The Twilight of Waspdom
One always has to reckon with the generation
that has gone before.
RICHARD HOFSTADTER, 1960
The New Deal changed everything. More than simply a model for economic recovery, it launched the crucial process of affrming the deep and still controversial changes in American life triggered by modernity. Roosevelt's reforms appealed to black and ethnic voters, celebrated the cities, and initiated a social-welfare state more expansive than anything imagined by either the Populists in the 1890s or the Progressives in the 1910s. A raw, anarchic enthusiasm for property rights had fueled the swift expansion of American material progress, but the laissez-faire state proved incapable of mastering the current crisis. Something had to give. Among thoughtful observers, it seemed clear that the old order, and the social, intellectual, and racial underpinnings that supported it, were ripe for revision.
As he searched for a dissertation topic in the late Depression spring of 1940, Richard Hofstadter sensed a fundamental shift in American life. Waspdom was breaking up. The subject, and its extraordinary implications linking the Anglo past to the ethnic present, never ceased to interest him. “The United States began with the heritage of slavery and with white Anglo-Saxon Protestant domination,” he wrote in a late career summing-up. “The upsurge of the new immigrants, the Catholics, and now finally of the Negroes has made our twentieth-century history into a story of ethnic wars of various kinds, wars incidental to transforming the old America into a multi-ethnic, multi-religious urban society.” As a critic of the older liberalism, a product of a mixed ethnic parentage, and an ambitious junior scholar in search of an important