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How Leviathan Ate U.S. History

Our range of political choice is withering, and we mostly don’t notice the cause. Federalism and civil society are dying in practice because they are dying in our social vision, unnoticed and unmourned. My long-simmering sense of this loss suddenly became clear as I recently did that most frightening of all human tasks: grading history exams.

I was teaching a class on the Gilded Age, a course that traces the decline of what the historian Robert Wiebe described as a nation of “island communities.” In the decades after the Civil War, Americans found themselves increasingly connected—by railroads, by the telegraph, by new national markets and an explosion of print culture—in a world that seemed to be moving faster every year. Fresh from a mostly agrarian society, Gilded Age Americans drilled oil, generated electricity, traveled easily across continents and oceans by steam power, and built machines that shoved aside an order driven by human labor and animal muscle.

They struggled to understand where they were going. Wiebe describes the chaos of the period as a “search for order,” one that emerged incrementally from many hands. Cities and rail lines kept their own time; rail stations kept different clocks for the day’s different trains. To synchronize schedules, railroad corporations created time zones and put them in place by the terms of their own, private agreements.

The process described by historian Alan Trachtenberg as “the incorporation of America” sought social stability and commercial standardization through a mix of private action, state regulation, and the efforts of an increasingly powerful federal government. Grading exams, I watched students translate that story in their heads. They turned it into the false dichotomy of our contemporary politics, a choice between brutal Hobbesian disorder and unlimited, benevolent federal power: things were very bad in the old days, so the federal government fixed them. Do you want a $4 trillion a year federal government, or do you want to live in Somalia?

Here’s an example. In Gilded Age Chicago, the flood of grain pouring into the city by rail was too much for the old-fashioned system of sale-by-sack. A world in which farmers traveled with their grain and bagged and labeled the wheat or oats from just their own fields as their particular product became a world in which grain was aggregated and poured into rail cars and silos in bulk. thisarticleappeared-novdec14 [1]

Meeting the need for regulation to make sense of that new practice, a private organization of dues-paying members—the Chicago Board of Trade—created standard types and grades: White Winter Wheat #2, for example. Farmers got receipts not for their particular batch of grain but for the type, grade, and quantity. The physical thing, a bushel of wheat, was abstracted. People began to trade those pieces of paper—and then to trade promises of future delivery. The market in commodity futures was born. So were new forms of commercial fraud, as grain inspectors took kickbacks to downgrade product at the point of purchase and upgrade it at the point of sale. So the state stepped in with new regulation, through the Illinois Warehouse Act of 1871, licensing and regulating a system created by the actions of a private organization.

Here’s how that story shows up in a third of the exams I just graded: in the Gilded Age, a growing market in grain led to bulk storage in grain elevators, which caused an increase in fraud. So the federal government stepped in and started regulating grain markets. There was a problem, so Congress fixed it.

Pick a story, any story, and that’s how a growing number of students hear it, no matter what the professor at the front of the room says. New York’s Bakeshop Act of 1895—the state law limiting bakery work hours that was famously challenged in Lochner v. New York—becomes an act of Congress. Early college football was a bloodbath, with players dying on the field, so universities formed the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States—the roots of today’s NCAA—to make new rules and control the mayhem. But in our history exams, it was the federal government that implemented new football regulations.

States and private associations are vanishing from the story we tell ourselves about our country. The loss is most certainly not limited to the classroom. A politically active family member recently spent an evening reading position papers from Republican candidates for the California Assembly. He wrote to them to ask why, while running for state office, they were mostly discussing federal issues. Candidates for legislative positions, they simply don’t know the difference.

We are centralizing power in practice because we are erasing the alternatives from our minds. We have forgotten that the regulation of human societies can come from communities, from states, and from civil society—and so, increasingly, it can’t. The world of the Affordable Care Act begins in our own conceptions. The growing centralization of American political power is a product of our decision to forget. Can we sustain federalism and a robust civil society if no one notices they exist?

Chris Bray is a historian and former soldier.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "How Leviathan Ate U.S. History"

#1 Comment By taylororo On December 30, 2014 @ 3:44 am

I find the idea that ascribing all the good things to the Federal government is a problem in our education system interesting. However, where’s the evidence that “a growing number of students” are suffering from this? Perhaps I am too young to know, but were the students of yesteryear so much clearer in their understanding of history?

If in my next life, when I’m a history teacher, this essay crosses my desk I will write: “C-, well written with an interesting hypothesis, but please cite your sources.”

#2 Comment By balconesfault On December 30, 2014 @ 7:07 am

Early college football was a bloodbath, with players dying on the field, so universities formed the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States—the roots of today’s NCAA—to make new rules and control the mayhem. But in our history exams, it was the federal government that implemented new football regulations.

It is reported that at least 28 college players died between 1900 and 1904 … and even then, there were still holdouts like Yale’s Walter Camp, who pushed back against radical rule changes.

So sure – the hand of the Federal Government was light in those days … Roosevelt tried to act as a mediator between factions of the college coaching ranks, and tasked the Naval Academy coach with pushing for reform from within.

But is your argument that the system, sans government interference, “worked” because it only took another 18 deaths in 1905 for college football to finally get around to making those internal changes?

Of course, now that would be moot – lawsuits would have forced changes much much quicker. Although there are those “small government” advocates who also want substantial “tort reform” to minimize the ability of the civil court system to pressure the free market via punitive damages.

#3 Comment By John On December 30, 2014 @ 10:16 am

Grading exams, I watched students translate that story in their heads. They turned it into the false dichotomy of our contemporary politics, a choice between brutal Hobbesian disorder and unlimited, benevolent federal power: things were very bad in the old days, so the federal government fixed them. Do you want a $4 trillion a year federal government, or do you want to live in Somalia?

Maybe there is less of a middle ground than you might think, especially when it comes to the rights of plaintiffs, employees and consumers, i.e., the general public, versus the power of corporate defendants, employers and owners of production, i.e., the rich.

How good a job was the city of Chicago or the state of Illinois doing with inspecting meatpacking plants for contamination or worker exploitation when Sinclair wrote The Jungle and created the impetus for the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act? How open were county sheriffs and mayors to offering striking workers the full protection of the law from hired guns in the mines of West Virginia or the oil fields of Pennsylvania?

The federal government doesn’t always get it right, but much of what they do is made necessary by the fact that state and local governments are so much more responsive to moneyed interests than their own people. Federalism is no better than the results it produces.

#4 Comment By jamie On December 30, 2014 @ 11:25 am

I expected an article about broad trends in education and historiography to to at least have more than two or three quotes from one man’s book and an interpolation of a single test question.

That said, I agree that high school history probably doesn’t put enough emphasis on the singular importance of labor unions in American history, and many kids seem to come out of school with the idea that unions are either things of the past, and/or are some kind of government entity.

I do NOT run into many millennials who believe passionately in the government as a source of reform– most passionate, politically active twenty-somethings seem steeped in an abiding faith in the Internet to right all wrongs.

#5 Comment By Johann On December 30, 2014 @ 11:42 am

Another example of private regulations are national and now also international technical/industry consensus standards. Examples are the American Society of Mechanical Engineers standards and American Society for Testing and Materials standards. Companies can actually use and understand these standards and the standards make technical sense. When government tries to write comparable standards, its a nightmare. First off, one needs a lawyer to understand them, and second off, the regulations are nonsensical and contradictory. The best they can do is make the appropriate national industry consensus standards mandatory in their regulations, which they often do.

#6 Comment By David Naas On December 30, 2014 @ 11:57 am

My high school experience was in the first half of the 1960’s, and my college experience in the second half. However limited and anecdotal my evidence, it is that students at any level not only were ignorant of history, but were positively indifferent to it.

In high school, this was disconcerting, but in college, when I suddenly realized people (mostly on the Left, to be sure) who were planning on careers in teaching, in the professions, or business were hostile to historical information that I began to despair. (“That isn’t a fact, it is only So-and-So’s opinion. WE know the Truth!”)

Now, over a Biblical generation later, we are reaping the rich harvest of what was sown then.

#7 Comment By The Wet One On December 30, 2014 @ 12:26 pm

Good article with worthwhile food for thought.

Thank you for this.

#8 Comment By grumpy realist On December 30, 2014 @ 12:46 pm

Dearie, you sound like someone yelling in frustration because people now rarely register their trademarks at the state level and usually go to the national level. Why? Because I’m trying to sell my services/goods into a national market, not a regional one.

If you want state and localism to be more important, you’re going to have to get rid of the highway system, paved roads, globalization, and the internet. Good luck.

#9 Comment By Harry Huntington On December 30, 2014 @ 12:46 pm

Actually it might be fairer to say that the lesson from history is that local rules inevitably fail because cheaters learn they can simply leave the jurisdiction (with the rules) or that they can pit jurisdiction against jurisdiction in a race to the bottom. Why did we need national child labor laws? Because factory owners learned that if you ban child labor in NY, you can simply build your factor in South Carolina. Why have national labor unions failed? Because the Federal Taft-Hartley Act allows states to dilute Union power with so called “right to work laws.” Had Taft-Hartley not watered down the Wagner Act we would have a far more middle class friendly economy today. Why do manufacturing companies outsource production to China? Because they can pollute in China and ship the goods made in dirty factories back to the United States. The take away lesson is that the key to successful reform is seamless Federal Regulation. The second take away lesson is that those who want to exploit others learn twist the Federal Regulatory process to block any effective rule-making.

#10 Comment By EngineerScotty On December 30, 2014 @ 12:51 pm

Now that Christmas is over, and presumably the war thereon as well, I see that TAC is resuming the War On Capitalism for the new year.

As noted by others, some substantiation of the claims herein would be nice. Right now, this reads like a complaint that someone somewhere disrespected the free market.

#11 Comment By Reinhold On December 30, 2014 @ 2:41 pm

“licensing and regulating a system created by the actions of a private organization.”
A system which immediately got out of control and had to be regulated even more. You’re right that ideas for reforms don’t originate in the state, but why gloss over the obvious?––The law is the only thing you can enforce, you can’t enforce your own private systems. If you want a society of lawful guarantees, yes, you need to go through a state. Same with the ACA: it’s a system of social INSURANCE, it’s an enforceable guarantee. You could not have that legal guarantee otherwise. Obviously the state has a long history of not enforcing or guaranteeing what the law promises, but in principle that’s the function of the state, and nothing else has ever had that function in our modern industrial societies.

#12 Comment By Dave On December 30, 2014 @ 5:00 pm

Have you considered the possibility that you have confused your students? When reading your example of the commodities futures market you said “the state stepped in” to which I first assume you meant the federal government. It was only later that I realized you meant the state of Illinois. If you weren’t clear that you meant “the state of Illinois” in your class then I can easily see the problem. Using “the state to define the federal government has become the norm, so you need to specify which state you are talking about.

I’d also submit that the likely reason California state politicians are talking about national politics is that they aspire to the national stage. Why limit yourself to state assembly when you can catipult yourself into Congress.

#13 Comment By Steve On December 30, 2014 @ 7:26 pm

Perhaps they have been reading the endless news of corporations shafting their customers and employees in small and large ways and can’t conceive of a time when those institutions had some sort of moral compass instead of a ruthless exploitation in the sole name of profit.

The government did not eat history, capitalism consumed it and has so effectively vacuumed up the crumbs that your students cannot even conceive of a past where that was not so. It is not their fault that history is gone.

#14 Comment By lynn On December 30, 2014 @ 10:23 pm

No we haven’t forgot that regulation of human societies come from communities, states and civil society, but you you have forgotten that the FEDS are not a group but a pinicle of the collection of communities, states, and civil society, and by the constitution manage this society in a ever shrinking global community.

‘There once was a time in history when the limitation of governmental power meant increasing liberty for the people. In the present day the limitation of governmental power, of governmental action, means the enslavement of the people by the great corporations, who can only be held in check through the extension of governmental power.’

– Theodore Roosevelt, ‘Limitation of Governmental Power’ address at the Coliseum, San Francisco, September 14, 1912

#15 Comment By ThomasH On December 30, 2014 @ 10:35 pm

As CS Lewis said falsehoods always come into the world in pairs. The market can do nothing wrong and the Federal government can do nothing wrong.

#16 Comment By Viking On December 31, 2014 @ 4:22 am

Interesting article, and thank you for it, but the subtitle is somewhat misleading. The “state” can refer to local or, obviously, an actual state government as well as the national one. The fact that so many students think the predecessor to the NCAA is the same as DC is indeed disturbing, however.

Incidentally, I’ve long thought that using the term “federal” government for what I called the “national” and for what I believe the Founders called the “general” one, is a serious mistake. A federal system is one in which there are different levels of authority, with the general government, the various state or provincial authorities, and the many localities within each state or province all having their say on different designated areas of statecraft. Subsuming them all under the name of the nation strikes me as contrary to the whole concept.

#17 Comment By the unworthy craftsman On December 31, 2014 @ 9:50 pm

As Gabriel Kolko demonstrates, most of the Progressive Era reforms originated with large firms seeking to protect themselves from rampant competition after the failure of the merger wave (the “trusts”) at the turn of the century to accomplish same.

#18 Comment By Andrew On January 1, 2015 @ 1:54 am

It seems that most of the commentors here misunderstand the point Mr. Bray makes in the above article in a similiar fashion as the students who took his exam. Perhaps some of the TAC readers here would do well to check out “The Myth of the Robber Barrons” by Burtom Fulsom or some of Tom Woods’ work.

Mr. Bray seems to take for granted among the “conservative” audience a perspective that sees individuals as responsible for the success of the Gilded Age; that many of the regulations were only a copy-cat response to practices developed by private associations.

For example, child labor laws only became feasible once American society was already wealthy enough that parents no longer needed to make their children work to avoid starvation. Another example: Unions could only bargain for higher wages once their work was productive enough (via more efficient production methods) that the company could pay their employees higher wages without going out of business.

#19 Comment By Viking On January 3, 2015 @ 4:09 pm

Andrew, I haven’t read “The Myth of the Robber Barons” (the last word is supposed to have just one “r”, isn’t it?), nor have I perused anything by Tom Woods, to the best of my recollection. So I’m not sure which point I and others are missing. Is it really comparable to thinking that local or state governments, or private organizations are the same as the national government?

On the child labor laws, I think you have a good argument. I would add that they would have never have gotten anywhere, in all likelihood, if we’d remained as agrarian a society as we once were. Not so sure about the unions and higher wages: we weren’t far into the Industrial Revolution before workers’ productivity had skyrocketed, even when adding in the increased costs of the new machinery.