Many political scientists and historians who study American political development (that is, how political institutions and practices have changed over time) argue that America before the Progressive Era was a “state of courts and parties” (this phrase was coined by Stephen Skowronek in Building a New American State). Skowronek argued that early America generally lacked the powerful institutions of government typified by other Western nations (i.e. strong bureaucracies, legislatures, and executives). America had these institutions, to be sure, but Skowronek and many other since have generally argued that these institutions were relatively weak prior to the 1880s or so, and thus most governance was conducted by courts and by political parties.
Recently, however, William Adler has suggested an important exception to the rule of courts and parties in pre-Progressive America: he argues that the army, despite its small size, fostered economic development by providing engineering expertise the nation otherwise generally lacked in that it conducted surveys, built a nationwide infrastructure, and led technological innovations long before the Progressive movement. Adler describes in convincing fashion the rise of the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers (a sub-unit of the Army Corp of Engineers) as a fairly autonomous bureaucracy in the several decades prior to the Civil War (especially the 1820s-1850s). By autonomous, he means that bureau chiefs in the War Department had significant latitude to shape policy without interference from elected officials (see Carpenter, The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy). Factors such as technical expertise, long tenure in office, lax oversight, and ignorance and disinterest on the part of elected officials allowed these bureau chiefs to pursue policies as they saw fit. Indeed, Adler argues that the Corps of Topographical Engineers “developed the ability to help shepherd their preferred policies into law or to create new policies on their own initiative when Congress declined to accede to their wishes” (Adler 2012, 110). Adler’s arguments suggest that some bureaucrats played an important role in state formation long before the Progressive Era and the rise of the “New American State” – and that bureaucratic autonomy developed, at least in parts of the army, much earlier than most scholars of bureaucracy have thought.
This article is of particular interest to us here at DPP because it suggests that the Corps of Engineers – the federal bureaucracy responsible implementing many disaster and emergency management programs – may be more independent than most bureaucracies are generally thought to be, both today and in the past. Even though Adler’s particular case study points to a bureaucracy (the “topogs”) winning turf wars against the Corps of Engineers, many of the factors he finds to be necessary for “conditional bureaucratic autonomy” have (arguably) been met within the Corps of Engineers at numerous points in its history. Further study is undoubtedly necessary, but by reminding us that the Corps has some unique characteristics and, perhaps, that it should not be analyzed in the same manner as other agencies, Adler’s arguments could pave the way for a significantly better understanding of how flood mitigation policy in the Mississippi River Valley has developed over the last two centuries.
Adler, William D. 2012. “State Capacity and Bureaucratic Autonomy in the Early United States: The Case of the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers.” Studies in American Political Development 26 (October), 107-124.