Richard Hofstadter

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Richard Hofstadter (1916 - 1970) was a leading American historian of the 1940s and 1950s, based at Columbia University. One of the leading public intellectuals of the 1950s, his works include The Age of Reform (1955) and Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963), both of which won the Pulitzer Prize, as well as Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 (1944), The American Political Tradition (1948), and The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964). Starting as a member of the Communist Party, he moved to the right, and by the 1950s was a leading liberal. Shocked by the radicalism of the New left in the late 1960s, he became a spokesman for conservatives. His influence today is still felt among historians who admire his intense analysis of historiography, but his books are no longer read by the general public.


Hofstadter was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1916 to a Jewish father and a German American Lutheran mother, who died when he was ten. He attended the public high school and the state University at Buffalo in 1933, majoring in philosophy and minoring in history. He worked with the diplomatic historian Julius Pratt. At the university, Hofstadter became involved in left-wing politics, joining the Young Communist League and meeting fellow radical Felice Swados, whom he married in 1936. After taking a PhD at Columbia he taught at the University of Maryland and at Columbia. He died at the early age of 54 from leukemia.

Marxist Stage

In New York City after 1936, Hofstadter became more involved in Marxist circles, joining the Communist Party in 1938, though, in his words at the time,

"I join without enthusiasm but with a sense of obligation... My fundamental reason for joining is that I don't like capitalism and want to get rid of it. I am tired of talking... The party is making a very profound contribution to the radicalization of the American people.... I prefer to go along with it now."[1]

By 1939, however, he had become disenchanted with the Communists because of their slavish support for Stalin. The last straw was the Nazi-Soviet pact in September, 1939, when Stalin formed an alliance with Hitler in 1939 to split up Eastern Europe and American Communists went along.


Hofstadter was now thoroughly and permanently disillusioned with the Communist Party, the Soviet Union, and Marxism itself. He did not, however, change his views on capitalism: "I hate capitalism and everything that goes with it."[2] 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 after completing his dissertation, which was published as Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 and sold 200,000 copies. It was a Marxist critique of American capitalists of the late 19th century who, he argued, believed in a dog-eat-dog sort of ferocious competition endorsed by Social Darwinism as preached by William Graham Sumner. Later critics took issue with his evidence, arguing that very few businessmen were Social Darwinists and that many took positions in favor of philanthropy.[3]

Influence of Charles Beard

In the early and mid-1940s, Hofstadter was a disciple of Charles Beard, stating "...Beard was really the exciting influence on me."[4] Beard's conflict model taught that American history was the struggle of competing economic groups, primarily farmers, plantation slaveowners, industrialists, and workers. The clashing rhetoric of political leaders meant little, said Beard. He argued that historians should instead look for hidden self-interest and financial goals. Beard viewed the American Civil War as a transfer of political power from the Southern plantation elite to Northeastern capitalists; slavery was not especially important as a cause in his analysis.

The "consensus historians"

After 1945, Hofstadter broke with Beard and moved to the right, becoming associated with the "consensus historians". In 1946, he joined the Columbia faculty and became DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History in 1959. His most well-known and influential work, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, was published in 1948. It comprised a series of 12 biographical portraits of major political leaders from the 1770s to 1930s. Like all of his books, it was based primarily on reading and synthesizing secondary sources and published letters and speeches. It was a major success, as Pole (2000) explains, because it was "skeptical, fresh, revisionary, occasionally ironical, without being harsh or merely destructive." The chapters titles themselves were ironic and revisionist, pointing up 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"; FDR was "The Patrician as Opportunist."

Hofstadter's work after 1945 represented the "consensus school" that flourished in the 1950s in reaction to Beard. Hofstadter explained that the generation of Beard and Vernon Parrington 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]

Later work

Hofstadter broke new historiographical ground by exploring sociological structures (perhaps influenced by his friend C. Wright Mills) and by probing unconscious psychological motives, status anxieties, irrational hatreds, and finally paranoia as political motivators. Although he directed over 100 Ph.D. dissertations in American history, he did not found a school, and gave little advice to his graduate students. He rarely entered the archives himself and could not help his students in that regard. He was an aloof teacher who read sections of his next book to undergraduate classes, and was hard for graduate students to approach.[6]

In The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Hofstadter described American society as a whole as extremely provincial, harboring widespread fears of any ideas outside the mainstream. Hofstadter saw a direct lineage from the Salem witch trials in the 17th century down to the McCarthyism of his era. The title essay was first delivered as the Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford University in November 1963.

In other works, Hofstadter described American politics as essentially irrationally motivated. In The Idea of a Party System, Hofstadter described the origins of the First Party System in America as being driven by an irrational fear that one of the two major parties hoped to destroy the republic. Hofstadter planned to write a major three-volume history of American politics, but at his death had only partially completed the first volume (later published as America in 1750).


As Brown (2006) shows, he had become more conservative in the wake of 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."[7] At his death he had just published the first of a three-volume synthesis of American social history, based on the latest research in the new field of the "New Social History."

Published works

  • "The Tariff Issue on the Eve of the Civil War," The American Historical Review Vol. 44, No. 1 (Oct., 1938), pp. 50–55 full text in JSTOR
  • "William Graham Sumner, Social Darwinist," The New England Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Sep., 1941), pp. 457–477 online at JSTOR
  • "Parrington and the Jeffersonian Tradition," Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 2, No. 4 (Oct., 1941), pp. 391–400 JSTOR
  • "William Leggett, Spokesman of Jacksonian Democracy," Political Science Quarterly Vol. 58, No. 4 (Dec., 1943), pp. 581–594 JSTOR
  • "U. B. Phillips and The Plantation Legend," The Journal of Negro History Vol. 29, No. 2 (Apr., 1944), pp. 109–124 JSTOR
  • Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1944); 1992 edition with preface by Eric Foner
  • The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (Knopf, 1948). online at ACLS E-books
  • "Beard and the Constitution: The History of an Idea," American Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 3 (Autumn, 1950), pp. 195–213 JSTOR
  • The Age of Reform: from Bryan to F.D.R (Knopf, 1955). online at ACLS e-books
  • The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States (Columbia University Press, 1955). (with Walter P. Metzger)
  • The United States: the History of a Republic (Prentice-Hall, 1957), college textbook; several editions; coauthored with Daniel Aaron and William Miller
  • Anti-intellectualism in American life (Knopf, 1963).
  • The Progressive Movement, 1900-1915 (Prentice-Hall, 1963). edited excerpts
  • The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays (Knopf, 1965).
  • The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (Knopf, 1968).
  • The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780-1840 (University of California Press, 1969).
  • American Violence: A Documentary History. co-edited with Mike Wallace, (1970)
  • America in 1750: A Social Portrait (1971) online at ACLS E-books


  1. Foner 1992
  2. Foner 1992
  3. Brown (2006) p. 30-37; Irwin G. Wylie, "Social Darwinism and the Businessmen", Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 103 (1959), pp. 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 2000 p. 73-4
  6. Brown (2006) pp. 66-71.
  7. quoted in Brown (2006) p. 180


  • Brinkley, Alan. "Richard Hofstadter's the Age of Reform: A Reconsideration," Reviews in American History Vol. 13, No. 3 (Sep., 1985), pp. 462–480 JSTOR
  • Brown, David S. Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography (2006) the major scholarly biography
  • Claussen, Dane S. Anti-Intellectualism in American Media," (2004).
  • Elkins, Stanley, and Eric McKitrick, “Richard Hofstadter: A Progress, ” in their The Hofstadter Aegis (Knopf, 1974), pp 300-367.
  • Foner, Eric. "The Education of Richard Hofstadter." The Nation . Vol: 254#17. May 4, 1992. pp 597+. online edition
  • Howe, Daniel Walker, and Peter Elliott Finn. "Richard Hofstadter: The Ironies of an American Historian," The Pacific Historical Review Vol. 43, No. 1 (Feb., 1974), pp. 1-23 in JSTOR
  • Pole, Jack. "Richard Hofstadter," in Robert Allen Rutland, ed. "Clio's Favorites: Leading Historians of the United States, 1945-2000" U of Missouri Press. (2000) pp 68-83 online edition
  • Scheiber, Harry N. "Review: A Keen Sense of History and the Need to Act: Reflections on Richard Hofstadter and the American Political Tradition' Reviews in American History Vol. 2, No. 3 (Sep., 1974), pp. 445-452 in JSTOR
  • White, Richard. "A Commemoration and a Historical Mediation." The Journal of American History 94.4 (March 2008) 1073-81, a harshly negative appraisal; online
  • Wiener, Jon. "America, Through A Glass Darkly" The Nation, Oct. 5, 2006.