Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

From Hallway Conversation to the WMQ

· February 21st, 2020 · No Comments

By Gautham Rao


This article was the result of a moment of enormous luck.  I can remember exactly where I was when it happened: Saturday, April 11, 2015, in the lobby of the Massachusetts Historical Society, somewhere between 10:30 and 10:45 in the morning, in between sessions at the wonderful conference, “‘So Sudden an Alteration’: The Causes, Course, and Consequences of the American Revolution.”  I had just given a paper that previewed one of the big arguments of my book: that the history of the custom houses in the late British colonies and early United States revealed the activity of a formative realm of the American state.  I happened to be talking to Eric Hinderaker.  Professor Hinderaker probably won’t remember this, but he suggested to me that it would be really interesting to figure out what the term “the state” actually meant to early Americanists.  And that was it.  We told each other it was great to finally meet one another and took our seats for the next panel.  I scrawled a note to myself: “historiography of the early state???”  

This was an idea I’d had before, but never quite in these terms. There are dozens of articles exploring the state’s composition in modern America.  One of my mentors, Dan Ernst at Georgetown Law Center, had been asking me for years why there wasn’t an equivalent for the early American state.  When I went to conferences such as the Journal of Policy History’s biannual conference, or the American Society for Legal History, I was often asked whether all that governance in early America was the state, or something like it.  At conferences such as SHEAR, however, my friends Jeff Pasley, Max Edling, Richard John, Robin Einhorn, and I would often puzzle as to why our friends who studied the 20th century didn’t take seriously the idea of the state in early America. 

I could tell you that from that moment on I plugged away at figuring this out and writing my article, but I’d be lying.  The reality was that I worked on it in dribs and drabs.  I even submitted an entirely different article, which was a lot closer to my book argument, for consideration by the Quarterly.  That one didn’t quite work out.  Of course, finishing the book delayed any real progress on this piece.  Signing on as Editor of Law and History Review wasn’t all that helpful either.  There were some useful prods along the way.  The journalist Mike Konczal’s pieces in the Boston Review in 2015 and 2016, “Hail to the Pencil Pusher: American Bureaucracy’s Long and Useful History,” and “The Forgotten State,” were sound reminders to get back to work.  Superb dissertations by Greg Ablavsky and Kevin Arlyck had the same effect.  By summer of 2017 I managed to cobble together about 10,000 words but I would have to rewrite the whole thing several times for it to make sense.   

Or so I thought.  One of the funny things about being a journal editor is that I know how the process works—manuscript reviewers will always ask for changes, and their requests almost always make for a better article.  Yet I held out hope that the reviewers would be happy with the piece.  To some extent they were, but answering their substantial (and correct) critiques would again require rewriting the piece twice more.  It would also require incorporating the latest waves of scholarship on the early American state.   

I feel badly that I forgot to thank Eric Hinderaker in the acknowledgments of my article.  If it wasn’t for him—for that conversation and his casual bit of brilliance—I probably would not have written this piece.  So the next time you find yourself at a conference, chit-chatting between sessions, bear in mind that you may just have stumbled into your next big project. 

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