In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Toward a history of the democratic state
  • William J. Novak (bio), Stephen W. Sawyer (bio), and James T. Sparrow (bio)

Over the past generation, the history of the state has been experiencing a much-noted renaissance, especially in France and the United States. In the United States as late as 1986, Morton Keller complained to William Leuchtenburg in the Journal of American History: “To say that ‘there is much still to be learned about the nature of the State in America’ is . . . a major understatement. There is close to everything to be learned about the State.”1 In France as late as 1990, Pierre Rosanvallon’s powerful introduction to L’État en France suggested that an ambitious history of the state could not yet be written because of the lack of works focused specifically on the state. As he put it, “L’État comme problème politique, ou comme phénomène bureaucratique, est au cœur des passions partisanes et des débats philosophiques tout en restant une sorte de non-objet historique.”2 As the essays in this volume attest, much has changed in the historiography of the American and French states in the intervening 25 years. The state has indeed been brought “back in” in Theda Skocpol’s influential words.3 In fact, the return of the state in history, theory, and the social sciences in both France and the United States has been so strong and successful, that the subject of “the state/l’État” has again itself become an intellectual crossroads—and a contested terrain—for new important debates and controversies concerning the French and American past more generally.

The essays collected here thus appear at a crucial juncture in a rapidly developing historiography of the modern state. As Alain Chatriot’s and Sarah Gensburger’s historiographic statements make [End Page 7] clear in the French case, the quantitative problem that plagued the history of the state for so long—i.e., not enough of it—has been remedied.4 So too in the United States, the pioneering texts of Theda Skocpol and Stephen Skowronek, together with the steady stream of monographs produced by the school of social and political scientists working on American Political Development, have decisively pushed the history of the American state in all its guises (from the fiscal state to the welfare state to the penal state to the warfare state) back to the center of American historical inquiry.5 And, needless to say, continued theoretical work in the traditions of Michel Foucault on governmentality, Michael Mann on social power, and Pierre Bourdieu’s courses from the Collège de France, recently published as Sur l’État, continues to enlarge and enliven the interpretive frameworks through which historians reckon with the state.6

Amid all of this real progress in history and historiography, some important problems and lacunae remain. Something still rings true in Rosanvallon’s and Keller’s early pronouncements that much remains to be learned about the state. For as much as recent work on the state has opened up new realms for understanding American, European, and even world history, it has also generated as many new questions as answers. New histories of the French and American states have brought cascades of new information about the exercise of power in those regimes, but they have simultaneously revealed significant limitations in our inherited perspectives when trying to historically explain and assess the disparate operations of state power across time and space. The essays in this volume are thus dedicated to more than taking stock of the extant work of the past generation, let alone declaring the major work done and complete (as in some recent attempts to go “beyond the state”).7 Rather, taking cues from John Dewey’s wise counsel that “the state must always be rediscovered,” these essays view past histories as but a prologue to a history of modern liberal-democratic states that still remains to be written.8

Historicizing the state

One of the most interesting consequences of the past generation of state studies is the increasing realization (reflected at some point in all of these essays) that the state we have worked hard to bring...