The Age of Reform: From Bryan to fdr by Richard Hofstadter

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Dr. Buzzanco

John M. Barr
The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR by Richard Hofstadter
The eminent Civil War historian Allen C. Guelzo recently pronounced the death of the reputation of Richard Hofstadter, the Columbia University historian, essayist, and author of The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, the latter two titles winning the Pulitzer Prize. If true, Guelzo’s assertion would be of great significance, for Hofstadter was one of America’s most notable and important public intellectuals in the twentieth-century and his work did much to shape the American mind that he spent a lifetime probing.

The Age of Reform, published over fifty years ago in 1955 and the volume under review here, was Hofstadter’s study of the reform movements of Populism and Progressivism. Hofstadter examines the years from 1890 until 1917, analyzes the achievements, failures, and mindset of the Populists and Progressives, and concludes his book with a short assessment of the New Deal and the ascendancy of Franklin Roosevelt to the presidency. Furthermore, Hofstadter discusses the shortcomings of the reform impulse, challenges prevailing assumptions during the 1950s regarding Populism and Progressivism, and in the process sheds new light on United States history and the American character.

The Age of Reform, then, is a work of intellectual history of the Populists and Progressives in which Hofstadter’s focus “is the conception the participants had of their own work and place it would occupy in the larger stream of our history. . . . My chief concern is . . . with the issues as they were presented in the popular magazines, the muckraking articles, the campaign speeches, and the essays of the representative journalists and influential publicists.”1

Hofstadter begins his study with a broad introductory overview of the era, clarifying his definitions of Populism and Progressivism, and explaining his desire to tell the story of reform from 1890 to 1917 “with a new analysis from the perspective of our own time.”2 Hofstadter views both Populism and Progressivism from the broad sweep of American history, defining the former as a “heightened expression, at a particular moment of time, a kind of popular impulse that is endemic in American political culture. . . . a larger trend of thought, stemming from the time of Andrew Jackson, and crystallizing after the Civil War in the Greenback, Granger, and anti-monopoly movements, that expressed the discontents of a great many farmers and businessmen with the economic changes of the late nineteenth century.”3 In addition, Hofstadter argues that the importance of Populism for Americans in 1955 is in its continuing survival in the United States “as an undercurrent of provincial resentments, popular and ‘democratic’ rebelliousness and suspiciousness, and nativism.”4

Concerning Progressivism Hofstadter writes that it was part of the “broader impulse toward criticism and change that was everywhere so conspicuous after 1900 . . . Progressivism in this larger sense was not confined to the Progressive Party but affected in a striking way all the major and minor parties and the whole tone of American political life. . . . it was not nearly so much the movement of any social class or coalition of classes, against a particular class or group as it was a rather widespread and remarkably good-natured effort of the greater part of society to achieve some not very clearly specified self reformation.” 5

Hofstadter concludes the Introduction by explaining his interest in Populism and Progressivism and how they were, in his estimation, examples of the darker aspects of the American mind. Hofstadter writes critically but sympathetically of the Populist and Progressive reform impulse, noting their occurrence in the midst of momentous economic and cultural changes in American life. Hofstadter writes that Populism and Progressivism exemplified a “certain proneness to fits of moral crusading,” common in the United States, and oftentimes infected by conspiratorial thinking “whether it be the force represented by the ‘gold bugs,’ the Catholic Church, big business, corrupt politicians, the liquor interests and the saloons, or the Communist Party, and that this evil must be not merely limited, checked, and controlled but rather extirpated root and branch at the earliest possible moment.”6 Consequently, Hofstadter thinks Populism and Progressivism were one reform movement among many in American history that have “turned sour, become illiberal and ill-tempered” and it is precisely these elements “of Populism and Progressivism – particularly of Populism – which seems very strongly to foreshadow some aspects of the cranky pseudo-conservatism of our own time,” that he finds most intriguing.7

Hofstadter’s main contention throughout The Age of Reform is that the adherents of Populism and Progressivism perceived a loss of their status in American society and their ideas and actions reflected such a belief. Thus, in the first chapter of the book Hofstadter delineates in detail what he labels “the Agrarian Myth” of America and how “the American mind was raised upon a sentimental attachment to rural living and upon a series of notions about rural people and rural life. . . . Its hero was the yeoman farmer, its central conception the notion that he is the ideal man and the ideal citizen.”8 But, as America underwent massive industrialization, immigration, and urbanization in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the farmer realized “he was losing in status and respect,” concluded he was a victim of some conspiracy, which “colors the whole history of agrarian controversy, and indeed the whole history of the populistic mind.”9 Hofstadter argues that historians have “recognized their [Populists} achievements” but have too often neglected “its significant provincialism. . . . nativism and nationalism” and “nothing has been said of its tincture of anti-Semitism.”10

The Populist and Progressive movements began to converge, Hofstadter argues, after the Spanish-American War in 1898, for “Free Cuba had displaced Free Silver in public interest, and when reform raised its head again, it had a new face.”11 This new face, which included men like John Hay, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Theodore Roosevelt and who Hofstadter labeled the “imperialist elite,” was similar to the Populists in that “both. . . . had been bypassed and humiliated by the advance of industrialism, and both were rebelling against the domination of the country by industrial and financial capitalists.”12 At the beginning of the twentieth century, therefore, reformers “were Progressives not because of economic deprivations but primarily because they were victims of an upheaval of status that took place in the United States during the closing decades of the nineteenth and the early years of the twentieth century.”13

Thus Populism was absorbed into Progressivism by the turn of the century, although not without the Populists exerting, like several third parties in American history, some influence on their new political home. Hofstadter writes that “like the Populists the Progressives were full of indignation, but their indignation was more qualified by a sense of responsibility, often even of guilt, and it was supported by a greater capacity to organize, legislate, and administer. . . . and that a great deal of Progressive political effort was spent enacting proposals that the Populists had outlined fifteen or even twenty years earlier.”14

Afraid of the growing power of trusts in American life or, for that matter, power in general, Hofstadter writes that “the central theme in Progressivism was this revolt against the industrial discipline: the Progressive movement was the complaint of the unorganized against the consequences of organization.”15 This, Hofstadter thinks, is the part of the reason for Theodore Roosevelt’s popularity as president, for he was “the first major political leader to understand this need of the public for faith in the complete neutrality of the powerful state. . . . TR seemed in the public eye to stand not only apart from but above the opposing sides.”16

Hofstadter concludes The Age of Reform by arguing that fighting in World War I “put an end to the Progressive movement” and yet that Progressivism had so infiltrated the American mind by 1917 “that the war was justified before the American public . . . in the Progressive rhetoric and on Progressive terms. . . . The crusade for reform and for democratic institutions, difficult as it was at home, was now to be projected to the world scene.”17 Continuing with a cursory look at the 1920s, Hofstadter finishes by briefly examining the New Deal as “different from anything that had yet happened in the United States: different because its central problem was unlike the problems of Progressivism; different in its ideas and its spirit and its techniques.”18

Since 1955 several important scholars have challenged Hofstadter’s arguments in The Age of Reform, which in itself is a testimony to the importance and influence of the work. Merle Curti, for example, thought that while Populists and Progressives were racist, that was not something unique to their adherents or their movements. Rather, racism “was endemic,” wrote Curti, to America in the nineteenth century. William Appleman Williams criticized the central argument, or status thesis, of Hofstadter’s book, since Williams thought that such a view tended to minimize the genuine worries as well as grievances of the two reform movements. C. Vann Woodward attacked The Age of Reform more broadly, reproving Hofstadter for suggesting that “Populism is the root of all evil.”19 More recent scholars, from Lawrence Goodwyn, Bruce Palmer, Edward Ayers, and others have elaborated on these analyses.20

The Age of Reform is a landmark interpretation of the era from 1890 to 1917 and Hofstadter’s insights and criticisms into the perceived loss of status among the reformers of the late nineteenth-century and their ideas continue to be valuable and worthy of study. The Age of Reform calls to mind, for example, the complaints and worries of fundamentalist Christians that H.L Mencken mocked in the 1920s as people that “may be defined as that part of the world in which, if any man stands up in public and solemnly swears that he is a Christian, all his auditors will laugh.”21 Hence, a close reading of The Age of Reform may deepen understanding of the concerns and anxieties of “reform” movements in our own time, in domestic and foreign arenas. If so, then Allen Guelzo may be wrong about the decline of Richard Hofstadter’s standing in the historical profession. The death of Hofstadter’s reputation may be, to paraphrase Mark Twain, a death the rumors of which are greatly exaggerated.22

1 Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR, (New York: Vintage Books, 1955) , 6.

2 Ibid. , 3.

3 Ibid. , 4-5.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid. , 5

6 Ibid. , 15-17

7 Ibid. , 17-21

8 Ibid. , 24

9 Ibid. , 35

10 Ibid. , 61-62

11 Ibid. , 91

12 Ibid. , 93

13 Ibid. , 135

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid. , 215-71

16 Ibid. , 237

17 Ibid. , 275-79

18 Ibid. , 303.

19 David S. Brown, Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006) 112-119 for a fascinating discussion of the criticisms of The Age of Reform.

20 Edward L. Ayers, The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) 281-82 and 526-27 for a discussion of these viewpoints.

21 George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) 3.

22 Brown, Richard Hofstadter, 119.

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