Presentism 60 Years Later

The Age of Reform, From Bryan to F.D.R. Richard Hofstadter, 1955

I referred to this book the other day, so I thought I ought to say something more about it. Introducing his subject in 1955, Richard Hofstadter said “Our conception of Populism and Progressivism has...been intimately bound up with the new Deal experience” (4).  While admitting a progressive movement would have been impossible “without the impetus given by certain social grievances,” Hofstadter preferred to separate out a cultural spirit of  progressivism, which he said was “not nearly so much the movement of any social class,” as “a rather widespread and remarkably good-natured effort of the greater part of society to achieve some not very clearly specified self-reformation.” (5)  Why?  Because by distinguishing a generalized, apolitical spirit of improvement called progressivism, he could cut its ties with the Populist political movement that preceded it.  And the Populist Party, in Hofstadter’s judgment, was at best anachronistic and backward-looking, and at worst a haven for racist, xenophobic kooks.

But this separation leads to a paradox Hofstadter recognized as “One of the more ironic problems confronting reformers...that the very activities they pursued in attempting to defend or restore the individualistic values they admired brought them closer to the techniques of organization they feared” (7).  Hofstadter tried to separate the Populist and Progressive movements, because he “found much that was retrograde and delusive, a little that was vicious, and a good deal that was comic” in populism, and he wanted to purge those elements from progressivism (11).  Populism leads, he said, to “the cranky pseudo-conservatism of our time,” and he wanted progressivism to lead somewhere purer, nobler, and more useful in the present day (15).

The problem is, Hofstadter’s definitions and the bundles of ideas he called liberalism and conservatism were presentist (in 1955), and his concerns were very much those of his own day. Attempting to shoe-horn the past so you can draw a lineage from progressivism to the 1950s Democratic platform while claiming the crazy, racist populists begat the Republicans seems a bit problematic. Did nobody notice at the time? This book was big. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

“The United States,” Hofstadter famously began Chapter One, “was born in the country and has moved to the city” (23).  It’s a mistake, then, to project contemporary, urban ideas back onto the radical farmers of the Gilded Age.  The “continued coexistence of reformism and reaction” and the contradiction of “liberal totalitarianism” might look substantially different, if viewed from a 19th century, rural point of view (20).  And on some level, Hofstadter was clearly aware of this. He reminded his readers that “in origin the agrarian myth was not a popular but a literary idea, a preoccupation of the upper classes” (25).  Hofstadter concluded too readily, I think, that farmers embraced the Jeffersonian agrarian myth -- which he admitted was a political device, “the basis of a strategy of continental development” (29).  That this led to a political rhetoric of “producers,” and later of “an innocent and victimized populace” does not prove that this was the way most rural people really thought of themselves and their world (35).  I think Hofstadter lost sight of the “most characteristic thinking” of the “ordinary culture” he said he wanted to find (6).

There are lots of great details in the book, that I’d like to learn more about.  I didn’t know that “In 1914, Canadian officials estimated that 925,000 Americans had the lands of Alberta and Saskatchewan” (53).  Didn’t know that Ignatius Donnelly’s book
Caesar’s Column was one of the most widely read books of the 1890s (67).  These are both interesting facts, and I think they both complicate Hofstadter’s claim that because of the agrarian myth, the “utopia of the Populists was in the past,” and country people really wanted to “restore the conditions prevailing before the development of industrialism and the commercialization of agriculture” (62).  At the very least, I think we might be able to separate those two phrases and examine whether farmers were really objecting in total to either of them--or just to their excesses.

I think the interpretation hangs on which conditions farmers wanted to reverse.  When Hofstadter called attention to Populists' use of the Jacksonian slogan “Equal Rights for All, Special Privileges for None,” I think he hit the nail on the head and simultaneously undermined his argument.  Maybe the core of the issue is an even earlier misinterpretation by John Hicks, who had characterized populism as “the last phase of a long and...losing save agricultural America from the devouring jaws of industrial America” (quoting
The Populist Revolt p. 237, 94). What if the populists weren’t objecting so much to the changes that were happening in modernizing America (as Postel suggests), but to who benefited from change and how power was being misused to achieve those changes.