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Richard Hofstadter

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Richard Hofstadter (August 6, 1916–October 24, 1970) was a historian of United States intellectual history who spent his academic life on the faculty at Columbia University. He was a Pulitzer Prize winning author and public intellectual, who after an early career influenced by Marxist ideas and subsequently the Beard conflict school, became one of the leading figures of the Consensus School of American historiography.

Early life and education

Hofstadter was born in Buffalo, New York, on August 6, 1916. His father was a Jewish immigrant father and his mother was a German American Lutheran who had died when Richard was ten years old. Hofstadter attended Fosdick-Masten Park High School and the University of Buffalo.

While at Buffalo, he studied philosophy with the phenomenologist Marvin Farber and studied history with the progressive diplomatic historian Julius Pratt. During the Great Depression, Hofstadter, like other disillusioned liberals, got involved in left-wing politics. He joined the National Student League where he met Felice Swados, who he had married in 1936. The Hofstadters were active in the NSL, precipitating campus strikes and writing anti-capitalist op-ed pieces for the campus newspaper. In spite of majoring in philosophy, Hofstadter wrote a senior thesis titled "The Tariff and Homestead Issues in the Republican Campaign of 1860." He finished courses in 1936 and the couple moved to New York City so that Hofstadter could enroll at Columbia.

At Columbia, Harry J. Carman was his thesis adviser. He continued to be political, joining the Young Communist League while completing his masters. After receiving the M.A. in 1938, he immediately began doctoral studies. As a doctoral candidate he worked with Merle Curti who, Hofstadter later remarked, had influenced him and his career more-so than any other person.[1] After taking a Ph.D. at Columbia he taught at the University of Maryland and at Columbia.

Leaving conflict models behind

While at Columbia, Hofstadter's politics became increasingly ironic. He joined more mainstream communist organizations: the Young Communist League in 1936 and the American Communist Party two years later. But at the same time, he did not seemed to have been radicalized by his involvement with the Communists. Never a fan of American capitalism, Hofstadter joined the ACP "without enthusiasm but with a sense of obligation" saying that "I prefer to go along with it now." His participation was lackluster, and by the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in September, 1939, he gave up entirely on the communists. His views about American capitalism did not change. He joined the communists, he said, because he didn't "like capitalism and want[ed] to get rid of it" and he continued to claim, "I hate capitalism and everything that goes with it."[2] Perhaps to a greater degree than other former American communists in that period, so many of whom had similar experiences when Stalin betrayed international communism with his deal with Hitler, Hofstadter was left with a deep sense of cynicism that pervaded his academic work and thought.

In 1942, he received his Ph.D. from Columbia University. His dissertation was published in 1944 by the University of Pennsylvania Press as Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 and sold 200,000 copies. In this work, Hofstadter critiqued the prevailing ideology of Gilded Age American capitalists. He claimed that the Social Darwinism of thinkers such as William Graham Sumner legitimated the businessmen's cut-throat business practices. As much as this work may have reflected Hofstadter's political views of the time, it had methodological problems. Critics argued that Hofstadter's evidence was faulty: Social Darwinism may have been prevalent culturally, but few American businessmen actually espoused such views. Additionally, there is much evidence to show that Gilded Age businessmen engaged behaviors, such as philanthropy, that were positively contrary to Social Darwinism.[3]

Perhaps because of Hofstadter's disenchantment with capitalism, he was deeply influenced by historian Charles A. Beard, who was equally disenchanted with American capitalism. Hofstadter noted that "Beard was really the exciting influence on me."[4] But like his shift away from Marxian conflict, Hofstadter by the end of the 1940s was also leaving Beardian historiography behind and laying the foundations for a new, major interpretative framework called "consensus history."

Consensus Historiography

In 1946, he joined the Columbia faculty and was later appointed DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History in 1959. It was here that Hofstadter wrote some of the foundational texts of what became identified as Consensus Historiography.

Having broken with the communists politically and Beard historiographically, Hofstadter moved to the right, becoming a founder of the "consensus historians". Consensus historiography is often seen as a reaction to the Progressive Historians who came before them. Whereas the Progressives emphasized conflict in their histories (conflict between social groups, classes, or forces, like in Marxist historiography, is the driving engine of historical change), consensus historians emphasized the values and beliefs that Americans held in common. Consensus historiography often explains great calamities, such as the American Civil War, as breakdown of consensus or compromise. All of Hofstadter's work between 1945 and the mid-1960s (see below) was characteristic of this "consensus school". Hofstadter explained that the generation of Beard, James Harvey Robinson, Carl Becker, and Vernon Parrington—the Progressive Historians—had

... 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.[5]

Hofstadter's best-known and most influential work, through which the consensus perspective of American historiography was established, was The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948). This work comprised a series of 12 biographical portraits of major political leaders from the 1770s to 1930s. Like all of Hofstadter's books, it was based primarily on his synthesis of secondary sources and his interpretation of published letters and speeches. The American Political Tradition was a major success because, as Jack Pole explained in his 2000 essay on Hofstadter, it was "skeptical, fresh, revisionary, occasionally ironical, without being harsh or merely destructive."[6] Hofstadter even chose ironic and revisionist chapter titles to emphasize the paradoxes inherent in the American political idiom—Thomas Jefferson was labeled "The Aristocrat as Democrat"; John C. Calhoun was "the Marx of the Master Class"; Franklin D. Roosevelt was "The Patrician as Opportunist."

Later work

Following his work in consensus historiography, Hofstadter broke new historiographical ground by exploring sociological structures (perhaps influenced by his friend C. Wright Mills) and by probing unconscious psychological motives, including status anxieties and irrational hatreds in works such as The Age of Reform. In this work, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in history, he posited that the major cause for the era of progressive reform was psychological anxiety among the middle class over perceived lack of power and imminent threats of class warfare. This anxiety motivated the middle class to work for and enact social reforms curbing the excesses of the rich, mollifying the trials of the poor, and correcting the abuses of machine politics.

His later work continued these investigations, finally looking at paranoia as a political motivator. In The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Hofstadter described American society as a whole as provincial, harboring widespread fears of any ideas outside the mainstream. Hofstadter saw a direct lineage from the Salem witch trials in the 17th century to the McCarthyism of the 1950s. The title essay of the "Paranoid Style" was first delivered as the Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford University in November, 1963. Both works have had some continuing influence on cultural and political critics: observations made in both works have been used to explain the ideology and rhetoric of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Movement.[7]

In other works, Hofstadter described American politics as irrationally motivated in fundamental ways. In The Idea of a Party System, Hofstadter described the origins of the First Party System in America as driven by an irrational fear that one of the two major parties hoped to destroy the republic. From this, Hofstadter was developing a major three-volume history of American politics, but had only completed sketches of the first volume (posthumously published as America in 1750) at the time of his death in 1970.

Like other former leftists and many others, Hofstadter was not enthusiastic about radicalism on university campuses in the 1960s, notably the radical sit-in and temporary closing of Columbia university in 1968. His friend David Herbert Donald recalled, "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."[8] But others noted that, during and after the events of 1968, he invited his students in to talk with him about their political goals and strategies, and invited one of the radical students, Mike Wallace, to collaborate with him on a history of violence in the U.S. In the words of another of his students Eric Foner, Hofstadter and Wallace's American Violence: A Documentary History "utterly contradicted the consensus vision of a nation placidly evolving without serious disagreements." American Violence was the last book Hofstadter published before he died in 1970.

Although Hofstadter directed over 100 Ph.D. dissertations in American history, his influence on them was limited. He gave little advice to his graduate students, rarely entered the archives himself, and could not help his students with those sorts of methodological issues. He was also an aloof teacher who read sections of his next book to undergraduate classes and was difficult for graduate students to approach.[9]

Richard Hofstadter died in 1970 at the relatively young age of 54, from leukemia.


  1. David S. Brown, Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 22.
  2. Foner, 1992.
  3. Brown, 30-37; Irwin G. Wylie ("Social Darwinism and the Businessmen", Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 103 [1959], 629-35) showed that few businessmen believed in Social Darwinism. Robert C. Bannister, Social Darwinism: Science and Myth in Anglo-American Social Thought (1989). Sumner had given up Social Darwinism by the early 1880s, a point Hofstadter de-emphasized by citing posthumous editions of Sumner's essays.
  4. Foner, 1992.
  5. quoted in Pole, 73-4.
  6. Jack Pole, "Richard Hofstadter," in Clio's Favorites: Leading Historians of the United States, 1945-2000, edited by Robert Allen Rutland (University of Missouri Press, 2000).
  7. Richard Bernstein, An Old Essay Used to Explain a New Movement, The New York Times, March 10, 2010; and Ariel Gonzalez, Sarah Palin and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, The Huffington Post, July 6, 2009. For other revisions on anti-intellectualism, see Richard Hofstadter/Addendum.
  8. Donald quoted in Brown, 180.
  9. Brown, 66-71.
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