Monday, July 2, 2012

Independence Day 2012: The American Political Tradition and Profiles in Courage

The American Political Tradition by Richard Hofstadter. (Preface for the Hebrew edition, September 29, 1967.) 

“… no society can function at all unless there are certain very broad premises, moral and constitutional, on which the overwhelming majority of its politically active citizens can agree at any one time.”  page xxviii

“Americans may not have quarreled consistently enough over profound ideological matters, as these are formulated in the history of political thought, but they quarreled consistently enough over issues that had real pith and moment.” Page xxix

“When competition and enterprise were rising, men thought of the future, when they were flourishing, of the present.  Now – in an age of concentration, bigness, and corporate monopoly – when competition and opportunity have gone into decline, men look wistfully back toward a golden age.”  Page xxxiv

“Such heroes of the progressive revival as Bryan, LaFollette, and Wilson proclaimed that they were trying to undo the mischief of the past forty years and recreate the old nation of limited and decentralized power, genuine competition, democratic opportunity, and enterprise.” – page xxxv

“Although it has been said repeatedly that we need a new conception of the world to replace the ideology of self-help, free enterprise, competition and beneficent cupidity upon which Americans have been nourished since the foundation of the Republic, no new conceptions of comparable strength have taken root, and no statesman with a great mass following has arisen to propound them. Bereft of a coherent and plausible body of belief – for the New Deal if it did little more, went far to undermine old ways of thought – Americans have become more receptive than ever to dynamic personal leadership as a substitute.  This is the secret of Roosevelt’s popularity, and since his death, of the rudderless and demoralized state of American liberalism.” Page xxxvi

“… the major political traditions have shared a belief in the rights of property, the philosophy of economic individualism, the value of competition; they have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture as necessary qualities of man. Even when some property right has been challenged – as it was by followers of Jefferson and Jackson – in the name of the rights of man or the rights of the community, the challenge, when translated into practical policy, has actually been urged on  behalf of some other kind of property.” – page xxxvii.

“The sanctity of private property, the right of the individual to dispose of and invest it, the value of opportunity, and the natural evolution of self-interest and self-assertion, within broad legal limits, into a beneficent social order have been staple tenets of the central faith in American political ideologies; these conceptions have been shared in large part by men as diverse as Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Cleveland, Bryan, Wilson, and Hoover.  The business of politics – so the creed runs – is to protect this competitive world, to foster it on occasion, to patch up its incidental abuses, but not to cripple it with a plan for common collective action.  American traditions also show a strong bias in favor of equalitarian democracy, but is has been a democracy in cupidity rather than a democracy of fraternity.” Page xxxvii

“That culture has been intensely nationalistic and for the most part isolationist; it has been fiercely individualistic and capitalistic. In a corporate and consolidated society demanding international responsibility, cohesion, centralization, and planning, the traditional ground is shifting under our feet. It is imperative in a time of cultural crisis to gain fresh perspective on the past.” – page xxxix

“A democratic society, in any case, can more safely be overcritical than overindulgent in its attitude toward public leadership.” – page xl.

Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy.

“A nation which has forgotten the quality of courage which in the past has been brought to public life is not as likely to insist upon or reward that quality in its chosen leaders today – and in fact we have forgotten.  We may remember how John Quincy Adams became President through the political schemes of Henry Clay, but we have forgotten how, as a young man, he gave up a promising Senatorial career to stand by the nation.  We may remember Daniel Webster for his subservience to the National Bank throughout much of his career, but we have forgotten his sacrifice for the national good at the close of his career. We do not remember – and possibly, we do not care.”  - page 1.

“Of course, the acts of courage described in this book would be more inspiring and would shine more with the traditional luster of hero-worship if we assumed that each man forgot about himself in his dedication to higher principles. … It was not because they ‘loved the public better than themselves.’ On the contrary it was precisely because they did love themselves – because his desire to win or maintain a reputation for integrity was stronger than his desire to maintain his office – because his conscience, his personal standard of ethics, his integrity or morality, call it what you will – was stronger than the pressures of public disapproval – because his faith that his course was the best one, and would ultimately be vindicated, outweighed fear of public reprisal.”  Page 203

“The stories of past courage can define that ingredient – they can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot supply courage. For this each man must look into his own soul.”  Page 210

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