Recap: “Re-thinking the History of U.S. Government,” with American University Prof. Gautham Rao

The need for a “new historiography of the early federal government,” American University’s Gautham Rao underscored throughout his October 23 talk at the Kinder Institute, is predicated on the fact that the longstanding one doesn’t match the actual history. Until recently, literature has cast the nascent U.S. state as diminutive and weak. Prof. Rao pointed out, however, that if we ask different questions—in whose interests and for what purposes were federal institutions working in the early republic?—and if we look in different places—the peripheries rather than the metropoles—we get different answers.

Far from “soft,” the United States in fact bore some resemblance to Great Britain in its early years, emulating British imperial structures related to land, law, and commerce as it developed into a fiscal-military state. As Prof. Rao showed, though, the institutions of federalism often worked quietly, inconspicuously, and far afield from the scrutinizing public eye, which may have led to misconceptions about the government’s stature. Lower federal courts, for example, negotiated and strengthened U.S. relations with the greater Atlantic world, but often did so in the shadows. Similarly, land offices, customs houses, and army officials all bent the law to serve the needs of profit-seeking merchants and land-ravenous settlers in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, fueling the expansion of an empire that, because of its distance from the coast, was hiding—and growing—in plain sight.

Westward expansion, Prof. Rao noted in wrapping up his talk, provides perhaps the most glaring, as well as troubling, evidence of federal institutions’ clout in the early 19th century. Specifically, while the state apparatus might have seemed limited to those who were benefiting from its operations—i.e., white, male settler colonists—it seemed anything but limited to the native peoples who, whether through coercive treaties or physical removal, found themselves in near constant, often violent contest with the U.S. state.