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Book Review 251: America at 1750

September 22, 2012 - Harry Eagar
AMERICA AT 1750: A Social Portrait, by Richard Hofstadter. 293 pages. Knopf.\

This is a good time to read (or re-read) the histories of Richard Hofstadter, who explained the background of McCarthyism. McCarthyism is back, big time. The foreground is different. The background is the same.

Hofstadter's writing career, 1944-1970, was almost exactly congruent with the first McCarthyism, and his gracefully written books were bestsellers among lovers of American liberty.

The titles of the best-known reveal his thrust: “Anti-intellectualism in American Life”: “The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays”; “Social Darwinism in American Thought”; “The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States.”

When he passed the age of 50, Hofstadter projected a massive social history of America, which would require 18 years to write. He died after completing only eight chapters of a scene-setting volume, which were published as “America at 1750” in 1971.

So this little volume is a good place to start before returning to his earlier volumes. It was Hofstadter's opinion that by 1750, peculiarly American attitudes, customs, institutions and morals had formed after six or seven generations away from Europe, and that these were so powerful they still controlled much that we did two centuries later.

He was certainly a believer in American exceptionalism, but unlike the antidemocratic, antiliberal ranters about American exceptionalism today, he did not think that everything America did and stood for was wise or benevolent; nor that anyone who dared to criticize our failings was a less than 100 percent American.

The chapter headings reveal that. After an opening review of demographics, his first three substantive chapters are on forced labor, white and black; and the capitalist slave trade.

Only after reminding us that America was a deeply flawed place does he begin writing about its attractive aspects in “The Middle Class World.”

One aspect of American exceptionalism is that it was history's first majority middle class community.

Hofstadter died too soon to remonstrate against the destruction of the middle class in favor of finance capitalism, but he was aware of the threat.

His final three chapters are about religion, particularly the Great Awakening in the 1740s.

Until then, Americans were unchurched, in the main, although there were established churches in many colonies that taxed everybody.

But believers and unbelievers who disdained to pay for someone else's church were free to move, and did.

Americans evolved a wholly secular idea of government, not because they were irreligious (which they weren't even if unchurched) but because no sect (after the early days in New England) could command the adherence of a large enough majority to persecute the rest. Thus, the idea of toleration, which was, for most, limited to toleration of Protestants.

But it was a good start.


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