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Boundaries of the State in US History

The question of how the American state defines its power has become central to a range of historical topics, from the founding of the Republic and the role of the educational system to the functions of agencies and America’s place in the world. Yet conventional histories of the state have not reckoned adequately with the roots of an ever-expanding governmental power, assuming instead that the American state was historically and exceptionally weak relative to its European peers.

Here, James T. Sparrow, William J. Novak, and Stephen W. Sawyer assemble definitional essays that search for explanations to account for the extraordinary growth of US power without resorting to exceptionalist narratives. Turning away from abstract, metaphysical questions about what the state is, or schematic models of how it must work, these essays focus instead on the more pragmatic, historical question of what it does. By historicizing the construction of the boundaries dividing America and the world, civil society and the state, they are able to explain the dynamism and flexibility of a government whose powers appear so natural as to be given, invisible, inevitable, and exceptional.


“This outstanding collection captures the full breadth of exciting new work on the American state. The essays challenge us to think in novel and creative ways about the binaries—state and society, republic and empire, public and private, federal and local—that have profoundly shaped historical writing on this institution. They powerfully advance our ability to comprehend the possibilities and perils of democratic statecraft across the entire span of US history. A major achievement.”

Gary Gerstle, University of Cambridge

Boundaries of the State in US History contains cutting edge work on the nature of the American state. It explains how the United States managed to accomplish complex goals, such as distributing its western lands, without an elaborate bureaucratic apparatus. The contributors to this widely ranging book force us to rethink our fundamental notions of the American state, such as its weakness in comparison with European and other states. This collection will become indispensable to political scientists and historians alike.”

Edward Berkowitz, George Washington University

“This resonant collection explores the varieties and powers of the US national state by taking its boundaries and limits seriously. Generating striking insights across a range of fundamental subjects, its thoughtful overviews and absorbing essays offer readers fresh understanding of deep-seated connections between political authority and both domestic society and basic global patterns.”

Ira I. Katznelson, Columbia University

“The authors of these essays seek to add their explanation of the meaning of the US state to the studies produced in sociology, political science, history, anthropology, and other social sciences in recent years. Their purpose is to clarify the study by explaining how the state operates and where power is generated. The essayists wrestle with the complication of disintegrated power evident in the US system of government. . . . As in all essay collections, some authors reach the goal of the project more clearly than others, but all of them offer perspectives on the subject that deserve consideration. Recommended.”


Table of Contents

James T. Sparrow, William J. Novak, and Stephen W. Sawyer

Part I : The State and the World

Gautham Rao
One / The Early American State “In Action”: The Federal Marine Hospitals, 1789–1860

Stephen W. Sawyer
Two / Beyond Tocqueville’s Myth: Rethinking the Model of the American State

C. J. Alvarez
Three / Inventing the US-Mexico Border

James T. Sparrow
Four / Rumors of Empire: Tracking the Image of Britain at the Dawn of the American Century

Jason Scott Smith
Five / The Great Transformation: The State and the Market in the Postwar World

Part II : The State and Civil Society

Tracy Steffes
Six / Governing the Child: The State, the Family, and the Compulsory School in the Early Twentieth Century

Gabriel N. Rosenberg
Seven / Youth as Infrastructure: 4-H and the Intimate State in 1920s Rural America

Elisabeth Clemens
Eight / Good Citizens of a World Power: Postwar Reconfigurations of the Obligation to Give

Omar M. McRoberts
Nine / The Rise of the Public Religious Welfare State: Black Religion and the Negotiation of Church/State Boundaries during the War on Poverty

Robert C. Lieberman
Ten / Private Power and American Bureaucracy: The State, the EEOC, and Civil Rights Enforcement

Richard R. John
Eleven / From Political Economy to Civil Society: Arthur W. Page, Corporate Philanthropy, and the Reframing of the Past in Post–New Deal America

William J. Novak
Conclusion: The Concept of the State in American History


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