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History Rethought

As a doctoral candidate at Brandeis University in the early ’90s, William J. Novak formulated a dissertation thesis that could have been dismissed as the unlikely conclusion of a presumptuous young historian.

But some 400 pages of meticulously documented research later, Novak, now a 36-year-old associate professor of history at the U of C, has garnered acclaim and serious attention for his assertion that the prevailing view upholding 19th-century America as a folkloric golden age of small government, unfettered individual rights, and laissez-faire economics is sheer myth.

Stemming from his dissertation research, Novak’s first book challenged contemporary political rhetoric. In his The People’s Welfare: Law & Regulation in Nineteenth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press, 1996), he argued that “19th-century America was home to powerful traditions of governance, police, and regulation that refuse to conform to our 20th-century ideological and psychological imperatives.”

The book’s conclusion surprised even Novak, who had planned to write his dissertation on the origins of the American regulatory state in the Progressive Era.

“I had always learned the old story that American regulatory history begins with the shift from a laissez-faire approach to the modern welfare state in the 20th century,” says Novak. “But I kept uncovering 19th-century precedents in every area of regulation. I don’t see a period from the mid-18th century to the present in which government and public policy weren’t playing a key role in economic and social life.”

Awarded the Littleton-Griswold prize by the American Historical Association as 1997’s best book on law and society, Welfare presents reams of 19th-century municipal, state, and federal laws that sought to affect the economy, the use of public spaces, social and cultural conditions, and public health and safety.

Wrote University of California law professor Reuel Schiller in Reviews in American History: “The liberal interpretation of 19th-century law and politics has been attacked repeatedly since the 1950s, yet it has demonstrated remarkable resilience. If, however, any historical evidence can destroy the myth of the stateless 19th-century, it is in this book.”

Welfare includes a list drawn up by the Illinois legislature in 1837 of 34 governmental powers that granted the fledgling city of Chicago the authority to prevent obstructions in public waterways, to restrain and prohibit gaming, to regulate the sale of spirits, to oversee the management of slaughterhouses, and to enforce a range of other rules.

In one of numerous similar examples, Novak points out how, as early as 1801, New York’s legislature regulated lotteries, guns, rents, ferries, attorneys, and lumber inspections.

Novak’s conclusions have implications for today’s political debates. As one book reviewer noted, Novak’s views, though supported by exhaustive research, “will come as heresy to any politician who got into office, or is trying to get there, on the usually reliable platform that the liberals, the do-gooders, the good-government crowd, and the meddlers have invented an overbearing and intrusive government of a kind we never had before.”

Although historian Novak refrains from taking a political stance on whether regulation is good or bad for the country, he goes so far as to warn that reliance on references to a golden age of statelessness represent, at best, a simplistic way of viewing history and, at worst, a disingenuous appraisal of American governance history.

He further urges the integration of more legal history into social, economic, and cultural studies and plans to set forth in his next book the interconnections among legal structures and social and economic conditions in the period from 1877 to 1937.

“If we must reinvent government, if we’re going to rethink welfare, health policy, environmental regulation, federalism, and property rights,” Novak argues, then “we should proceed on the basis of American experience rather than American mythology.”—C.S.