Friday, March 6, 2009

Balogh on the State in Nineteenth-Century America

Yesterday afternoon, at the American Political History Seminar sponsored by the History Department at Boston University, Brian Balogh of the University of Virginia presented a portion of his soon-to-be-published book, A Government out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America.

Balogh asks "what if our understanding of the nineteenth century allowed for the possibility that the United States governed differently from other industrialized contemporaries, but did not necessarily govern less?" Exploring land distribution policies, the postal system, and legal structures facilitating corporate expansion, Balogh argues that while the state institutions that nineteenth-century Americans referred to as the "General Government" might not always have been visible, they represented a powerful force of governance. Of the laissez-faire Gilded Age, Balogh argues that "no period in America's history was less representative of America's past."

The argument is provocative and I am eager to read A Government out of Sight when it is published in April. The book will go well with several other recent works that have complicated our understanding of the American state, including William Novak's recent essay, "The Myth of the Weak American State," American Historical Review 113 (June 2008).

In fact, it might be time to put to rest what I like to call the "Dr. Seuss Theory of the State": big state, small state; strong state, weak state. (Not to mention red state, blue state!) The U.S. state, as historians are increasingly showing, was more complicated than most explanations of it.

European historians, too, have questioned our assumptions, showing that the "large," "strong" social-welfare states against which many scholars measure the U.S. state were exceptional as well. For a brief introduction to the new European literature that contrasts "statebuilding" with "sovereignty," see James Sheehan, "The Problem of Sovereignty in European History," American Historical Review 111 (February 2006).