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Skowronek: Building a new American state

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Skowronek. 1982. Building a new American state. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Main Point

Industrialization and its ills generated the political demands that led to the creation of a strong national administrative apparatus in America (the building of the American "state"). The struggle by political actors over who would control this new apparatus yielded a constitutional stalemate that has lead to a confusion of institutional purposes, authoritarian controls, and governmental boundaries (i.e., has increased the power of the bureaucracy).


According to Skowronek, America initially did not have a "state" in the traditionally European sense (Skowronek uses the Weberian notion of "state"). During the early years of the republic, the government primarily operated through courts and political parties. This "state of courts and parties", as Skowronek refers to it, was organized with a regional focus for governmental action. Furthermore, it thwarted the rise/modernization of national administrative power late into the 19th century through its basic operating standards: patronage appointment, pork-barrel politics, and a radical devolution of power.

Eventually the pressures of industrialization and its associated social trends created an irresistible demand for a permanent concentration of governmental controls in the hands of a national administrative apparatus. Political reform was also hastened by the electoral realignment of the 1890s which ushered in an era of Republican hegemony. Once the Republicans lost their hegemony, however, a struggle for political power and institutional position occurred within the bureaucracy as well as a struggle for control over the bureaucracy between Congress and the President. These struggles between various political actors seeking to maintain or increase their political power and institutional position became the critical factors intervening and mediating America's administrative response to industrialization. In the end, the result was the emergence of an American state with a powerful administrative arm, the control of which is locked in a constitutional stalemate. This authoritative confusion has increased the power of the bureaucracy. Additionally, the new American state has replaced the vital roles that the judiciary and political parties used to play in governing the country.

Place in Literature

A macro-sociological explanation for the emergence of the modern American state. Skowronek argues that large social forces generated the demands that led to the creation of the American state as we now know it. He can be seen as arguing against Fiorina (1989 - Keystone) and Kernell and McDonald (1999).


Skowronek conducts historical case studies of the reform of civil administration, the reorganization of the army, and the establishment of national railroad regulation.

Chapter 1: Overview of the theory

The non-state state

The early American "state" was so decentralized, so open to societal influence, that European observers (Tocqueville, Hegel), didn't even consider it a true state. After all, European countries generally had an enduring bureaucratic class, ruling class, and so on that provided for a clearly defined "state" that was separate from society. But the early American state was simply the expression of society; society governed itself. American democracy developed so that people were heavily involved in governmental processes (largely via elections), but the state had yet to develop a strong, centralized, national adminsitrative apparatus.

Environmental changes

By the late nineteenth century, however, conditions began changing. Crises (X1), class conflict (X2), and societal complexity (X3) all required a stronger state than existed. These conditions stretched the existing state institutions to their administrative limits. As these three conditions were the basic catalysts for change, some deeper explanation is appropriate:

  1. Crises: The end of Reconstruction in 1877 led to the dismantling of a significant administrative machinery. However, America's new role in world politics (especially the Spanish-American War and World War I) prevented America from returning to its earlier provincial governing style, and indeed created a need for greater administrative power.
  2. Class conflict: The rise of a nationally-based market and industrialization led to new class conflicts. First, labor and capital began to conflict, especially as labor organization became widespread. Second, factional conflicts among capitalists (i.e. among merchant, finance, and industrial capitalists) created new political disputes. For the government to respond to these new conflicts, it would need new methods of administration.
  3. Societal complexity: During this period, America shifted from a agrarian, rural society toward an increasingly urban society, with a strong division/specialization of labor and new specialized technologies. As Durkheim argued, increasing societal complexity creates a need for an increasingly complex state.

Statebuilding as patchwork: 1877-1900

Soon, advocates of a strong national administration began pressing for reforms that would create a strong administrative state. But in this first phase, they did not win. After all, any reform that would occur would have to be a product of the existing political institutions. And despite pressures for reform, existing politicians and administrators had incentives not to reform the institutions that brought them to power. Thus, the first responses to the environmental changes were patchwork reforms: Although new institutions emerged to meet the most immediate demands on government, government elites focused on perfecting existing institutions rather than replacing them.

Statebuilding as reconstitution: 1900-1920

Eventually, however, the environmental changes continued to the point that a fundamentally new state was required. Advocates of national administrative development began to win support for a new national administrative realm. The bureaucratic state arose from this dispute. However, the new American state that came out of this period was not a perfect functional response to the new environmental demands. Instead, it was fundamentally structured by the pre-existing institutions.

The institutional context of reform

This is a central point of the book: As important as the environmental changes and new social interests were, a study that concentrates solely on these variables would predict more reform than actually occurred. The state building that occurred from 1877-1920 took place in the context of existing institutions, and the debates over how to reform the government were significantly influenced by this context.

Chapter 2: The Early (pre-reform) American state

Skowronek evaluates the early American state along three dimensions. Although each dimension, examined individually, suggests that the state was quite non-existent, adaptations during the early years produced a functional national state. Nevertheless, these adaptations--especially the procedural reliance on courts and parties--were organized around a regional focus for government action. And the environmental stimuli that arose in the late nineteenth century required a national, not regional, governing apparatus.

Organization Orientations

  1. Concentration: Compared to the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution concentrated a considerable amount of power in the central government. Later politicians tried to increase this concentration. For example, Hamilton favored central taxation, finance, banking, and military organization. Nevertheless, those favoring further concentration simply ended up in minority parties (Federalists, Whigs). Much power was left to the individual states.
  2. Centralization: Although power was concentrated, it was decentralized: The executive, legislative, and judicial branches shared authority, checking one another's powers. And despite Hamilton's efforts at centralization (empowering the executive), this is how things stayed.
  3. Penetration: Still, the government penetrated states minimally. States provided most policies internally. Even the military was organized around a state-run militia system of citizen-soldiers (today's National Guard). The only national institutions that significantly penetrated the states were the innocous ones: land offices, post offices, and customhouses.
  4. Specialization: Compared to the more centralized European systems, there was some specialization: The executive, legislative, and judicial branches all specialized in a procedural area. But Europe was moving toward considerable specialization within its ministries, with specific parts of government responsible for specific policy areas. Compared to this, the US system was remarkably unspecialized. On most important questions of national policy, the Constitution was vague as to who was responsible.

Procedural Routines

These organizational weaknesses led to an almost complete state collapse in the War of 1812. Soon, however, parties and courts developed ways of filling in the procedural voids and creating a stable political order.

  • Parties developed as a means of gaining and using political power. They were based less on ideology than on facilitating state operations: recruiting leaders, doling out government jobs, rotating people through office, and generally distributing material incentives.
  • Through a series of small decisions, the courts gradually built up the procedural underpinnings of a coherent state. As constitutional law evolved, the fragmented system of governmental authority gave way to a system of clearer responsibility for policy. The Court determined what the Congress could do and what the president could do.
  • "Where the parties are less notable for their substantive policies [i.e. ideology, policy platforms] than for the procedural unity they lent the state, the courts, though the most procedural of all institutions, are notable for their substantive definition of the law" (28).

Intellectual Talents

At first, lawyers used the guild-like bar to set themselves up as an almost aristocratic class. Soon, states forced the bars open, so that lawyers were less of an intellectual class. Nonetheless, lawyers provide the focus on procedural continuity that helped the state to function despite swings in popular mood. And as professional lawyers and professional politicians developed into two separate classes (rather than a single class of lawyer-politicians, as at first), this trend increased: Lawyers shifted toward "politically neutral legal advocates," moving America "toward greater rationality in the operations of the early American state" (34).

Chapter 4: Patching the Army (1877-1900)

After the Civil War, the army rapidly demobilized to its old provincial form. Despite several crises and a movement within the army for significant reform, even war with Spain was not enough to win the needed reforms. Instead, "reform" was simply a series of stopgap measures and temporary statutes.

The provincial style

The American provincial style involved a militia system, in which state militias were first to respond. The national army ("regulars") was really only to be used to guard the frontier and patrol for Indians. But militias weren't disciplined, professional organizations. It wasn't even always clear with clubs were actually militias and which were just social societies. And militia officers were merely political appointees.

The desired reforms

Meanwhile, the Prussian advances in military centralization and organization had been widely duplicated around Europe. As early as 1877, American army officers and scholars were studying these reforms and proposing significant changes to the US system. They argued that America's role in an increasingly global economy required a military capable of protecting interests around the world. Peace should be a time to prepare for war. Otherwise, the beginning of war would be marked by long inefficiencies and delays in mobilizing.

Reforms: They wanted control over staff/supplies (controlled by Department of War bureaucrats/appointees) to be held by the same people who controlled action at the line (a Central Commander who reported to the Sec of War). They wanted an expandible army, with a strong, regularly trained backbone of several dozen thousand men. This backbone would have regional battalions that would recruit and train additional soldiers when needed. They wanted to improve Westpoint, making it a better training school. They wanted specialized graduate training programs for specific military skills. They wanted merit-based promotion.

Though it was clear that there would be significant resistance to these reforms, those in favor formed a society and a journal, which helped the army supporters to consolidate around a common set of reform goals over time.

Resistance to reform

  • Militias: Formed that National Guard Association. Any advance by the army would hurt the militia's status. Wanted legislation designating it as the first-responder. But the state militias couldn't agree on what they wanted. Northeastern militias wanted standardization, some merit-based reforms, and expansion, while Southern militias disagreed.
  • Governers: Valued militias as plum ways of giving out patronage.
  • Democrats: Valued small government and states' rights, so didn't want a national army
  • Dept of War staff: Didn't want to have their duties swallowed up by the officers.

Impetus for Reform

  • Railroad strikes in 1870s were major and violent. State militias proved incapable of containing them. Some militias even fraternized with strikers. Army came in and handled it well, despite some difficulties, winning public approval but still not winning support for its desired reforms.
  • Spanish-American war: Won easily, but faced considerable problems. It was unclear whether existing structures were capable of fighting such a war. Unclear whether militias could be sent overseas. The army managed to do its job, but only with temporary legislation allowing some structural and funding improvements. But the needs of managing new colonial possessions suddenly made the importance of army reforms blatantly obvious.

Chapter 7: Reconstituting the Army

Reform eventually happened (see ch 4), but it happened in a context in which many interest groups had a say in the process. Thus, although the army became a much stronger institution, there were several horizontal connections from parts of the War department to Congress, creating confusing hierarchies and many opportunities for interests groups to influence future control. Nationalization meant development of several "semiindependent and competing power centers at the national level rather than the establishment of a national center of power" (p 247).

Thus, improving national administrative capacities had a double outcome. On one hand, the American state became more capable of action; on the other, there was a new set of operational constraints.