About the Project

Creating a Federal Government consists of two distinct pieces:

  • A book that investigates federal governance during the early American republic.
  • A major digital archive that will reconstruct the institutional profile, individual lives, and geographic distribution of the federal workforce

The book and the Website work together to chronicle the realities of governance, explaining not only what the federal leadership sought to achieve, but also how it sought to do so through a federal workforce scattered around the country and across the globe.  This project combines the study of elite decisionmaking with the operational behavior and institutional profile of the federal workforce.  It is a story that provides a new perspective on some of the most familiar names in American History:

  • George Washington: The first President emerges not simply as the stoic Cincinnatus, but also as an innovative figure in governance, struggling to develop a process of utilizing the resources of the federal government even as he sought to select the first men to hold appointed office in that government.
  • John C. Calhoun: Now remembered principally as a staunch advocate for state’s rights, he spent most of his early career as an architect of an institutionally powerful, bureaucratically centralized federal government.
  • William Henry Harrison: Now something of a joke for giving the longest inaugural in U.S. history only to succumb to pneumonia thirty-two days after his inauguration in 1841, Harrison was among the most dynamic federal officials in the early republic, transforming western politics primarily by launching devastating campaigns against American Indians.

But it is also a story that introduces Americans to more anonymous figures who nonetheless shaped the nation and its government:

  • William Charles Cole Claiborne: the territorial governor in both Mississippi and Louisiana, Claiborne supervised civil government in the Southwest for over a decade, helping transform the political, diplomatic, and racial landscape in the process..
  • General Edmund Pendleton Gaines: a middling army officer who found himself catapulted to high rank during the War of 1812, his military successes as well as his failures revealed the extent of federal power against both European and Native American opponents.
  • James Gibbon: a revenue collector whose career spanned the entirety of the early republic and exemplified the challenges of supporting the federal budget.

The Book

The project is currently entitled The Founders’ Government: Danger, Decision, and Leadership in a New Nation.  This book focuses on the relationship between elite decisionmaking in the nation’s capital and the policy implementation that followed.

This book explores an era when federal policymaking was a matter of vital importance and dynamic change.  Two forces combined to create these circumstances.  First and foremost was the novelty of it all.  The U.S. Constitution marked a break from both the older colonial structure of government and the more recent Articles of Confederation.  The circumstances of the Revolution only heightened Americans’ anxieties.  Most Americans feared that creating a government with too much power could unleash exactly the sort of despotism they claimed to have rejected when they declared independence.  Nonetheless, many also feared that creating a structure without sufficient resources could lead to disorder, economic collapse, political disintegration, and the eventual return of European imperial rule.

Second, and no less important, the federal system came into being in the midst of continental, hemispheric, and transatlantic developments that required Americans to regularly revisit just what sort of government they wanted.  These situational developments, few of which the Founders had predicted when writing the Constitution, created new federal responsibilities.  Dynamic international changes generated constant, shifting demands on the American diplomatic structure.  Territorial acquisition doubled the size of the United States and resulted in an elaborate system of federal administration.  Numerous military conflicts sustained a permanent army and navy that periodically underwent periods of intense mobilization, warfare, and demobilization.

The book begins in 1789, when the government created by the U.S.  Constitution permanently altered the structure of politics in the United States and, most relevant to this study, provided the means to create new instruments of public policy.  The inauguration of Andrew Jackson in 1829 constitutes an equally appropriate ending date, marking the start of different systems of patronage, a more democratic political culture, and wholesale changes in federal priorities for domestic and foreign policy.  Although the book will be composed in a narrative, chronological format, it will also pursue a series of thematic research questions: What political, legal, institutional, and cultural factors informed decisionmaking within the federal capital?  How many men served in the civil and military branches of the federal government and how did they secure appointment?  How did Presidents and members of the cabinet interpret the capacity of their subordinates to enact policymaking priorities?  What role did other institutions (Congress, the federal judiciary, state governments, etc.) play in shaping federal bureaucratic action?

The Archive

If The Founders’ Government explains how Americans went about creating their government, the digital archive recaptures the institutional profile of that government and biographical details of the men who served in it.

The Archive will provide a comprehensive perspective on the shifting composition and distribution of the federal workforce during these vital decades.  This will be a fully public archive designed to engage Americans in a study of our shared national past.  Americans have long been able to learn about the hundreds of men who came to the federal capital to serve as Congressmen, Senators, and Presidents, but they have never been able to see the history of the thousands of men scattered throughout the country who were largely responsible for enacting and enforcing national policy.  Long after Congress debated a bill or a President gave orders to implement a law, federal appointees had to convert national priorities into government action.

  • Career summaries for the nearly 4,300 men who received Senate confirmation to public office.  In an age when the Senate believed it should offer advice and consent for almost all public employment, this list ranged from cabinet members and federal judges to local customs officials and Indian agents.
  • Career summaries of the nearly 7,000 officers who served in the United States Army.
  • Career summaries of the nearly 4,500 officers who served in the United States Navy.
  • Approximately 18,000 men serving in the federal territories.  Located primarily in the West, these territories underwent extended periods of federal supervision before becoming states.  During those intervening years, public officials were almost entirely appointed, and they reported to a federal hierarchy ending with the cabinet and President.
  • Approximately 12,000 Letters of Application and Recommendation by Americans seeking federal employment.

The Archive will enable users to obtain information at the aggregate and individual levels.  For example, users will be able to ascertain the total number of people who served in the federal government at a particular time, the average tenure in office, or the shifting types of offices within the broader federal system.  But users will also be able to reconstruct individual lives, ranging from the most famous to the most anonymous, combining the records of federal appointment with other biographical sources. 

In addition to computing statistical data or reconstructing individual lives, the Archive will deploy a variety of visualizing techniques to represent these institutional developments.  Specifically, it will use geographic information systems (GIS) modeling to show both the extent and limitations of the federal system in special terms.  For example, a GIS map of Congressional representation would emphasize the dense populations of the Atlantic seaboard, but a GIS map of civil officials would show the opposite, emphasizing the West where most forms of public office operated through the territorial system under federal supervision.