U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Myths of American History

I just got my new (June 2008) copy of the AHR, which contains two of the best articles that I have read in a long time. Francois Furstenberg leads off with an article entitled “The Significance of the Trans-Appalachian Frontier in Atlantic History.” The title is prosaic only on first glance. Furstenberg alludes, of course, to Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous 1894 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” The allusion suggests the larger purposes of Furstenberg’s project. He claims that the trans-Appalachian West stood at the center of the struggle between British, French, Spanish, American, and Native American national and imperial designs. The long war for the West was fought between these various players from 1754-1815. In making his argument, Furstenberg moves in and out of each of these national and imperial histories, drawing upon a wide array of archival and secondary sources. The result is remarkable. His article inserts the struggle for the West into a broader narrative of imperial conquest, taking Turner’s claim that the West was at the center of the American narrative and marrying it to insights of Albert Bushnell Hart’s imperial school, to provide an astonishing reinterpretation that will be my starting point for this period in the future.

William J. Novak offers an article entitled “The Myth of the ‘Weak’ American State.” Turner’s ghost hovers over this article as well. Novak claims that much American historical writing labors under the false notion that the United States has, particularly compared to European model, always had a weak state. Such an understanding draws upon continental European social theory, which establishes the centralized governmental structures of the continent as the dominant model. Compared to those models, the United States is “weak.” But Novak argues that “weak” and “strong” are not adequate analytic categories. Drawing upon the sociologist Michael Mann, Novak makes the distinction between “despotic” and “infrastructural” power. Despotic power “refers to the organizational capacity of state elites to rule unchecked by other centers of power or by civil society. Infrastructral power, in contrast, refers to the positive capacity of the state to ‘penetrate civil society’ and implement policies throughout a given territory” (p. 763). The American state, which is designed to prevent despotic power, still has an extensive infrastructural power network, so that power is diffuse but still elaborate and highly effective. Coming to terms with this extensive and decentralized regulatory apparatus requires the rejection of the post-Turnerian American narrative, which sees the frontier as the crucible of American individualism and goes hand in hand with the idea of a weak state. Ralph Henry Gabriel’s The Course of American Democratic Thought is one example in this vein. In its place, Novak suggests that scholars need to look at the actual operations of state power and regulation, rather than simply assuming and promoting a central component of the American myth. The essay concludes with several suggestions for conceptualizing the American state that grow from American, rather than continental European, thought. I first came in contact with Novak’s work from his book, The People’s Welfare (1996), which is a marvelous study in how the extensive but decentralized state apparatus worked in the 19th century and is included on my graduate reading list. Novak’s book, along with the work of Ken I. Kersch, Constructing Civil Liberties (2004) and the other scholars that Novak mentions in his essay, promises to reshape our understanding of American state and constitutional development. This essay will be the subject of a forum in the next AHR, so we can look forward to see what others have made of Novak’s argument.

What both of these astonishing (and beautifully written) articles do is strip away the myths of American history, point to the continuous operations and struggle over power in the American past, and reconceptualize the place of American history in relation to the rest of the world. You would be cheating yourself if you did not read these two articles very soon–and in a world full of stuff to read, I never say that lightly. -DS

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I agree that the Novak article is highly worthwhile reading. Pertinent to intellectual historians, Novak argues that, in order to better understand the workings of the American state, scholars should ditch the continental theoretical frameworks of Weber and such, who conceptualized the nation-state according to degrees of centralization (despotic power). Instead, he pleads a return to the pragmatists, saying they better understood the American state because instead of focusing on an abstract, formal, centralized state, they paid attention to the real, sometimes diffuse, on-the-ground workings of American state power.


  2. David,

    Thanks for underscoring these. The Novak article also sounds like an historical means by which to argue against the legal/constitutional law philosophy of “strict constructivism” (or “originalism” or “textualism,” if you prefer). It’s not about state’s rights (i.e. weak federalism) or federalism, but about the proper relation between two necessary entities. It would seem that federalist paper debates about protecting minority rights/voices would figure largely in Novak’s article.

    – TL

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