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However the American Revolution is interpreted—as a radical break from or as an attempt to redeem the past—the political mechanisms it set in motion have been generally viewed as seamless and uniform. While historians have debated the ideological effects of the Founding, often through a clash of republican and liberal principles, there is a consensus that the durable framework of the Constitution has guided and contained America’s political fortunes. By investing dynamic power in the people and its agencies, the framers displaced conflict from the field of contending regimes to that of contending representations, as competing constituencies vied for inclusion and power. In this respect, and despite the influence of globalism on contemporary theory, the American polity is treated as an exception: having cast off an absolutist past, the nation gradually refined, often with great sacrifice and considerable violence, an enduring democratic alternative.

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  1. 1.

    Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. James Schleifer, ed. Eduardo Nolla, 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012), 1:78. Subsequent citations will be given parenthetically in the text.

  2. 2.

    Here I follow the French original: “The state makes some general police regulations, but ordinarily it is the towns and town officers, conjointly with the justices of the peace, and according to the needs of localities, that regulate the details of social life and promulgate prescriptions relative to public health, good order, and the morality of its citizens.” See De la Démocratie en Amérique, deuxième edition (Paris: Pagnerre, 1848), 1:112–113), my trans.

  3. 3.

    Significant contributions to this vast field include Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815–1846 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); Alfred Chandler, Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1977); Alasdair Roberts, America’s First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder after the Panic of 1837 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012); Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977); Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984); Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of American Culture, 1815–1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Robert Wiebe: The Opening of American Society: From the Adoption of the Constitution to the Eve of Disunion (New York: Knopf, 1984); Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1998); Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2013); Tim Garrison: The Legal Ideology of Removal: The Southern Judiciary and the Sovereignty of Native American Nations (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002); Paul Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815–1837 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978); and Robert Abzug: Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

  4. 4.

    Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: Norton, 2005), xxi, xxii.

  5. 5.

    John Brooke, “Cultures of Nationalism, Movements of Reform, and the Composite-Federal Polity: From Revolutionary Settlement to Antebellum Crisis,” Journal of the Early Republic 29 (2009): 2–3. For other versions of the “weak state” hypothesis, see Stephen Skowronek, Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877–1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); Richard Bensel, Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859–1877 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Lawrence Anderson, Federalism, Secession, and the American State: Divided, We Secede (New York: Routledge, 2013); Jeffrey Selinger, Embracing Dissent: Political Violence and Party Development in the United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Daniel Mulcare, “Restricted Authority: Slavery Politics, Internal Improvements, and the Limitation of National Administrative Capacity,” Political Research Quarterly 61 (2008): 671–85; and John Wallis and Barry Weingast, “Equilibrium Impotence: Why the States and not the American National Government Financed Economic Development in the Antebellum Era,” Working Paper 11397 (2005), National Bureau of Economic Research,, accessed June 21, 2021.

  6. 6.

    Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power, vol. 2, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 59.

  7. 7.

    Brian Balogh, A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). For other applications of the strong state thesis, see William Novak, “The Myth of the ‘Weak’ American State,” American Historical Review 113 (2008): 752–772; Novak and Steven Pincus, “Revolutionary State Formation: The Origins of the Strong American State,” State Formations: Global Histories and Cultures of Statehood, ed. John Brooke, Julia Strauss, and Greg Anderson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 138–55; David Ericson, “The United States Military, State Development, and Slavery in the Early Republic,” Studies in American Political Development 31 (2017): 130–48; Richard John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995); Richard John, “Governmental Institutions as Agents of Change: Rethinking American Political Development in the Early Republic, 1787–1835,” Studies in American Political Development 11 (1997): 347–80; Jerry Mashaw, Creating the Administrative Constitution: The Lost One Hundred Years of American Administrative Law (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012); Stephen Rockwell, Indian Affairs and the Administrative State in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Aaron Hall, “Slaves of the State: Infrastructure and Governance through Slavery in the Antebellum South,” Journal of American History 106 (2019): 19–46; and Laura Jensen, Patriots, Settlers, and the Origins of American Social Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

  8. 8.

    William Novak, The People’s Welfare: Law and Regulation in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); and Markus Dubber, The Police Power: Patriarchy and the Foundations of American Government (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005). See also Novak, “The American Law of Overruling Necessity: The Exceptional Origins of State Police Power,” States of Exception in American History, ed. Gary Gerstle and Joel Isaac (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020), 95–122; Novak, “Police Power and the Hidden Transformation of the American State,” Police Power and the Liberal State, ed. Markus Dubber and Mariana Valverde (Stanford: Stanford Law Books, 2008), 54–73; Christopher Tomlins, Law, Labor, and Ideology in the Early American Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Tomlins, “Necessities of State: Police, Sovereignty, and the Constitution,” Journal of Policy History 20 (2008): 47–63; Tomlins, “Framing the Fragments. Police: Genealogies, Discourses, Locales, Principles,” The New Police Science: The Police Power in Domestic and International Governance, ed. Markus Dubber and Mariana Valverde (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 248–94; Tomlins, “To Improve the State and Condition of Man: The Power to Police and the History of American Governance,” Buffalo Law Review 53 (2005): 1215–72; Mark Neocleous, The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power (New York: Pluto Press, 2000); Gary Gerstle, Liberty and Coercion: The Paradox of American Government from the Founding to the Present (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015); Gerstle, “A State Both Strong and Weak,” American Historical Review, 115 (2010): 779–85; and Anna Law, “Lunatics, Idiots, Paupers, and Negro Seamen—Immigration, Federalism and the Early American State,” Studies in American Political Development 28 (2014): 107–28. On the gradual arrogation of Federal power, see especially Gerstle, Liberty and Coercion, 89–311.

  9. 9.

    Nicolas Delamare, Traité de la Police (Amsterdam, 1729), 4, my trans.; Michel Foucault, “Omnes et Singulatim: Towards a Criticism of ‘Political Reason,’” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values,, 248 (accessed June 15, 2021); Marc Raeff, “The Well-Ordered Police State and the Development of Modernity in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Europe: An Attempt at a Comparative Approach,” American Historical Review 80 (1975): 1226–27. See also Foucault, The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, ed. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 91–103.

  10. 10.

    Mark Neocleous, Critique of Security (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008).

  11. 11.

    Novak, The People’s Welfare, 4.

  12. 12.

    Gerstle, Liberty and Coercion, 61–69; Novak, The People’s Welfare, 167.

  13. 13.

    Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (Richmond: Thomas White, 1828), June 19, 1784, p. 68; June 22, 1784, 72; May 29, 1784, 28; June 10, 1784, 49; provisions of legal code: October 31, 1785, 13.

  14. 14.

    Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, ed. John Kaminski and Gaspare Saladino (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 1976–), 14:23. Subsequent citations will be given parenthetically in the text.

  15. 15.

    Tomlins, “The Supreme Sovereignty of the State: A Genealogy of Police in American Constitutional Law, from the Founding Era to Lochner,” Police Power and the Liberal State, 39.

  16. 16.

    Arthur Jacobson, “Hegel’s Legal Plenum,” Cardozo Law Review 10 (1989): 881.

  17. 17.

    Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (Florence, Kentucky: Routledge, 1984), 95, 100.

  18. 18.

    Nancy Jay, Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion, and Paternity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 20.

  19. 19.

    Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, trans. Anne Cohler, Basia Miller, and Harold Stone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), e.g., 9, 285; David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888), 61, 116.

  20. 20.

    Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, Remarks on the History of England (Basil: J. Tourneisen, 1794), 237.

  21. 21.

    The Federalist, ed. Jacob Cooke (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 259. Subsequent citations from this edition, noting both essay and page number, will appear parenthetically in the text.

  22. 22.

    Colleen Sheehan, The Mind of James Madison: The Legacy of Classical Republicanism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 139–40.

  23. 23.

    Commonwealth v. Cyrus Alger, 7 Cush. 53, 61 Mass. 53 (March 1851), 85, 96–97,, accessed June 10, 2021.

  24. 24.

    Cited in Jeffrey Young, Domesticating Slavery: The Master Class in Georgia and South Carolina, 1670–1837 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 168. For a discussion of Charleston’s police response to Denmark Vesey, see Kathleen Sullivan, “Charleston, the Vesey Conspiracy, and the Development of the Police Power,” Race and American Political Development, ed. Joseph Lowndes, Julie Novkov, and Dorian Warren (New York: Routledge, 2008), 59–79.

  25. 25.

    William Harper, Memoir of Slavery (Charleston: Burges, 1838), 9. Subsequent citations will be given parenthetically in the text.

  26. 26.

    Thomas Morris, Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619–1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 268; Michael Schoeppner, “Peculiar Quarantines: The Seamen Acts and Regulatory Authority in the Antebellum South,” Law and History Review 31 (2013): 565. See also Schoeppner, Moral Contagion: Black Atlantic Sailors, Citizenship, and Diplomacy in Antebellum America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

  27. 27.

    Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Random House, 1974), 3–10, 76–86; Lacy Ford, Deliver Us From Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 143–72.

  28. 28.

    Richard Furman, Rev. Dr. Richard Furman’s Exposition of the Views of the Baptists Relative to the Coloured Population of the United States (Charleston: Miller, 1823), 10.

  29. 29.

    The American Cotton Planter and Soil of the South 1 (1857): 295; The American Cotton Planter 1 (1853): 354.

  30. 30.

    Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams, 221.

  31. 31.

    W. W. Hazzard, “On the General Management of a Plantation,” Southern Agriculturist 4 (1831): 352.

  32. 32.

    Edward Laurens, “An Address Delivered before the Agricultural Society of South Carolina, September 18th, 1832,” Southern Agriculturist 5(1832). Citations will be given parenthetically in the text.

  33. 33.

    Southern Agriculturalist 10 (1837): 393; 12 (1839): 230.

  34. 34.

    Michael Young, Bearing Witness Against Sin: The Evangelical Birth of the American Social Movement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 67. Paul Johnson argues that, whereas many Northern evangelical masters saw it as their duty to oversee and care for apprentices and other laborers in their own families, that impulse began to wane dramatically by the 1830s, as the market revolution took hold. See A Shopkeeper’s Millennium, 43–45. See also Philip Scranton’s “Varieties of Paternalism: Industrial Structures and the Social Relations of Production in American Textiles,” American Quarterly 36 (1984): 235–57, arguing that antebellum factory owners extended educational benefits to their operatives, eliminated “noxious moral influences,” and engaged in “policing” (237).

  35. 35.

    Lyman Beecher, Six Sermons on the Nature, Occasions, Signs, Evils, and Remedy of Intemperance, 10th ed. (New York: American Tract Society, 1833), 82–83.

  36. 36.

    William Lloyd Garrison, Selections from the Writings and Speeches of William Lloyd Garrison (Boston: Wallcut, 1852), 51–52; Beecher, Six Sermons, 72.

  37. 37.

    Daniel Wright, “The First of Causes to our Sex”: The Female Moral Reform Movement in the Antebellum Northeast, 1834–1848 (New York: Routledge, 2006), 131, 133.

  38. 38.

    Michael Young, Bearing Witness, 148; Theodore Weld temperance address, November 15, 1832, cited in Abzug Cosmos Crumbling, 96; Garrison, “The Dangers of the Nation,” Selections, 49, 60. See also Lori Ginzberg, Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics, and Class in the Nineteenth-Century United States (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990); Carroll Smith Rosenberg, “Beauty, the Beast and the Militant Woman: A Case Study in Sex Roles and Social Stress in Jacksonian America,” American Quarterly 23 (1971): 562–84; and Amber Moulton, “Closing the ‘Floodgate of Impurity’: Moral Reform, Antislavery, and Interracial Marriage in Antebellum Massachusetts,” Journal of the Civil War Era 3 (2013): 2–34.

  39. 39.

    Young, Bearing Witness, 43; Wright, First of Causes, 235; Ginzberg, Women and the Work of Benevolence, 67–97.

  40. 40.

    John Brooke, “There is a North”: Fugitive Slaves, Political Crisis, and Cultural Transformation in the Coming of the Civil War (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2019), 159–202.

  41. 41.

    John Matsui, “Kindling Backfires: Cultivating a National Antislavery Movement, 1836–1838,” Slavery and Abolition 34 (2013): 472; Young, Bearing Witness, 76–77; Gerstle, Liberty and Coercion, 118–121. See also Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860 (New York: Knopf, 1986), 64–68; Ginzberg, Women and the Work of Benevolence, 40–41, 58–59; Daniel Walker Howe, “The Evangelical Movement and Political Culture in the North During the Second Party System,” Journal of American History 77 (1991): 1223; and Theda Skocpol, Marshall Ganz, and Ziad Munson, “A Nation of Organizers: The Institutional Origins of Civic Voluntarism in the United States,” American Political Science Review 94 (2000): 527–46. On interior states, fabrication, and insecurity see Christopher Castiglia, Interior States: Institutional Consciousness and the Inner Life of Democracy in the Antebellum United States (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), and Mark Neocleous, The Fabrication of Social Order, 45–62. Neocleous, influenced by Marx, sees insecurity in relation to property, rather than to disposition or status. On the relation between benevolence, imperialism, and insecurity, see also Michelle Moran, Colonizing Leprosy: Imperialism and the Politics of Public Health in the United States (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 19–29, 47–57; Michael Barnett, Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011), 54–56, 63–64; Paul Kramer, The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, and the Philippines (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 102–103, 117–119 (Kramer examines the post-war American campaign against Filipinos as a response to “American masculinist angst” [103]); Ian Tyrrell, Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010); Alfred McCoy, Policing America’s Empire: the United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009)—a particularly rich account of classic people’s welfare measures, colonial surveillance, and the effect of such practices on the United States itself; Amy Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002) [citation on p. 12]; and Stephen Porter, Benevolent Empire: U.S. Power, Humanitarianism, and the World’s Dispossessed (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). For the antecedents of this evangelical imperial project, see Emily Conroy-Krutz, Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015).

  42. 42.

    Paul Gates, History of Public Land Law Development (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968), 178–180; Malcolm Rohrbough, The Land Office Business: The Settlement and Administration of American Public Lands, 1789–1837 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 251–70, 301–302; Eric Hilt and Katharine Liang, “Andrew Jackson’s Bank War and the Panic of 1837,”, accessed July 7, 2021; and Peter Rousseau, “Jacksonian Monetary Policy, Specie Flows, and the Panic of 1837,” Journal of Economic History 62 (2002): 457–88.

  43. 43.

    For a discussion of the American security state arising from the federal government’s police power to address insecurity through public welfare, see Neocleous, Critique of Security, esp. 76–92. On the Wilson administration’s role in national security, see McCoy, Policing America’s Empire, 293–318. The federal government’s duty, Roosevelt said, declaring a national emergency in his first inaugural address, is “to secure the insecure” (Neocleous, Critique, 85).

  44. 44.

    Emergency Powers Statutes: Provisions of Federal Law Now in Effect Delegating to the Executive Extraordinary Authority in Time of National Emergency, U. S. Senate Report 93–549 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1973), 11. On Truman’s role in creating the national security state, see Michael Hogan, A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Origins of the National Security State, 1945–1954 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), esp. 1–22, 265–314. On the relation of the security state to police power (in the extended sense), see Stephen Porter, Benevolent Empire, 13–24.

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Fichtelberg, J. (2022). Empty Places. In: Exceptional Violence and the Crisis of Classic American Literature. American Literature Readings in the 21st Century. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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