Hofstadter’s Thomas Jefferson: A Visionary of Questionable Merit

In the book The American Political Tradition, by Hofstadter, Jefferson, in the opinion of the author, is an extremely complex man. Jefferson is usually thought to be an incredibly important and well respected figure in American history, but in the way that Hofstadter explains it, over time Jefferson has been highly overdramatized and is much less the person that he is commonly said to be. Hofstadter claims that Jefferson was a massive hypocrite, as his ideals are completely contradictory to his actions a large amount of the times. To put Hofstadter’s opinions of Jefferson together; Jefferson is not the man he is ordinarily portrayed as, but rather a hypocrite who’s place in American history has been existentially exaggerated.

Hofstadter in his book claims that Jefferson was quite the hypocrite, as his ideals were largely contradictory to how he actually lived his life. Jefferson wanted the United States to be a Meritocracy, a place in which the skilled worksman were the top class. As Jefferson wanted a Meritocracy, Jefferson still was in full support of the people of whom he surrounded himself with, the wealthy, upper-class politicians of the United States. According to Hofstadter, “Under his leadership the Virginia reformers abolished primogeniture and entail… “ (27). This helps to show how Jefferson’s ideals largely contradict how he is as a person. Jefferson was in full, a massive recipient of primogeniture when his father died. Due to the primogeniture laws, Jefferson was given “2,700 acres and a large number of bondsman” (26). Jefferson abolished primogeniture later in his life, yet never had to really work for anything as immediate wealth was bestowed upon him. As well as the abolishment of primogeniture, for a long time, Jefferson worked on a draft on the emancipation of slaves and abolishing slavery in total. Yet again, another contradictory action, as Jefferson was a benevolent slave owner who owned upwards of 600 slaves, and even though he tried to free slaves, he never freed the ones he owned. One of the reasons he never went through with his draft for slavery was as stated by Jefferson in Hofstadter, “that the public mind would not bear the proposition… Yet the day is not distant when it must bear and adopt it, or worse will follow” (29). Jefferson was too afraid to go against the public opinion regardless of him being claimed as a “revolutionary”, as he never in his lifetime would ever go against the public opinion. “… after he wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom he avoided expressing his more unacceptable ideas in public” (33). Jefferson’s choice to never go against the majority opinion is one of many reasons that Hofstadter argues that Jefferson is really not a true “revolutionary” and that Jefferson’s hypocrisy is a main proponent in the exaggeration of his place in history.

Jefferson is claimed by Hofstadter to be a very complex man, this partially pertaining to his thoughts as they relate to his voiced opinions. Jefferson always sided with the masses on every major issue, yet in reality, the way he really felt about something differed from his vocalized opinion. For example Hofstadter uses a quote from Charles M. Wiltse, “He remains aloof from the masses, and if he claims equality for all men, it is not because he feels all men are equal, but because he reasons they must be so” (26). Hofstadter uses this quote to help show that Jefferson, a man who truly believes that he is better than the common folk, sides with the common folk on the issue that all men are equal. Once again, his ideas contradicting his actions. Another stance that Jefferson takes is that he was in total belief that an agrarian United States was the way it should be, and that these “Jeffersonians” (people who followed the agrarian ideals of Jefferson) would be the face of the nation. As Hofstadter claims, “… but when he entered the White House it was after satisfying the Federalists that he and they had come to some kind of understanding” (44). Jefferson fully believing in a “Jeffersonian Democracy”, still in large amount supported the people whom he surrounded himself with, Federalists, who believed in Federalism, a concept far from a Jeffersonian Democracy. Jefferson as explained in the quote believed in something far from Federalism but obviously his “strong” set of beliefs were broken as he appeased to the important Federalists of the nation. Jefferson appeasing to the Federalists comes as a sign of weakness in his thoughts, as he remodeled his original thoughts to ones that were influenced by the Federalists. He did appease to them to win their vote, but during his Presidency, he stayed true to his word on the agreed intentions. Jefferson’s true thoughts in most cases were never reflected in the statements he made to the public, and this highlights the fact that people really couldn’t trust in things he would say, there was usually an underlying opinion of which he wouldn’t reveal.

In American history, Thomas Jefferson is commonly known and praised for his achievements and how he helped shape America, but Hofstadter elucidates that Jefferson has some large failures that are never really spoken about. American history surrounding Jefferson is always known to be only positive, and you would never know that he has had some massive failures in his past, as his “overdramatized” achievements drown out his failures. One of these failures was the Embargo Act of 1807. The Embargo Act aimed to get Britain and France to end the maritime seizures and give the United States the power they deserve by basically restricting American exports to Britain and France. As Hofstadter explains, “The Embargo not only failed to force Britain and France to respect American rights on the high seas, but also brought economic paralysis to the trading cities of the Northeast and the farms and plantations of the West and South. Jefferson finally admitted that the fifteen months of its operation cost more than a war” (51). Hofstadter uses this example because it shows that this was an incredibly large failure on Jefferson’s part that came at an expense equating to more than the cost of a war. Not only was Jefferson unsuccessful in the creation of the Embargo Act, but even after, he continued to ban trade, creating the Nonintercourse Act, which only opened trade up to a limited section of Europe. The Nonintercourse act in the eyes of Americans was a horrible decision, as by Jefferson appeasing to Britain and France, he was showing and psychologically stating that America was weaker than Britain and France by continuing to allow the maritime seizures. Another failure of Jefferson that the Embargo Act was Jefferson’s view of an “Agrarian America”. This was a large failure because as exclaimed by Hofstadter, “… it was expansionism – what John Randolph called “agrarian cupidity”- rather than free trade that in the end brought the War of 1812” (52). Jefferson’s ideals for the United States ended up causing a war between the Northern and Southern United States, as the North wanted Canada and the South wanted Florida. Jefferson’s vision was for America to be made up of self sufficient yeoman farmers, ones that did not have the large scale business aspirations, but rather ones that did well enough to get by on their own, decreasing the dependency on each other. But this vision came to a screeching halt when the farmers became greedy, as their “cupidity”, their greed/desire for wealth caused the War of 1812. Many historians paint the picture that Jefferson was a man who influenced American history in only positive ways, yet they seem to leave out the fact that Jefferson was far from perfect, and he had many costly failures that Hofstadter eloquently points out.

Jefferson is always made out to be one of the most positively influential men in American history, but Hofstadter shows that Jefferson is entirely different from what is commonly relayed about him. Jefferson is not the man he is so frequently explained to be, but rather a complex mess of a man whose accomplishments in the eyes of many historians seem to make his failures insignificant, when in reality his failures were brutal, and cost America largely. Jefferson was not as stunning as he is always explained as, but is a hypocrite and a overdramatized man whose place in American history is not as righteous as commonly believed. In many ways has Jefferson gone wrong in American history, but Hofstadter takes too much of a cynical approach to Jefferson, really highlighting failures and moral complexities that seem to really turn one of the great men in American history into someone that doesn’t deserve any credit.

Regardless of Jefferson’s mistakes, large or small, he still has made such profound changes in American history that he deserves some massive credit to his name. Hofstadter attempts to turn people against Jefferson, briefly noting his successes, but dwelling on his mistakes and inconsistencies. Although some mistakes cost a lot, Jefferson’s successes and mistakes really do even out, with his mistakes seeming to make up less profound history than his accomplishments. Jefferson deserves his spot in American history despite his mistakes, as every person in history has made a mistake, and Jefferson’s triumphs truly do account and leave a fervent impressment in American history.

Theodore Roosevelt: Conservative or Progressive?

In the piece, Theodore Roosevelt:The Conservative as Progressive, Hofstadter portrays the complex man that is Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was always about social reform, as he wanted a slight government regulation of the American economy because he believed that some of the monopolies that had been established at this time were a hindrance to society, while also corrupt through trusts. Although outwardly he was aggressive and a firm enforcer of Progressivism through his established laws and acts, inwardly he was a Conservative, and really just wanted things to remain the same. Roosevelt was highly against organized power,Hofstadter asserts that through Roosevelt’s regulation of the American economy, his antipathy towards organized power and the wealthy, and his relationship between the wealthy and the working classes as an arbiter, Roosevelt believes in Conservatism, yet his many actions of Progressivism dictate otherwise.

Hofstadter in his article states that Theodore Roosevelt throughout his presidency and before was known to be a relatively aggressive person, as he always wanted to impose himself on others. This, Hofstadter relates largely to his approach on the regulation of the American economy. Theodore Roosevelt wanted there to be “some” government regulation of the American economy, but mostly for the reasons of weeding out the corruption in specific areas. As Hofstadter states,“Between 1904 and 1906 Bryan agitated for government ownership of railroads, and Roosevelt answered by supporting the Hepburn bill, which made possible the beginnings of railroad rate-control by the Interstate Commerce Commission” (289). Hofstadter shows how Roosevelt was against the mainly corrupt monopolistic companies with trusts, rather than the less corrupt companies with trusts. Roosevelt earned his nickname “trustbuster” through his acts and regulations of corrupt trusts in America, but Roosevelt also was not entirely against trusts, just the corruption within some. Hofstadter shows another large aspect of his regulation through Roosevelt’s subduing of Tammany Hall. “There he proved troublesome to the Platt machine; the bosses welcomed a chance to kick him upstairs, and a combination of friends and enemies gave him the vice-presidential place on the McKinley ticket in 1900” (279). As Roosevelt progressed through the ranks of politics on his way to his presidency, there was a period of time where he noticed the obvious corruption in the political machine known as Tammany Hall. Theodore Roosevelt became aware of the corrupt patronage and was able to suppress and control it, angering Platt and the other bosses. Using these prominent examples, Hofstadter is able to depict Roosevelt’s progressive style through his partial government regulation of the then corrupt American economy.

Although Theodore Roosevelt acted as a strong Progressive, his inward beliefs, occasionally expressed, were largely Conservative. Roosevelt according of Hofstadter was really a Conservative at heart, despite his Progressive attitude. Hofstadter shows this through Roosevelt’s fear of the power of organized people and the extremely wealthy. Roosevelt felt intimidated by the masses of laborers as they posed a threat to Roosevelt and the stability of America. As Hofstadter says, “Any sign of organized power among the people frightened him; and for many years he showed toward the labor movement an attitude as bitter as that expressed in John Hay’s anonymously published novel, The Breadwinners” (270). Roosevelt did express his hatred of organized power, as not only did it scare him, but he was also against the radicalism of the people that formed these mobs (that is until he runs for president again later), because it seeks to change/modify the standings of society, especially relating to his disdain for strikes.

As well as organized power, Hofstadter shows Roosevelt’s distaste and fear of the extremely wealthy, as their power in society threatened Roosevelt’s power as president and the influence they had on the American economy and society. Hofstadter shows Roosevelt’s distrust through his statement: “While bigness in business frightened the typical middle-class citizen for economic reasons, it frightened Roosevelt for political reasons. He was not a small entrepreneur, worrying about being squeezed out, nor an ordinary customer concerned about rising prices, but a big politician facing a strong rival in the business of achieving power”(291). Roosevelt disliked the exceptionally wealthy because their power, though different, clashed with each other in who would be the more powerful, and Roosevelt did not want these monopolistic giants to take control of America through material interest. This is why Roosevelt was all for “trust busting”. Roosevelt wanted to reduce the power of these monopolies, especially the corrupt ones, and his biggest example of that is his Northern Securities case. Hofstadter uses the Northern Securities case to exemplify Roosevelt’s distrust of monopolies, and through this case, Roosevelt and Bryan were able to reduce the power of the Northern Securities company through the Hepburn bill, taking out a major competitor for power in America. Roosevelt was able to not allow this massive company to change and monopolize America from the way Roosevelt was working on bettering. Hofstadter uses many examples in his article on Roosevelt to show how in many cases, he is in fact a Conservative, and that though a vast amount of his actions were Progressive, Roosevelt’s Conservative side shone through in multiple occasions.

Theodore Roosevelt in Hofstadter’s article is portrayed as a middleman, an “impartial arbiter” between the wealthy and the poor. Roosevelt had his likes and dislikes of both sides, so he was commonly trusted to settle disputes between capital and labor, as he had no bias on either side. As Hofstadter puts it, “Because he feared the great corporations as well as organized workers and farmers, Roosevelt came to think of himself as representing a golden mean”(285). Roosevelt knew he represented the middle opinion, as he disliked strikes and organized power, yet he also disliked the arrogance and obstinance of the wealthy owners of the companies, so his place in the matter of resolving a strike, was right in the middle. When it came to organized strikes, Roosevelt, as best as he could, avoided letting them get out of hand, and was quick to step in and offer compromises for both the capital and laborer sides. This is particularly true in the issue of the Anthracite Strike, in 1902. As Hofstadter explains, “His attitudes toward many public questions were actually identical with those of the shrewder capitalists. This was particularly true where labor was concerned, and it was illustrated by Roosevelt’s compromise of the formidable anthracite strike of 1902”(288). Hofstadter uses the Anthracite Strike as an example to show how Roosevelt acted as a true arbiter between both sides. Roosevelt’s Square Deal came as a result of the Anthracite Strike, and it enabled Roosevelt to become trusted and his actions understood as an arbiter. He wanted to protect both sides, rather than help one and not the other. His relationship with the wealthy was one of respect, but also fear, and his relationship with the laborers was fear (in groups) and an understanding of their position. This arbitration of issues was a great help to quench not only Conservative side of him in stemming large change, but also appealed to his thoughts of Progressivism, as it allowed him to make changes, not too big, that both capital and labor would agree to. Roosevelt enjoyed being a middleman, as it not only gave him the attention of many people, but it gave him the option to enforce his power as president. According to Hofstadter. “He stood above the contending classes, as an impartial arbiter devoted to the national good, and a custodian of the stern virtues without which the United States could not play its destined role of mastery in the world theatre”(285). Hofstadter helps prove that not only did Roosevelt enjoy the attention and being able to use his power, but that Roosevelt made compromises that could benefit everyone, it was for the “national good”. Theodore Roosevelt throughout his presidency was an arbiter to both sides of capital and labor, and helped to quell strikes and public revolts through his accepted compromises.

Hofstadter throughout his writing on Theodore Roosevelt, explains using many different examples of how Roosevelt acted as a Progressive, while also harboring Conservatism, and expressing it on occasion. He does this by showing Roosevelt’s arbitration of both capital and labor, his hatred of organized power and the exceptionally wealthy, and his approach using “some” government regulation on the American economy. Hofstadter expounds these reasons using specific examples like Roosevelt’s subduing of Tammany Hall, his arbitration of the Anthracite Strike, leading to the Square Deal and more. Although he was mainly viewed as a Progressive, Roosevelt strove to bring back the old heroic virtues that embedded itself in the old American society, long before materialistic values. As Roosevelt states in his New Nationalism Speech, “We can admire the heroic valor, the sincerity, the self-devotion shown alike by the men who wore the blue and the men who wore the gray; and our sadness that such men should have to fight one another is tempered by the glad knowledge that ever hereafter their descendants shall be fighting side by side, struggling in peace as well as in war for the uplift of their common country, all alike resolute to raise to the highest pitch of honor and usefulness the nation to which they all belong”(Roosevelt, New Nationalism Speech). Roosevelt wants for America to bring back these heroic, soldier esque values that used to be a part of the people of the United States. Roosevelt’s Conservative side was calling out to the people of the United States to forget the materialistic lifestyle, and live that of heroism, one of their elders.

Also as Roosevelt says in his article of “True Americanism”, in the Forum Magazine, “The third sense in which the word “Americanism” may be employed is with reference to the Americanizing of the newcomers to our shores. We must Americanize them in every way, in speech, in political ideas and principles, and in their way of looking at the relations between Church and State”(Theodore Roosevelt, True Americanism). Theodore Roosevelt wants the people of the United States to welcome immigrants and to “Americanize” them through teaching them the core and long standing beliefs of American culture. Roosevelt through Conservatism wants to use the structural beliefs of American culture from years past, before America became the “corrupt” place it had become. Through these two documents, and many more, Theodore Roosevelt thoroughly expresses his Conservative beliefs, and shows how he is just as much Conservative as he is Progressive.