Where I’m coming from and bound to.

September 26, 2009, 1:21 pm

Sometimes as historians we have reason to sum up our careers to date and make a projection forward as to what we’re doing next. Here’s mine. I don’t think this will really interest people for discussion, so I’m putting it below the fold by backdating it 72 hours, and people who read the blog on the web probably won’t notice it. Those of you who get these posts on RSS will of course see it presented as if it were fresh and intriguing; sorry about that.

Apologia pro vita sua (work to date)

Each of my books develops a broadening investigation of the peculiar nature of American public life in the decades around 1900. The era generally understood as the last act in the Western world’s long nineteenth century was also the first act in the American rise to world leadership. I study how these overlapping dramas influenced each other.

The final phase of nineteenth-century civilization saw modern nations develop an increasingly global reach—which is to say, it was the age of imperialism, but also the age of mass migration, of international investment, and of almost instantaneous international communication—and in 1918 it concluded in catastrophe for almost every country except the United States. Seen from the perspective of world history, this episode resembles the end of Hamlet, in which the major players kill each other off only to have Fortinbras (played here by the U.S.) appear from across the water to say a few ill-informed but well-meant words and, by the way, take power.

Considering this perspective prompts two questions. First, how is it that the politics and culture of the U.S. should have diverged so significantly from otherwise comparable nations in an era when the U.S., like other countries, was most open to influences from abroad? Second, how did American peculiarity affect the rest of the world in turn once the U.S. became a world leader? My answer to the first question does not belong uniquely to me, but I have pursued its ramifications further and in different directions than earlier historians. The American political and cultural response to industrialization differed from that of otherwise similar nations because the American working class differed, in being composed noticeably of immigrants and their children.

In my first book, The Refuge of Affections, I examined the ideas of native-born, middle-class Americans responding to this new immigrant working class, and how they drew on a Whig/Republican tradition to develop a distinctly American politics of progressivism. Americans born in the wake of the Civil War, observing the changes wrought by industry, saw the working class not as a potentially revolutionary native element, but as an immigrant working class in need of education about American civic life. This emphasis on education, broadly defined, affected how the reformers thought of themselves, and influenced their class and gender roles as parent-teachers to a class of new Americans. This parental attitude lent their ideas an emotional appeal but also set limits on the policies they could support.

My second book, Murdering McKinley, dealt with an episode in which this understanding of class relations broke down. American opinion-makers thought that McKinley’s assassin Leon Czolgosz represented the radical danger of an immigrant working class. I explored how this understanding shaped progressive politics. But I spent most of the book sketching Czolgosz’s own experience from his parents’ arrival in the United States in the 1870s (he was not, himself, an immigrant) through his education in the 1880s to his work and political radicalization in the 1890s. This investigation allowed me to develop, by the tools of social history, the ordinariness of Czolgosz’s life. Far from representing an exotic danger, he represented a homegrown peril and a typical American story—right up until his tale took a horrific turn toward an appalling conclusion.

These books thus contribute to our understanding of American political culture and also to our understanding of the immigrant and ethnic workers on whom activist reformers focused their attention, and these histories led naturally to my new work, on how the movement of migrants and of capital investment affected American development.

My third book, Blessed Among Nations, argued that American peculiarity owes a great deal to the demonstrable effects of international influence on the United States and furthermore, that American peculiarity profoundly affected the rest of the world in turn. The unique relation between American states and their overseas creditors shaped the development and admission of the American West. The West was in turn populated by immigrants and domestic migrants who had left heavily immigrant cities—in short, a major political, economic, and social event of the latter nineteenth century owed considerably to the influence of global affairs. This process of internationally influenced expansion in turn shaped the legislation the U.S. Congress could even consider, let alone adopt, with respect to immigration and other international issues. The way the West was won reflected foreign influence, and it in turn affected the domestic legislative agenda.

This project moved me a step closer to answering the second question I raised above: how significantly did American peculiarity affect the rest of the world? In Blessed Among Nations I showed that the answer is “very significantly”: the habits of government and attitudes toward the world developed by nineteenth-century Americans affected U.S. policies on immigration, finance, and trade, to some bad effect in the late 1920s.

In 2008 I published a book that extends this interpretation forward in time. The Great Depression and the New Deal, a volume in the Oxford University Press “Very Short Introductions” series, picks up where Blessed Among Nations left off, treating the worldwide depression as significantly shaped by American policy decisions.

My work on the New Deal has also helped me formulate an interpretation for the period from 1865-1945. In providing a summary explanation of what the New Deal did, I expand on J. K. Galbraith’s idea of “countervailing power,” and show how it was both good politics and good policy for the Roosevelt administration to build up the economic basis for political power in the South and the West. Which is to say, it was left finally to the New Deal to do what the Republican Party had failed to do in the years just after the Civil War: craft sound policies for the economic development of the relatively underdeveloped sections of the country, and thus at last to reckon with the differential impact of international migration and investment on those sections.

I am now working on a book that develops this observation at length. Provisionally titled The Gift Outright after Robert Frost’s poem about the settlement of the West, it covers the period from Reconstruction through the Second World War, and works out the themes of international connections and regional variation within the U.S. that I’ve already established as essential to my work. It begins with Republican ideals of unified nationhood as expressed in the legislation of the 1860s for settling the West and reconstructing the South, and shows how these ideals conflicted with the reality of national expansion and economic development over the ensuing decades.

The Gift Outright (next book)

The rapid rise of the United States to industrial might remains a parable of pressing interest to the ambitious citizens of developing nations, who would like if they can to relive that tale even on a much homelier scale. This book investigates the role of the US government in promoting prosperity during the critical period from the Civil War to the Second World War. It is a study of what a government can do to promote prosperity for its people, based on a comprehensive examination of what one particularly successful government did. The work addresses open questions in a variety of scholarly fields and in public discourse.

In the late nineteenth century, the US surpassed Britain as the world’s premier manufacturing power, and its economy grew fivefold over about fifty years. During these decades the US also undertook the integration of the seceded South and the yet unconquered West into the economic and political life of the nation. To some extent the American success in this project owed to great natural advantages—the relatively easy accessibility of mineral, timber, and other riches other countries did not and do not have, and which no government can bestow. But Americans exploited their riches more effectively than other countries did: which is to say, American growth depended on the efficient development of these resources as well as their mere presence.

Scholars tell three basic but conflicting stories about how this happened. The first tale, and the most commonly told—especially in popular discourse or in certain of the social sciences—de-emphasizes when it does not denigrate the role of government in abetting American economic development. On behalf of what is sometimes called the Washington Consensus, policy mavens urge on developing countries the example of the US, where Americans imbued with the frontier spirit exploited the land substantially without the aid or interference of government. One finds this interpretation wherever one finds an argument in favor of laissez-faire, but also in arguments for progressive social policy, as in Herbert Croly’s history of the United States positing a simple past permitting “the utmost freedom of economic and social movement” against a more complicated present requiring a stronger public hand.

The second story about how the US became rich almost diametrically contradicts the first, emphasizing the role of government in promoting development, normally through the prescriptions of a “developmental state”. Formalized by Chalmers Johnson in 1982 and based on the history of late nineteenth-century Japan, the theory of the developmental state held that a government willing to direct research agendas, control the flow of trade and capital, could create a rich country from a poor one. So pervasive is the laissez-faire version of US history that Johnson believed he was outlining an alternative to the American model. But scholars have recently pointed out that many of Japan’s developmental policies drew on US precedent: from the late eighteenth century onward, Americans following Alexander Hamilton promoted interventionist policies for development. A central bank, federal funding for internal improvements, a national debt and a tariff protecting manufacturing interests—Hamilton and his heirs the Whigs and Republicans fought for all these policies, which they so identified with US success that they called this program for development “the American System”. Henry Clay sang its praises; Abraham Lincoln saw it in to law during the Civil War: and the nation prospered.

The third story about the American rise to riches in the late nineteenth century differs from the second narrative more in tone than in substance: yes, this tale goes, the US government assisted the growth of industrial capitalism, but rather than a story of developmental-statist success, this is a story of ruthless exploitation. The military conquest and occupation of the plains peoples offers an extraordinary cynical example of how the promise of economic development can cover for racism and violence. The exploitation of the prairies by foreign capital raised from US citizens settling the West the naïve cry of “imperialism” after the army had moved and sequestered the Indians. Populists who saw the Republican Party as beholden to the interests of capital decried their use of the federal government as a tool to draw forcibly from the plains and mountains their riches, irrespective of the region’s inhabitants. The triumph of business and the Republican Party had been “a coup d’état…. The industrial capitalists, through their political spokesmen, the Republicans, had succeeded in capturing the state and using it as an instrument to strengthen their economic position.” In these interpretations, the edifice of American affluence arose on the foundations of broken promises, to native peoples and homesteaders alike; even if one takes Republican visionaries at their word, their grand schemes came apart: “the American paradise they planned turned into the very world of wealthy monopolists and impoverished workers and farmers the Republicans most abhorred.”

While these three stories may seem incompatible, each held true in different parts of the country at different times. In this book I tell a unified story about the successes and failures of each model for development. All shaped the success of the twentieth century’s great power.

The developmental state model, or American System, held sway for the duration of the Civil War, as a majority-Republican Congress planned for the settlement of the West, and continued afterward as the same politicians extended the program to the reconquered South, by passing the 1866 Southern Homestead Act and in the same year extending the land-grant system to cover the readmitted southern states.

The US implementation of the developmental state faced failure owing to flaws in its design. Lawmakers acted as if the whole country could be made into New England as New England had been made, persuading themselves a rich land could pay for its own development. Rather than fund and direct the exploitation of their frontier from the capital, as many other colonial governments did, the US turned over such direction and funding to private agents.

The American System suffered not only from naïveté but from bad faith. At the same time, both the South and the West endured the kind of thinly disguised, not-quite post-imperial form of exploitive development emphasized in the third story. The effort to provide an American System to the South proved even less successful than the effort in the West, tied as it was to a policy of military occupation on the cheap. Likewise native Americans suffered the consequences of development allegedly for their own good.

Soon the practical failures of the American System disillusioned its purported beneficiaries and spurred even its architects to abandon it in principle. The designers of the US developmental state began to talk like champions of the first story about US development, emphasizing the importance of mobility, competition, and the certainty that talent would find its own level. Within a decade the dominant rhetoric of the Republican Party had shifted substantially toward classical liberalism, as onetime disciples of Henry Carey sounded more like Adam Smith. Thus beginning in the 1870s, a model of development like the first version described here began to operate, resulting in an American West exposed to influxes of foreign capital and migration and a South abandoned largely to its own devices.

This uneven and disappointing development of the nation explains why the Progressive era remains so difficult for historians to sort out. During it one sees proponents of a managerial state along the lines of the American System vie with, on the one hand, advocates of laissez-faire, and on the other, with southerners and westerners attuned to the American System’s promises but discouraged by its implementation. Some of the policies passed in this era (railroad regulation; the income tax) sought to remediate the failures of the American System and of the laissez-faire model of development; others (the Newlands Reclamation Act) pressed forward with renewed hopes for a developmental state. Despite this reformist energy, no synthetic re-envisioning of the state’s role emerged until the New Deal, and then only under the painful pressure of the Great Depression.

Much of development policy under the New Deal represented a delayed success of the American System—USDA research coupled with a renewed devotion to regional development made the TVA possible; WPA and PWA infrastructure did finally for the South and West what private construction had not. New Dealers justified these development projects as reactions to the defects of the American System, emphasizing awareness of local conditions and local control as key elements of success in these projects. And they succeeded where the American System had failed, encouraging at last a convergence among the nation’s regions.

Although this story does not allow us conclusively to assert the superiority of any single model for development, it does allow us to reach some useful conclusions.. It offers evidence confirming the dangers of models proposing a single path and destination for development, not only for aboriginal peoples but also for white settlers meeting inhospitable environments. Perhaps more usefully, it allows us to score a qualified success for New Deal development and regard for local conditions, with some caveats.

The New Deal’s reliance on local institutions helped it succeed where the American System failed, by mobilizing local knowledge about (for example) soil conditions. But local control also meant reinforcing the power of existing elites, at the expense notably of African Americans and Indians. Conditions did eventually improve for these groups: but ironically, owing partly to the forces of migration and markets, so powerful in myth and so disappointing to white settlers.

Thus we can end our story of American development with perhaps two cheers for the American System, one cheer for the forces of migration and mobility, and jeers for the occupation-by-force model of development—but all prove essential to understanding just how the US became a rich country.

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