A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America

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On this point, they could all use a history lesson.

Brian Balogh | Vermont Public Radio

Americans have consistently demanded more energetic governance, even during the nineteenth century. For progressives, the emergence of a more powerful national government during the first decade of the twentieth century was a blessing. A remarkably resilient interpretation of American political development, originally crafted by Progressive Era activist historians like Charles Beard, traced the continued growth of national authority, powered largely by bursts of presidentially inspired reform that crested during the twentieth century through the New Deal and the Great Society.

These cycles of reform were the key to building a more powerful state.

Progressives applaud these developments as a marked departure from minimalist government of the nineteenth century. Besides grousing about being relegated to decades without snazzy nicknames, conservatives do not dispute this interpretation of modern American politics.

They do, however, question the premise that each growth spurt was beneficial for the nation. For them, morning in America shines brightest when the sun illuminates a society organized by the principles of laissez-faire. Oddly, both conservatives and progressives agree that nineteenth-century Americans embraced the free market. But what if the basic historical premise upon which this debate has been waged is fundamentally flawed? What if modern-day progressives understood that the national government often proved to be most influential when it was least visible?

And what if conservatives acknowledged the crucial role that the national government played in shaping both the market and the legal status of corporations that emerged as the key players in that market during the height of laissez-faire? What if the Gilded Age was exceptional?


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What if it was anomalous precisely because some public officials sought to achieve something that had never been accomplished before — draw a hard and fast line between public and private activity? Most significantly, 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?

Brian Balogh

He is author of Chain Reaction: He has published articles and essays about Progressive Era politics, the link between interest groups and public policy, and the legacy of Vietnam - some of which have appeared in the Journal of Policy History, Studies in American Political Development, and Social Science History and Environmental History.

Balogh is a frequent commentator on politics in the national media. Before receiving his Ph.


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