Book List: America's Three Regimes

A new political history spans the 'deferential-republican,' 'party-democratic,' and 'populist-bureaucratic' eras.

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Morton Keller's America's Three Regimes: A New Political History. I was first introduced to Morton Keller's work as an undergraduate, when I was assigned one of his books (I can't find it on, which was surprisingly sympathetic to 19th-century businessmen. It was out of line with the liberal orthodoxy of the history profession of the day and, as I recall, contained some pungent passages. Those seem to be features as well of America's Three Regimes.

His three regimes are the deferential-republican, from the colonial period to the 1820s; the party-democratic, from the 1830s to the 1930s, punctuated vigorously by the Civil War; and the populist-bureaucratic, from the 1930s to the present. All of which makes a certain sense and will be reasonably familiar to those knowledgeable about American political history. What makes this book a gem is some of the observations that lie out of the mainstream of political history. For example, Keller notes that in the years after the Civil War, "Pressure grew as well on legislatures and the courts to intercede in the previously sacrosanct realms of private life: relations between parents and children and between husbands and wives. This was not easy work for a polity disinclined to involve itself in personal relationships. But the police power of the states provided legal cover. And the way was smoothed by the fact that much of the intercession consisted of the familiar government task of allocating property rights." As a result:

• Child support became a parental obligation, "a distinctively American development."

• Common-law marriage was no longer recognized, and marriage became a contractual relationship "that, like its economic equivalents, required rules and oversight."
• Married women gained the rights to make contracts and manage their own property.
• Divorce became far less available. "By 1887 the statutory grounds for divorce had declined from a peak of more than 400 to fewer than 20."
• Federal and state laws banned polygamy. Utah was admitted to the Union only in 1896, after the Mormon Church renounced polygamy.
• "Blue laws" prohibiting work and store openings on Sunday were passed and upheld by the courts.
• Gambling, widely legalized before the Civil War, was mostly prohibited. Lotteries were barred from the U.S. mail.
• States passed (mostly ineffective) anticigarette laws. Prohibition of alcohol was fiercely advocated but had been enacted by 1903 only in Kansas, Maine, and North Dakota. In 1918, Congress passed the Volstead Act, and in 1919, the states ratified the 18th Amendment, outlawing most alcohol sales.

By today's standards, some of the trends seem progressive, some regressive. Yet all swept the nation, and not by centralized imposition by a well-positioned elite but by the more or less simultaneous decisions of state legislatures and courts of various partisan composition. Today no one thinks that married women shouldn't be able to enter into contracts, and pressing for child support has been a position taken by liberals as well as conservatives. On the other hand, today's liberals certainly don't favor limiting the grounds for divorce, and many believe that confining marriage to the union of a man and a woman is a deprival of basic human rights. Sunday blue laws are regarded as regressive, antismoking restrictions as progressive.

What do these post-Civil War measures have in common? They were the demands of New England Yankees, the fiercest opponents of slavery in the territories and advocates of abolition. The Yankee culture was not shy about using the power of the state to regulate private conduct in the interests of morality, and morality meant the protection of women and children (by restricting divorce, among other things) and the prohibition of sinful or harmful behavior (smoking, gambling, drinking, working on Sundays). However differently today's liberals (or conservatives) may respond to this agenda, they amounted to a coherent agenda for certain Americans at the time. If the Civil War could be regarded as the Yankee Conquest of North America, this agenda could be regarded as the postwar Yankifying of the newly conquered territory. But not exactly a conquest, since it was acquiesced in or joined by legislatures that were never controlled by New England Yankees.

Where are we on the Yankee agenda today? In very different places. Prohibition was renounced by the passage of the 21st Amendment in 1933, and local prohibition has been abandoned just about everywhere. Cigarette regulation was never very effective—but recently has become effective because of high taxes and antismoking laws. Gambling, kept alive in revenue-starved Nevada in the 1930s, was revived by the New Hampshire lottery in the 1960s, New Jersey's Atlantic City law in the 1970s, and Indian reservation gambling in the 1980s and 1990s, and is now legal in some form in every state except Mormon Utah and multiracial Hawaii. Blue laws are gone. Demands for enforcing child support are resounding (though not always very effective).

Divorce is an interesting case. Up through the 1960s, many states had restrictive divorce laws. New York allowed divorce in cases of adultery only, so that in 1963, when New York's Gov. Nelson Rockefeller decided to shed his first wife, she moved to Nevada for six weeks to qualify for divorce. Within 10 years, no-fault divorce had pretty much swept the country. Totally forgotten was the Yankee argument that making divorce difficult protected wives. In was the argument that adults (or at least one of the two adults involved) should be able to do what they wanted. Gone was the argument that preserving marriage was better for the children. Divorce rates skyrocketed and stayed high, though they have declined somewhat in the past dozen or so years. But what's interesting is that, despite the emergence of religious and cultural conservative political movements, of movements promoting fatherhood and the sanctity of marriage, there has been, so far as I know, no significant movement in any state legislature to make divorce more difficult. Louisiana did pass a covenant marriage law, allowing (opposite-sex) couples to declare their marriage especially permanent, but evidently not very many Louisiana couples have taken advantage of this. This is not for the lack of culturally conservative state legislators around the country; there are lots of them, they are clearly in the majority in some state legislatures (such as South Dakota, which passed a law outlawing abortion, which was overturned by the voters in a referendum in November 2006). And many legislators, of whatever political stripe, are willing to advocate currently unpopular measures, in the hope of changing opinion and rallying support in the future; sometimes they are successful, as were the legislators in the 16 states (with over half the nation's people) who liberalized their states' abortion laws in the five years preceding Roe v. Wade. But few if any legislators have embarked on a crusade to make divorce more difficult, despite the serious arguments that can be made in support of such measures.

Why? I suppose you could point to the number of prominent politicians who have been divorced: Ronald Reagan, Rudolph Giuliani, Fred Thompson, John McCain. Or would have had grounds for divorce under pre-1960s divorce laws: Hillary Clinton. But I think it's something deeper than that. The New England Yankee creed of the late 19th century saw the state (and it was usually the state, not the federal government) as having an obligation to enforce a certain morality, one congruent with today's feminism in some respects and utterly out of line with it in others. Today's creed, not just confined to liberal elites, but much wider spread, is to allow individual autonomy to trump other concerns. Divorce may not be good for the kids (very few kids would vote for their parents to divorce), but it may be good for one or both spouses, so it's OK. Abortion (prohibited by many late-19th-century laws) may not be good for the unborn child, but it may be good for the "mother," so it's OK. So is alcohol consumption but not smoking tobacco, a predominantly lower-class habit these days though not demonstrably more unhealthful; so, for many libertarians as well as liberals, is marijuana smoking. Advocates of same-sex marriage seek not so much the toleration given to common-law marriage in the years before the Civil War (although that is the goal, I suppose, of those who would settle for civil unions) as the sanction that the Yankee reformers gave to opposite-sex marriage in the years after.

Can I go from these observations to a more general theory of American history? Let me try. The natural state of America, in my theory, is decentralized toleration: We stand together because we can live apart. We are, most of the time, the nation described by Alexis de Tocqueville, made up of various ethnic, religious, and racial strands who believe fervently that we can live and triumph together if we allow one another to observe our local mores. We can embody David Hackett Fischer's "four British folkways" and at the same time be a united people. There's a tension in that, which threatens to come apart. In the midcentury America of the 1850s, the threat was that we would come apart: We had an explosive political conflagration over the issue of slavery in the territories and an explosive ethnic conflagration in the decade that had the largest immigrant influx, in percentage of pre-existing population, of any decade in our history. Citations: Kenneth Stampp's America in 1857; the opening chapters in James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom. And in fact, we produced a civil war.

We had the opposite situation in the midcentury America of the 1950s. After the shared experiences of the Depression and World War II, with universal institutions like the comprehensive high school, the military draft, and the big factory workforces represented by giant industrial unions, we were a culturally more uniform country than we have been before or since. We were a nation of conformism, of the regular guy, of the average guy who gets along with his peers. Citations: David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd; William H. Whyte's The Organization Man. It was a society, to take one example, far more hostile to homosexuality: The midcentury society of the 1850s could evidently tolerate Ishmael and Queequeeg sleeping together in Moby Dick and the poems of Walt Whitman, while the midcentury society of the 1950s cast its eyes away from the obvious gayness of the early Gore Vidal and Truman Capote and Roy Cohn.

The Civil War, the imposition of New England Yankee mores in the way described by Morton Keller, and the creation of national business and professional organizations described by Robert Wiebe in The Search for Order 1877-1910 reversed the extreme decentralization of the 1850s. The cultural rebellions, to the left and the right, described recently in neat form by Brink Lindsey's The Age of Abundance reversed the extreme centralization of the 1950s.

For those of us who grew up in the backwash of the 1950s, this decentralization seemed like an abandonment of American tradition. In the long line of history, I think it is more like a reversion to norm. The seeming inconsistency of currently prevailing attitudes on marriage and divorce, gambling and drinking, cigarette smoking and marijuana smoking, is part of the continuing turmoil of a decentralized society. The results don't cohere, but perhaps that is to be expected in a society like ours.

Or so my theory runs. Maybe there's a book in it.