The State Is Back In: What Now?

John, Richard R.

This essay challenges the theory-driven approach to early American statecraft that was popularized by political scientist Stephen Skowronek by surveying recent historical writing on the early American state. Much of this writing falls into one of three overlapping genres that sets out to answer a different question. Was the early republic a prelude to things to come; a project with a distinctive character; or a promise that a later generation might wish to redeem? The first genre analyzes the early American state as a prelude to later events such as the New Deal and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The second genre treats governmental institutions in the early republic as a project that had a coherence and integrity that has been overlooked, disparaged, or forgotten. The third genre follows the lead of colonist John Murrin and tries to recover the promise of the early American state by emphasizing the founders' ideals, the magnitude of the challenge they confronted, and the distinctiveness of the governmental institutions that they built. While this historical writing is diverse, it shares three premises that Murrin rejected. First, that the Jeffersonians were not the only or even necessarily the primary actors even on the national stage; second, that governmental institutions, as distinct from the interests of specific social groups, can be agents of change; and, third, that the state in the early republic diverged in substantive ways from the state in the colonial past.

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Journal of the Early Republic

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January 15, 2020