Framing New Interprepretations and Modeling Digital History

This project seeks to revolutionize our understanding of the federal government, and it seeks to do so through the revolutionary potential of the digital medium. 

Whose Big Government, Whose Small Government?

Among the most pressing and controversial questions in American public has been the debate over the appropriate size, scope, and expense of the federal government.  And when people argue about this subject, they invariably invoke the Founding Fathers.  Some emphasize the Founders’ stated commitment to a “small” government.  Others have emphasized the Founders’ repeated claims that the federal government needed to expand to meet new demands.  But lost in all of this is an understanding of what these terms meant in their own time.

Creating a Federal Government will provide the first complete reconstruction of federal operations and the federal workforce during this period.

Transforming our Understanding of American Government

Although scholars and the general public alike have long been fascinated by the creation of the federal system, the realities of federal governance remain a mystery.  Instead of a substantive analysis of policymaking, sweeping generalizations have led to the assumption that political economy (in the form of limited federal finances), ideology (in the form of fears about centralized power), and federalism itself (in the form of state political and constitutional prerogatives) combined to create a federal apparatus of extremely limited capacities.  In sum, the existing scholarship argues that the United States was not a “state,” at least in the institutional and bureaucratic meanings of that term.  But this portrait of the scope and operations of that government is the result of impressionistic deduction rather than substantive research.

It may seem odd that historians have devoted so little attention to the functional realities of governance in the early republic.  After all, a near-endless series of books have explored the Founding Fathers and the federal system they created.  But much of that work—whether for public or academic audiences—has tended to focus on individual biography, political theory, party operations, or political culture.  As a result, key questions that scholars of other eras have theorized with considerable sophistication—decisionmaking processes, institutional relationships, bureaucratic dynamics—have received only limited attention when it comes to the early republic.  How Americans implemented their decisions, how they actually went about conducting federal policy, remains the subject of only limited study.

Creating a Federal Government responds to this current state of affairs in scholarship.  This does not mean that the United States possessed some sort of modern bureaucratic apparatus during the early republic.  Far from it.  This project is both unique and important because it seeks to theorize early federal governance on its own terms, learning from the sophisticated analytical tools that scholars have applied to later policymaking structures but also challenging the inherent assumptions of that work.

Modeling Digital Projects in the Humanities. 

Among the important goals in framing this project as a book and a digital archive has been to suggest ways that scholars in the humanities can construct digital projects that stand alone while also contributing to a scholar’s specific research agenda.  By releasing all of the statistical data, this project will propose a model for how humanists can share their material.  Scientists and social scientists, often responding to the mandates of the federal agencies that fund their work, have longstanding practices for this sort of public access.  My project will model that process for the humanities. 

In the process, this project engages a variety of discrete objectives facing very different audiences.

  • For teachers.  The Archive will constitute a major new resource for teachers in history, social studies, American government, and civics.  Synthesizing materials that have long been inaccessible to students (either by their physical location or by the arcane language of the early republic), this project will provide a powerful new tool for training students in hands-on research.
  • For historians.  This project is as much about resuscitating the old as it is about demonstrating the new.  A generation ago, scholars in numerous fields demonstrated the tremendous value of what was generally called “social science history.”  For those who specialized in the nation’s political life, that meant using the first computational packages to analyze voting behavior and party organization.  Today, however, scholars are rarely trained in computational analysis.  Most political history of the early republic takes the form of humanities history, based primarily in a careful reading of texts rather than quantitative analysis of behavior.  This project deploys many of the questions first employed by the so-called “new political history”.  But it does so through newer analytical tools.  That means more than the World Wide Web as a distribution format.  GIS, network analysis, and distant reading all provide the means to conduct exciting new research on the nation’s political history.
  • For digital humanists.  Some of the best projects in digital humanities, and much of the theoretical writing on the subject, have been the work of scholars in literary fields.  Their subjects have emerged accordingly.  Digital analysis has concerned itself primarily with novels, poetry, and drama.  Creating a Federal Government responds to this approach by modeling how many of the same analytical techniques can be applied to other genres, ranging from letters to legislation.