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AMERICA AT 1750 by Richard Hofstadter


A Social Portrait

By Richard Hofstadter

Pub Date: Oct. 22nd, 1971
ISBN: 0394717953
Publisher: Knopf

Professor Hofstadter, who died in 1970, intended this to be the first section of a three-volume "general interpretive synthesis of the findings of the past generation of professional historians" in American studies, to quote his proposal to the publisher. Modeled on Halevy's England in 1815, the overview moves, not through narrative, but back and forth from the particular to the conceptual and quantitative general. As social history the book is excellent. Its subjects are population and immigration, white and black servitude, the churches, religious life, and the Great Awakening, and, under the heading "The Middle-Class World," the socio-economic character and direction of the colonies at mid-century. The chapter on immigration and population is extremely well done with its emphases on the character of the labor force, on land tenure systems, and on economic development. What Hofstadter calls "the anguish of the early American experience" is delineated in the chapters on servitude: in 1750 the largest stream of new Americans was black slaves. What he terms "a middle-class society governed for the most part by its upper classes" is examined with a sure grasp of regional differences and, again, a valuable emphasis on economic relationships (the flow of rural surplus, land speculation, international trade). The class conflicts and the reluctant impulse to independence of the 70's are left unspecified: had Hofstadter written his chapter on colonial politics perhaps this would not be the case. The most detailed section deals with religion, the "huge body of religious indifferents," and the Awakening (which is insufficiently related to conjunctural developments). Throughout Hofstadter insinuates the European origins and counterparts of secularism, indenture, the Awakening, indeed the whole bloom of Protestant nationalist capitalism. As he intended, both "students of history at various levels" and "the general educated public" will gain much from Hofstadter's appreciation of the rich, liberated aspects of the "unregulated bourgeois order" and his stress on the fact that it was "a harsh world for those without land, skill, and freedom." Had he never written anything else, we would greatly regret his loss.