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Richard Hofstadter's Tradition

If anyone wants a tonic to the highly favorable portraits of Lincoln that Miller and Goodwin provide, I can think of no better book, or I should say chapter from, Richard Hofstadter's An American Political Tradition. He spends about 60 pages on Lincoln, pretty much sizing him as a very shrewd politician who essentially caved on any moral position he had in regard to slavery. It is a rather cynical portrait of the beloved President, with heavy references to Herndon, although I suspect Hofstadter took only the most biting references, as it is quite apparent that he wanted to bring Lincoln down to size.

Hofstadter focuses mostly on the many contradictions in Lincoln's speeches, noting how he would appeal to a more liberal crowd in Chicago but then tone down his rhetoric when in more southern Charleston, Illinois, during his debates with Douglas, leading Douglas to comment that he couldn't live with himself if he had so many contradictions. Hofstadter says that the great art of Lincoln's speeches was his ability to appeal to abolitionists and "negrophobes" alike by making the issue of slavery in the territories that of diminishing the rights of whites by allowing slavery to seep into every nook and cranny of American society and making all the states slave states. Yet, Hofstadter notes, Lincoln didn't express such anxieties over the Fugitive Slave Bill that affected far more people in the North than the territorial slavery question, which Douglas apparently felt would get voted down by the territories anyway, as free settlers far outnumbered slave-holding settlers, but then the Lecompton Constitution showed just how easily such votes could be rigged.

Anyway, interesting reading, especially from the perspective of 60 years after Hofstadter wrote his most famous book.


  1. I think I should read this at some point.

  2. Just saw your link to the Atlantic article. Will definitely try to get to that this weekend.

    Thanks for all these great leads.

  3. You're welcome, avrds. You will probably enjoy Hofstadter's view of Lincoln. I don't know if he held to it over the years though, as he wrote this particular account back in the 40s.

    One thing all these accounts are telling me is that I should read Herndon's Lincoln.

  4. Liberian independence day seems apropos to the books we are reading.

  5. 2009 Edition of Herndon:

  6. Thanks, marti, I also found this online text,

    although it is not a complete text.

  7. Here we go:

    Herndon's Lincoln vol. 1

    Vol. 2

    Vol. 3

  8. Wow! We're going to all end up being Lincoln scholars here. I can be the (sort of) Lincoln critic.

  9. What a great essay you linked to this post, Gintaras. Many thanks.

    Hofstadter wrote, "The Lincoln legend has come to have a hold on the American imagination that defies comparison with anything else in political mythology."


    "To become President, Lincoln had had to talk more radically on occasion than he actually felt; to be an effective President he was compelled to act more conservatively than he wanted."

    But the entire overview makes me want to read this book. I have a couple Hofstadters, but not this one. With all the profiles of presidents seems like it might make for an interesting discussion.

  10. Gintaras, thanks for posting the Herndon links. I'm going to get the text now.


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