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  • Leonard D. White and the Invention of American Administrative History
  • Richard R. John (bio)

Nearly half a century has passed since Leonard D. White published The Federalists, the first volume of his celebrated four-volume history of public administration in the United States. Almost from the moment of its publication, White’s study was hailed as a classic. His third volume won the Bancroft prize, his fourth a Pulitzer. Solidly researched, lucidly written, and eminently judicious, it remains to this day the only comprehensive survey of federal public administration in the period between the inauguration of George Washington in 1789 and the elevation of Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency in 1901. This retrospective essay surveys the main themes of White’s great work, explores his motives in writing it, and considers its relationship to contemporary scholarship on the relationship of state and society in the American past.

From the vantage point of the 1990s, the magnitude of White’s achievement is easily overlooked. Few scholars today would challenge White’s bedrock assumption that the history of the federal government is an appropriate topic for inquiry. In White’s day, however, this claim was far more unusual. While historians prior to White had focused a good deal of attention on specific public policy debates and on doctrinal issues in constitutional law, they left the institutional history of the federal government largely untouched. Indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to suggest that, with the publication of these four volumes, White invented the subject of American administrative history as an academic field. Unlike earlier historians of American government, White took as his subject neither policy nor law. Rather, he chronicled the process of government, with a particular focus on key administrators, the crises they confronted, and the tasks they performed. White’s interest in this process was at once institutional and cultural. That is, he sought not merely to describe how the government worked, but also to trace the evolution of what he called the “art of administration,” by which he meant the general principles that administrators relied on in managing the [End Page 344] affairs of state. 1 In addition, and even more ambitiously, he hoped to offer some generalizations about the origins and growth of the attitudes that contemporary Americans held about public administration and its role in American life.

White’s first volume, The Federalists, was organized around the administrative ideas of the Founding Fathers, which White labeled “Federalist” in tribute to the coalition of public figures who ran the federal government between 1789 and 1801. The Federalists, White contended, were sincerely committed to the establishment of an energetic central government that would serve the public good. Toward this end they recruited well-educated, socially prominent, and morally upstanding men to fill the various public offices. “Federalists,” White explained, “accepted the philosophy of government for the people, but not government by the people. In their view, government could only be well conducted if it was in the hands of the superior part of mankind—superior in education, in economic standing, and in native ability” (p. 508).

White found especially noteworthy the consistently high caliber of the men who served in the federal government during these years. “Probably never in the history of the United States,” White speculated, “has the standard of integrity of the federal civil service been at a higher level, even though the Federalists were sometimes unable to maintain their ideals” (p. 514). Fraud and peculation, he reported, with obvious satisfaction, were virtually unknown, as was the sale of public office, even though this practice remained commonplace in Europe. Indeed, White found much evidence to suggest that, overall, public standards for officeholding in the United States were higher than comparable standards in Great Britain and France. Only in Prussia were the standards more rigorous, and the Prussian government, at this time, was widely regarded as the best administered in the world.

The Federalists’ achievement was particularly remarkable given the enormous scale upon which they operated. The federal government was newly established in 1789, yet it soon grew far larger than the governments of even the largest states. This was true, White observed, even though the state governments had...

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pp. 344-360
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