The American Political Tradition and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter

6 September 2007

Doubling up on the reviews again, with two books by American historian and Columbia University professor Richard Hofstadter.

The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It by Richard Hofstadter

Richard Hofstadter published The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It in 1948, combining twelve interlinked essays about the development of American history and politics from the early days of the Republic to the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. He focused on key political figures in the context of their time — and in many ways used the book as an attempt to move away from the standard image of American history as a political tradition based on pure democratic ideals.

Looking over the book for reviewing purposes, I found myself wishing that I’d had this book when I was first examining aspects of American history in school. It is a nice compact introduction to some basic historical themes, ones that tend to be glossed over by standard history textbooks because of lack of space. Hofstadter does manage to avoid the temptation to be overly whiggish in his interpretation of how American politics has changed in the years since 1776. He stresses the effect of pragmatism on decision-making, doing his best to present a more realistic picture of different political climates and the men who came to exemplify their political eras. Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover — Hofstadter does his best to put them into the context of their times instead of setting them apart (or ignoring them completely in favour of broader economic-based arguments about history). He doesn’t actively set out to deconstruct or destroy the various myths about the Founding Fathers or Abraham Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt. Rather, he carefully picks and teases them apart, separating individual strands of historical argument before setting them out as neatly as he can.

In general, I don’t think that The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It is meant to be read as a be-all, end-all history text. Certainly, it ignores the history of the American public in favour of a far more top-down approach to American political philosophies. But as far as introductory texts go, though it’s well-written and for the most part concise. Quite a lot of American history texts don’t even manage that much. A book worth examining, at any rate, and I’m glad I picked it up when I did.

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter

When I first read this book, it took me several weeks to figure out the best way to approach it with reviewing in mind. It’s no secret that Hofstadter’s book is meant to be controversial — it was controversial when it won the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction, and many of the statements he makes in it have attracted supporters and detractors ever since. And while the very title might be enough to put some off reading it, I found it intriguing enough to pick it up and see if Hofstadter’s conclusions still hold true thirty years later.

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life seeks to uncover the origins of some of the anti-intellectual attitudes that Hofstadter believed were severely damaging American society. He points to McCarthyism, to the Soviet Union’s advances in mathematics and science, to perjorative slang terms like ‘egghead’, and to the presidential victory of Dwight Eisenhower over Adlai Stevenson as possible examples of an unconscious, pervasive anti-intellectual sentiment in American life. In searching for the roots of this anti-intellectualism, Hofstadter goes back to the earliest years of the American colonies, and traces a path through the decades — from the evangelical religious movements (the ‘Great Awakenings’, as they tend to be called) in the colonial times through the Jacksonian egalitarianism of the pre-Civil War years, from the rise of the business culture in the end of the 19th century through the progressive attitudes toward public education in the early years of the 20th century. And one of the conclusions he draws in his book is that current (for his day) expressions of intellectualism like the ‘beat’ culture appear to be a kind of twisted, angry response to mainstream America’s attempts to thwart its individual intellectuals at every turn.

This book falls into a category I’ve come to appreciate in the last few years — books whose arguments you might not wholly accept, but which you should read anyway. I’m not so certain I agree with some of Hofstadter’s arguments, but his historical exploration of the roots of anti-intellectualism was rather ground-breaking for his time. It turned quite a lot of conventionally received wisdom on its head, and in many ways the examples and arguments that Hofstadter puts forward are still points of debate in this day and age. I think it bears a second reading to see if my thoughts have changed since I last looked at it a few months ago, but I’ll certainly look forward to reading it over again.



  1. When I read this book for the purposes of an undergraduate class in intellectual history, I noticed in particular that Hofstadter gives very little attention to the real philosophical analysis that some notable Americans gave to traditional ideas of intellectualism. For instance, the word pragmatism is not even in the index, and he gives William James little more than three meaningless quotes. By making anti-intellectualism a “phenomenon” of the masses, he steals from it any credibility of having been well thought out or analyzed. He gives the title of “narrow-minded” to a group that honestly gave anti-intellectualism a great deal of thought.

  2. This is an excellent text. if you have not done so you may want to read Susan Jacoby’s American Free Thinkers, as well as her Age of Unreaseon. Thomas Paine is also great on the topic although he does not refer to the subject as anti-intellecualization.

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