The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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Hoffman, Ross J.S.
Jeffrey O. Nelson - 04/08/11
Lifespan: (1902–1979)

Ross J. (John) S. (Swartz) Hoffman was a leading conservative historian, Catholic convert, and a principal revivalist of interest in the thought of Edmund Burke among conservatives in the post–World War II era. Hoffman was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, into a family of German descent. After graduating from Lafayette College (1923) he took his M.A. (1926) and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania (1932). He then began an influential teaching career as a history professor at New York University (1926–38), but spent the majority of his professional career as a professor of history at Fordham University (1938–67), where he remained as professor emeritus until his death.

As an undergraduate, Hoffman rejected Christianity, adhering instead to socialism. His earliest published work was his dissertation, a study of trade between Great Britain and Germany from 1875 and 1914. As part of this doctoral study, he “roamed over Germany, studying ‘conditions,’ and watching the mark depreciate. . . .” He left Germany for Paris in 1923 on the day Hitler tried his Munich Putsch. Throughout this time he was increasingly influenced by his study of history and travel throughout Europe, as well as by a thorough reading of Scripture; as a result, he converted to Catholicism in 1931.

As Hoffman saw it, the post–World War I world was characterized by “doubt, despair, bewilderment and anarchy.” In such a climate, there was for the church a particular obligation to profess the truth of “the Faith” to the present age. Hoffman accepted his own charge, and as much as any American Catholic of his time shaped the thinking of his coreligionists (if not always his secular adversaries). Hoffman’s approach was historical. He confidently sought to demonstrate how in the wake of the Great War the Catholic Church was in a unique position to offer a compelling alternative to what he believed was the total failure of nineteenth-century liberalism. Catholicism alone was “totally exonerated from all responsibility and involvement” in the breakdown of European civilization, “for the faith had been sent in exile and the frontiers closed around it.”

Hoffman was to America what G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and Christopher Dawson were to England: an assured, reasoned, even lyrical voice for restoration. What he hoped to restore was a modern form of medieval Christendom, which he viewed as a “fresh world” full of “vigor” and “health” and “hard thinking.” He regarded the orthodox Catholic as “almost the last rationalist left in the world today.” In economics and politics Hoffman rejected both individualist capitalism and collectivist socialism, instead gravitating toward the “distributism” developed by Belloc and Chesterton, which centered questions of political economy around the family, seeking to secure its independence and dignity from both a growing central state and an avaricious capitalist class through a wide distribution of property and ownership. During the interwar period Hoffman produced a number of books—including Restoration (1934), Tradition and Progress (1938), and The Organic State (1939)—and was a frequent contributor to the American Review (a “perversely brilliant,” in John Patrick Diggins’s formulation, journal of pre–World War II cultural conservatism).

Throughout the fertile interwar period Hoffman condemned “pagan” Nazism and “atheistic” communism as but two sides of the same ideological coin. He spared fascism from this criticism because he did not believe it was inherently anti-Christian and might possibly contribute to economic, political, and cultural recovery. He later recanted this early misjudgment of Italian fascism, whose nature he did not detect until Italy formally joined the Germans and the Axis powers. With the outbreak of war and America’s entry into another European conflagration, Hoffman turned his attention to working out the relationship of America to Europe and the broader civilization of the West. In this effort, Hoffman located in the figure of Edmund Burke an eighteenth-century model for thinking historically about the Atlantic political world—and, more importantly, for connecting that world to ours. Burke, in particular, unlocked for Hoffman a usable past that linked morality and politics, Catholicism and Protestantism, revolution and conservatism, Europe and America.

Hoffman is credited by no less a figure than Bernard Bailyn for ushering in the now influential and ubiquitous subdiscipline of Atlantic history with his 1942 work The Great Republic, his 1944 book Durable Peace, and a 1945 essay titled “Europe and the Atlantic Community.” For Hoffman and other thinkers, such as Carlton J. H. Hayes and Walter Lippmann, the states comprising the North and South American continents emerged from, and were an extension of, “Western European Christendom.” Earlier than the other Atlanticists who followed, Hoffman characterized the Atlantic community as “the inner sea of Christendom.” Postwar American strategy, according to Hoffman, ought therefore to be aimed at “fortifying the Atlantic citadel.”

Burke was for Hoffman the pivotal figure in this enterprise. To extend Burke’s politics into the postwar world, Hoffman organized a new Burke Society at Fordham University in 1945. He was aided by a fellow Burke admirer, the Jesuit political theorist Moorhouse F. X. Millar, who himself had been instrumental in the 1930s in making connections between Burke and the American tradition of ordered liberty. Soon after this, Hoffman was recommended to the publisher Alfred Knopf by his friend Carlton Hayes to compile a new anthology of Burke’s writings. The book coedited with his colleague Paul Levack, appeared in 1948 and was titled Burke’s Politics: Selected Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke on Reform, Revolution, and War. This groundbreaking compilation became a touchstone for the American Burke revival that blossomed in the ensuing decades. Hoffman also authored a major work on Burke’s official relation to the American colonies during the revolutionary period, Edmund Burke, New York Agent (1955), and closed his career with a landmark biography of Burke’s great political patron, Lord Rockingham, called simply The Marquis (1973).

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