Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Author's Corner with Max M. Edling

Max Edling is a lecturer in North American history at King’s College London. This interview is based on his new book, A Hercules in the Cradle: War, Money, and the American State (University of Chicago Press, November 2014).

JF: What led you to write A Hercules in the Cradle?

ME: A Hercules in the Cradle is the sequel to my first book, A Revolution in Favor of Government: Origins of the U.S. Constitution and the Making of the American State (2003). That book identified the urge to build a viable central state with adequate fiscal and military capability as a central aspect of the making of the federal constitution of 1787. Long before the book was out I knew that the response from many of my fellow historians would be to say: “Well, it may be true that the Federalists, with Hamilton and a misguided Washington in the lead, wished to create a fiscal-military state in America. But thank God, Jefferson came along and set everything right again in his ‘Revolution of 1800’.” But I was not so sure. The Constitutional clauses spelling out the fiscal and military powers of the federal government turned to fiscal and military institutions under the first Congress. I wanted to learn if and how these powers and institutions were put to use in early United States history. Although the fiscal and the military are intertwined, I chose in the end to concentrate on taxation, public finance and the funding of wars from the Peace of Paris to the end of the Civil War.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A Hercules in the Cradle?

ME: The book argues that the United States very soon after independence acquired fiscal and financial capacities similar to that of advanced European powers at the time. The federal government put that power to good use in the next century to get an edge over its American competitors until the United States ended up the unquestioned master of the North American continent after the Civil War.

JF: Why do we need to read A Hercules in the Cradle?

ME: I hope that A Hercules in the Cradle can help us better see the imperialist strand in early United States history. I do not say this because I am a critic of the United States in world affairs. In my work I have pointed to the similarities between the political development in the United States and political and institutional innovation in the rest of the world, primarily Britain, in the early national period. As a European there is nothing surprising to me about the fact that the United States built its greatness in part on war and violence. In their book Dominion of War, Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton say that “the long-term pattern of America’s development look[s] broadly similar to those of other large, successful nations.” I couldn’t agree more. So while remaining sensitive to what is unique about American history, I strive to interpret American developments as variations on universal themes. I also think that the book will be of interest to readers interested in the history of the American state and federal government, the history of finance, and the history of war.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

ME: My interest in history began in early childhood and was essentially romantic. History and historical fiction were variations on the tales and sagas that spurred my imagination. My grandparents also took me to an endless row of museum and historical sites when I was the right age. In high school I had a very gifted history teacher who was also a newly minted PhD. He made me see for the first time that history could be an academic discipline. But after a year of studying history at university I strayed into political science and was heading down that road when almost by chance I happened go to Cambridge, UK, for a year as a visiting graduate student from Stockholm University. I enrolled in the Cambridge history PhD program and became a historian of America. It is something I have never regretted.

JF: What is your next project?

ME: My recent move to King’s College London, where the History Department has a strong tradition of British imperial history, coincided in time with my realization that the conventional view of the American founding is misguided in fundamental respects. To paraphrase J.G.A Pocock, it seems to me that the American founding did not establish the first liberal nation but the last of the early modern empires. Here “empire” is not synonymous with strength but with diversity in the formal status of the territories, but also the legal status of the subject population, that make up the composite polity of the empire. The defining feature of a liberal nation is universal citizenship. The liberal nation is made up of individuals who as citizens are equal and have rights. Crucially, they have the same rights. As one legal historian puts it, the liberal nation is constructed as “a homogeneous space of rights.” Clearly this is not a good description of the early United States, which was a regime marked by diversity rather than homogeneity. Instead of universal rights we find here institutionalized oppression and inequality. Instead of a nation of equal citizens we find a hierarchically organized polity designed to maintain the privileges of full citizens by giving them rights over the labor, bodies, and resources of household dependants, non-citizens, and captive peoples. Instead of limited government we find a regime where the citizens shape the legal system and governmental institutions to defend and improve their position. I plan to write a history of the American founding as the creation not of a liberal nation but of a republican empire.

JF: Sounds very interesting. Thanks Max!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner