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The Age of Reform: A Defense of Richard Hofstadter Fifty Years On1

  • Robert D. Johnston (a1)

When we attend academic history conferences, it has become common to hold sessions honoring important books of the moment. This makes considerable sense, as authors get to engage with thoughtful critics in a process that, we hope, advances the discipline.

What, then, might be the point of holding a session in honor of a book published long ago—indeed, one as ancient as fifty years old? The minimalist reason might be that we are historians, and so we naturally look to the past for interest and inspiration. That would make sense, except that historians, ironically more than scholars in related disciplines, tend to cannibalize their predecessors. Sociologists, of course, still actively engage Weber, Durkheim and Marx, and even—looking to the American midcentury— Richard Hofstadter's Columbia University colleagues, C. Wright Mills and Robert Merton.

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2 Peter Novick makes a compelling case as to why religious and regional background made a significant difference during the 1950s and 1960s in the raging debate over Populism that Hofstadter sparked. “With minor exceptions,” Novick writes, “those critical of the Populists were Jews and from the Northeast; those defending them were gentiles, and from the South or Midwest. This feature of the controversy was well known to the participants and many contemporary observers, but was usually mentioned only obliquely, if at all.” Novick, Peter, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (New York, 1988), 339. Novick goes on to comment wisely on “the most compelling reason why a group of the background of Hofstadter, Bell, Iipset, and their friends should have taken such a uniformly and exaggeratedly bleak view of the Populists: they were all only one generation removed from the Eastern European shtetl, where insurgent gentile peasants spelled pogroms” (341). More generally, a central theme of Brown's, David S. fine book, Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography (Chicago, 2006), is the way in which Hofstadter's complex ethnic identity (his father was Jewish and his mother Lutheran) influenced his scholarship.

I should point out here that I myself far too casually and quickly dismissed Hofstadter's perspective on the Populists in The Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland, Oregon (Princeton, 2003), 8788.

3 Daniel Joseph Singal argues that Hofstadter remained a committed democrat, and Michael Kazin calls him “an egalitarian soul who kept his eyes wide open.” Yet what Hofstadter kept his eyes open for most was The People. , Singal, “Beyond Consensus: Richard Hofstadter and American Historiography,” American Historical Review 89 (Oct. 1984): 991–92; Kazin, Michael, “Hofstadter Lives: Political Culture and Temperament in the Work of an American Historian,” Review in American History 27 (June 1999): 346.

4 Greenberg, David, “Richard Hofstadter: The Pundit's Favorite Historian,” Slate, June 7, 2006, <>, (Nov. 29, 2006).

5 Hofstadter, Richard, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R (New York, 1955), 12, 17, 18, 61; Collins, Robert M., “The Originality Trap: Richard Hofstadter on Populism,” Journal of American History 76 (June 1989): 150–67(quote 153); Kostelanetz, Richard, Master Minds: Portraits of Contemporary American Artists and Intellectuals (New York, 1969), 167. Hofstadter also admitted that “to discuss the broad ideology of the Populists does them some injustice, for it was in their concrete programs that they added most constructively to our political life, and in their more general picture of the world that they were most credulous and vulnerable.” , Hofstadter, Age of Reform, 61. All this said, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., did have a point when he remarked that “on balance these passages in The Age of Reform were rather like the eulogy of the bourgeoisie in the Communist Manifesto” See , Schlesinger's “Richard Hofstadter,” in Pastmasters: Some Essays on American Historians, ed. Cunliffe, Marcus and Winks, Robin W. (New York, 1969), 302. More generally, Hofstadter deserves credit for bringing the ideology of the Populists into the historical conversation. This is an area that will receive a substantial boost from Charles Postel's The Populist Vision (New York, forthcoming), the most valuable intellectual history of the group ever written.

6 , Hofstadter, Age of Reform, 47, 60, 11, 19-20, 77. A note on the condescension: Daniel Walker Howe and Peter Elliott Finn cleverly, and accurately, noted that “Hofstadter did indeed view the populists of the 1890s from a distance, somewhat as an anthropologist might look upon Andaman Islanders.” Howe, Daniel Walker and Finn, Peter Elliott, “Richard Hofstadter: The Ironies of an American Historian,” Pacific Historical Review 43 (Feb. 1974): 6.

7 , Hofstadter, Age of Reform, 80; Woodward, C. Vann, “The Populist Heritage and the Intellectual,” American Scholar 28 (1959): 5572; Nugent, Walter T. K., The Tolerant Populists: Kansas Populism and Nativism (Chicago, 1963); Pollack, Norman, “The Myth of Populist AntiSemitism,” American Historical Review 68 (Oct. 1962): 7680; , Pollack, “Hofstadter on Populism: A Critique of ‘The Age of Reform,’Journal of Southern History 26 (Nov. 1960): 478500; , Brown, Hofstadter, 106–07. Arthur Liebman follows Nugent and Pollack in minimizing the importance of Populist antisemitism. See , Liebman, “Anti-Semitism in the Left?” in Anti-Semitism in American History, ed. Gerber, David A. (Urbana, 1986), 335–37. A still valuable essay that early on offered a gende rebuke to Hofstadter and that pointed to the Populists’ complex views of Jews is Higham's, JohnAnti-Semitism in the Gilded Age: A Reinterpretation,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 43 (March 1957): 559–78. Elkins and McKitrick publicly repeated their concerns after Hofstadter's death. “Those who took particular offense at his treatment of the Populists did so with cause,” they wrote. “He certainly overdrew the anti-Semitism he imputed to them: whatever anti-Semitism there was among the Populists probably had few or no practical consequences, and was no more pronounced than that to be found in various other social groups.” Elkins, Stanley and McKitrick, Eric, “Richard Hofstadter: A Progress” in The Hofstadter Aegis: A Memorial, ed. Elkins, and McKitrick, (New York, 1974), 327–28. Indeed, the year before his death Hofstadter him-self admitted to Otis Graham that antisemitism flourished in the cities as well as in the countryside during the 1890s, acknowledging this to be “a serious deficiency” that “inferentially suggested that the Populists were the sole or primary carriers of this kind of feeling.” , Collins, “Originality Trap,” 155–56.

8 , Hofstadter, Age of Reform, 79, 61. One of the best contributions to this controversy is Dobkowski, Michael M., The Tarnished Dream: The Basis of American Anti-Semitism (Westport, CT, 1979), 174–84. Dobkowski makes clear the non-trivial nature of Populist antisemitism while at the same time showing that such sentiment was only a minor version of nineteenth-century American Jew hatred. Dobkowski, therefore, sensibly boxes both sides of the historians' debate gently in the ears.

Overall, one can't help but sympathize with Hofstadter's comment in a 1963 letter to Woodward that the issue of Populist bigotry “was of just enough importance to warrant, in all of the hundreds of pages that have been written abt free silver and populism, that someone should write a few pages on the subject, lest it be suppressed altogether.” , Collins, “Originality Trap,” 161. Ostler, Jeffrey, “The Rhetoric of Conspiracy and the Formation of Kansas Populism,” Agricultural History 69 (Winter 1995): 127. Note Hofstadter himself on these issues: “If we tend to be too condescending to the Populists at this point, it may be necessary to remind ourselves that they had seen so much bribery and corruption, particularly on the part of the railroads, that they had before them a convincing model of the management of affairs through conspiratorial behavior. Indeed, what makes conspiracy theories so widely acceptable is that they usually contain a germ of truth.” Hofstadter also recognized that Jefferson, Lincoln and other respectable leaders in the American political tradition at times embraced conspiratorial thinking. , Hofstadter, Age of Reform, 7172.

10 , Ostler, “Rhetoric of Conspiracy,” 26; Goodwyn, Lawrence, “Rethinking ‘Populism’: Paradoxes of Historiography and Democracy,” Telos 88 (Summer 1991): 42, quoted in , Ostler, “Rhetoric of Conspiracy,” 2; , Osder, “Rhetoric of Conspiracy,” 27.

11 Which is not to say that we will always find such demons in latter-day populists movements. Alan Brinkley a quarter of a century ago noted the relative lack of antisemitism among those inspired by Huey Long, or even by the early Father Charles Coughlin. Brinkley, Alan, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression (New York, 1982). More recently, Michael Kazin has shown how antisemitism, while not nonexistent, “was quite rare” among the thousands of ordinary folks who wrote to William Jennings Bryan—and how Bryan himself was comfortable speaking in synagogues and explicitly repudiated hatred of Jews. Kazin, Michael, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (New York, 2006), 325–26, n. 25, 272-73, 165-66, 204. Norman Pollack said the same thing about Bryan decades ago in “Myth of Populist Anti-Semitism” and “Hofstadter on Populism,” which includes this quotation from the Great Commoner: “I do not know of any class of our people, who by reason of their history, can better sympathize with the struggling masses in this campaign than can the Hebrew race” (494).

12 Johnston, Robert D., “Re-Democratizing the Progressive Era: The Politics of Progressive Era Political Historiography,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 1 (Jan. 2002): 6892.

13 , Hofstadter, Age of Reform, 17, 131, 184.

14 , Hofstadter, Age of Reform, 238, 241–42.

15 , Hofstadter, Age of Reform, 315-16, 322, 318. Alan Brinkley comments along these lines: “A society whose greatest political triumph was the New Deal—that stumbling, chaotic exercise in political and economic self-preservation, unconnected to any coherent philosophy or moral vision—was not a society in which a sensitive humanist could take unambiguous pride.” , Brinkley, “Hofstadter's The Age of Reform Reconsidered,” in Uberalism and its Discontents (Cambridge, MA, 1998), 149. All of this is not to deny that Hofstadter wrote largely out of a pro-New Deal liberal tradition from at least the 1950s on; indeed, David Brown has uncovered a 1964 address that has Hofstadter “confessing that his critics on the left were correct in describing The Age of Reform as a conservative book. It was conceived, he explained, in the satisfied climate of postwar America, and written to defend the policies of the Roosevelt thir-ties.” , Brown, Hofstadter, 103.

16 , Hofstadter, Age of Reform, 3, 21., Howe and , Finn, “Richard Hofstadter,” 10. J. R. Pole appreciatively began his memorial tribute: “Richard Hofstadter wrote history out of a tense, but reflective, engagement with the world of ideas, politics, and people in which he lived.” , Pole, “Richard Hofstadter, 1916-1970,” in Paths to the American Vast (New York, 1979), 335.

17 Rogin, Michael Paul, The Intellectuals and McCarthy: The Radical Specter (Cambridge, MA, 1967); , Schlesinger, “Hofstadter,” 279; , Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (Chicago, 1968), 465. Ian Tyrrell briefly surveys Hofstadter's conflicted attempts to place himself within the political realm in Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890-1970 (Chicago, 2005), 240–43.

1 I dedicate this essay to my fellow Jewish populist, Bernie Weisberger—a baseball fanatic who's always kept the progressive, democratic faith and who provided important criticisms of a draft. I first presented these musings as a talk at the joint meeting of the British American Nineteenth Century Historians and the Society of the History of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era at Cambridge University in October 2005, and the animated reaction I received there proved quite useful. I'd also like to acknowledge the aid of Paul Bass, Robert Devens, Gillis Harp, Laura Kalman, Jeff Ostler, Charles Postel, and, for talented research support, Milena Sjekloca and Meghan Thomas. Most of all, I wish to thank Alan Lessoff for inviting the essay and for his excellent intellectual challenges. A note on spelling: while scholars have begun to prefer “antisemitism,” most of the titles and quotes cited here use the older “anti-Semitism.”

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