The Civil War and Statebuilding: A Reconsideration

Gerstle, Gary 

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A favored way of interpreting American political development in the US is to stress the revolutionary effects of the Civil War on the American nation and its state. In this view, the defeat of the Confederacy interred states’ rights and concentrated power in the central government to an unprecedented degree. This central state, this “Yankee Leviathan,” in the words of Richard Bensel, first focused on creating a legal and political environment in which capitalism could flourish. In the hands of the Populists and Progressives, this same central state then developed the political resolve and administrative capacity to remedy the multiple ills that an unbounded capitalism had generated. By the time of the New Deal, big government, conceived in the tradition of European social democracy, had tamed big capitalism. What this account leaves out is how deep remained the commitment in the North across the Civil War years to keep intact the government that the Constitution had ordained. Many of the new powers assumed by the federal government during that time were justified by war emergency and thus understood to be legitimate only so long as wartime lasted. Even the profound movement during the Radical Republican era to move beyond circumstances of emergency and change the conception of governance permanently via constitutional amendment changed the balance of power between the states and the central government less than is commonly thought. The Civil War and Reconstruction may therefore have been less of a pivot in the history of the American state than many believe them to have been.

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The Journal of the Civil War Era
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