Title Reviewed:
Affairs of State: Public Life in Late Nineteenth Century America

Author Reviewed:
Morton Keller

Mansel G. Blackford


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 73, Issue 4, pp 334-336

Article Type:
Book Review

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Affairs of State: Public Life in Late Nineteenth Century America. By Morton Keller. (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1977. Pp. ix, 631. Notes, tables, index. $17.50.)

In recent years historians, led especially by the efforts of Samuel P. Hays, Robert Wiebe, and Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., have been reexamining the nature of late nineteenth and early twentieth century American history. Morton Keller's study is an extremely valuable addition to this growing body of literature. The synthesizing works of other historians have dealt primarily with economic and social changes, while slighting somewhat the interaction between these changes and politics. Keller investigates precisely this overlooked area— the public polity, in which he includes party politics, foreign policy, law, and government involvement in the economy.

Keller divides his study into two major part. The first covers the years 1865 through 1880. In this period he finds "the wartime legacy of active, expanded government" to have affected all aspects of the public polity "in Congress and the courts, in the victorious North as well as the defeated South, in a broad range of social and economic policies" (p. 35). Yet, even as the Civil War boosted the power of the federal government and led to an increase in its involvement in social and economic affairs, countervailing forces—localism, laissez- faire ideas, and racism—were at work against the nationalizing and centralizing forces. The second section deals with the relationship between politics and industrialization during the 1880s and 1890s. Keller views economic and social changes as causing major alterations in the public polity, but, again, he notes that there was widespread resistence to these changes.

Affairs of State is an important book for anyone interested in the evolution of American politics. Well written and organized, Keller's study brings together in a readable, comprehensive volume information from a wealth of secondary sources. The extensive footnotes provide guides for further reading. The most significant contribution of the work in this reviewer's opinion is Keller's amply documented assertion that tension between the old and the new underlay American politics in the four decades following the Civil War. Particularly worth noting is his conclusion that localism, opposition to government involvement in the economy, individualism, and the continuance of preindustrial values modified and slowed the nationalizing tendencies present in American life. Keller's findings suggest that the American experience was more complex than the works of other historians have indicated.

For all its value, this study has a few shortcomings. Keller occassionally overstates his case. Business and economic historians may question his statement that "the Civil War remains the great watershed in the history of the American nation," with an "agrarian, decentralized" nation on one side of the divide and a "nation of cities, factories, immigrants" on the other (p. 1). Most will probably see more continuity in nineteenth century American economic development than does Keller. By the same token, some historians may well question just how "distinctive" or "new" it was for Americans "to call on government to assist economic development" after the Civil War (p. 162). In fact, governmental bodies greatly aided economic growth in earlier times, particularly in the realm of internal improvements. Despite his generally encyclopedic range of knowledge, Keller sometimes neglects works which might have added to his discussion of certain topics. For instance, his treatment of the silver issue might benefit from some consideration of the studies by Walter Nugent and Allen Weinstein.

Despite its few problems, Affairs of State is a superb book, a "must" for those interested in nineteenth century American history.

Ohio State University, Columbus

Mansel G. Blackford

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.