law, or politics. As a politician, Lincoln was no maverick.
The general connotation of Wendell Phillips among historians is negative, with his chief role to play foil to Abe Lincoln. Hofstadter comes right out and calls Phillips an agitator; an agitator by profession, in fact. He goes on to say,
Both historians and agitators are makers of myths, a fact of which Phillips was intensely conscious, but while few historians of the slavery controversy have had a reasoned philosophy of history, Phillips had a reasoned philosophy of agitation.
Phillips believed that the man who launches a sound argument for a just cause is certain to win in the long run. He said the people should take their own liberal stand and ignore the influences that continue to push them around. The agitator, Hofstadter notes, is likely to be the crisis thinker. Hofstadter states that Philips was by far the most impressive of the abolitionists.
The spoilsmen arose during the Gilded Age, a time period in America in which politics was dwarfed by economic changes and in which the life of the country rests so completely in the hands of the industrial entrepreneur. Hofstadter calls these industrials audacious, exploitative, and said they behaved with becoming vulgarity . He infers that these captains of industry seized the opportunities of the nation, managed its corruption and because of these people, the era took its tone and color. Yet he also goes on to say it would be a mistake to assume that conscience had died among the business barons. They were able to do certain unethical things they did for reasons such that they were building a great industrial empire . Also, they represented the ability to shift social classes; most great industrial leaders had started life in a lower class. These were trained in the sternest but most efficient of all schools poverty , says Andrew Carnegie at the close of the period. There were others, however, who had begun in comfortable circumstances, but these men could not tell themselves and the world that their riches and power were the results of hard work and special talents.
Hofstadter says that from the business of industry comes the business of politics. These industrialists, who accumulated wealth and lived so luxuriously, set the standard of living for others. This tendency to acquire and enjoy flowed into politics where it multiplied among the politicians and thus, the standards of success in politics changed. Now the object was money; that was success.