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New International, January 1949


Jack Brad

Books in Review

Politics and Classes


From The New International, Vol. XV No. 1, January 1949, pp. 28–29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The American Political Tradition
by Richard Hofstadter
A.A. Knopf, New York, 1948, $4

This book is a rarity in that it discusses and evaluates the living political tradition as effectuated in practice, rather than the political theory which is largely an organized body of rationalizations for the programs of economic groups.

Professor Hofstadter’s appreciation of the past is unencumbered by the ritualistic myth-making so common among our historians, or by the invidious cynicism of the muckraking liberal who has just discovered that material desires are motive forces animating political thinking. His method is related to the clash of social forces.

Thus his essay on the Founding Fathers is a long step ahead of Beard. Acknowledging his debt to this most profound of American historians, Hofstadter starts by assuming Beard’s conclusions. But he generalizes the private interests of the individual delegates to the Constitutional Convention into social classes. The disparaging sideglance of the exposé (the flavor of which pervades Beard’s Economic Interpretation of the Constitution) is replaced by an acceptance of rational motives. And these motives are placed in their social context to serve as the instruments of historical understanding.

The Constitution is placed against the background of the experience of the commercial and landlord classes in the Revolutionary War. Having used the “mobs” against the British, the problem of the new ruling classes was to subdue them to their own rule, a problem analogous to that solved by Napoleon in 1796. The American solution took the form of the erection of a government which was not a continuation of the revolution to a new stage but rather what Hofstadter calls “conservative republicanism.” The new organic law was intended to put into the saddle the classes that had already won economic power, and to remove from immediate contact with political power the masses of restless Jacobin farmers who threatened an American 1793.

The genius of this Constitution lay in the erection of a structure which is amenable to conflicting pressures, provided these pressures are within the framework of capitalist private property and its legal and economic practices. The Constitution is the oldest organic law in the world today thanks to this flexibility. In effect it organized the arena within which the conflict between different capitalist and propertied groups could struggle for dominance without finally excluding from government other sections of the ruling class.

While the range of the book covers our political history from Madison to Franklin Roosevelt, not all of the essays are equally valuable; but without exception they add new insights and clear away mythical accumulations. The chapter on Wendell Phillips is a labor of reconstruction in which the emphasis is placed on his evolution from an abolitionist to a socialist, against the background of the transformation of capitalism by the Civil War and the rise of the labor movement.

The chapter on Lincoln, The Self-Made Myth, and the one on Phillips suffer from weakening omissions. The transformation of American capitalism from 1845 to 1860, from mercantile-agrarianism into industrialism, is not sketched; consequently, one of the keys to the “irreconcilable conflict” is not explained other than in its expression in the campaigns of 1854 and 1860. Also the theories of Louis Hacker on the split between the “radicals” and the “new radicals” is ignored to the detriment of a more complete explanation of Phillips’ political development during reconstruction.

There was room for a job of historical salvage on Thaddeus Stevens in this book, if not as a primary figure then at least as the political leader of Radical Reconstruction. For it was Stevens’ fierce hatred of the slavocracy and his commanding political projection of social revolution for the South through the development of a landed Negro peasantry which held the key to a radical solution of lasting effect. In that brief historic moment between Lincoln’s death and Grant’s election the balance was not yet irrevocably decided in favor of the overwhelming mastery which industrial and finance capitalism did achieve. Stevens’ radical program contained a bright promise which still remains unfulfilled. Stevens was the last of the Jacobins, just as Phillips was among the first of the spokesmen for the emergent working class.

Nevertheless, the essay on Lincoln is the heart of the book, by far its most exciting and brilliant section. There are many ideas here which deserve an extended development. The analysis of the origin of the Lincoln myth is suggestive for an explanation of his pre-eminent place in our hagiology. The Northern ambivalent attitude toward the Negro is so adequately portrayed in Lincoln – for freedom but against equality. So long, as this ambiguity in racial attitudes remains part of the American ethic, Lincoln is assured his inordinate place in American tradition.

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