Featured scholarship: A Federal Army, Not a Federalist One: Regime Building in the Jeffersonian Era

by Julia Azari

Our featured piece is by William Adler and Jonathan Keller, and it addresses Thomas Jefferson’s approach to the national military. It appeared in the November 2014 issue of the Journal of Policy History.

Subfield: American politics

Research question: How did Thomas Jefferson’s administration “remake” the national military to serve its values and aims? A strong national military was at odds with Jefferson’s suspicions of centralized government. The authors note that Jefferson had considerable capacity to redirect American public policy according to his own priorities, but that the military was left “very much intact.”

Methods: Qualitative, historical

What’s here for non-specialists: The main audience for this article will no doubt be students of American political development, especially those with an institutional focus. Adler and Keller use Stephen Skowronek’s political time thesis as their main theoretical framework, and they identify Jefferson’s adaptation, rather than complete transformation, of the military, as an example of the limitations that all presidents, even those who serve at “reconstructive” moments, face.

This argument should be of interest to scholars of institutional change and institution-building as well; the unique institution of the American presidency provides a potentially useful basis for comparing the relative capacity of political actors to change or dismantle institutions. In other words, if American presidents have limited to capacity to change institutions, are there other institutional actors – in the United States or elsewhere – who have the ability to do so? Under what conditions is institutional transformation possible? Scholars of the contemporary presidency may also find Adler and Keller’s argument useful. One of their arguments is that Jefferson’s ideology “proved remarkably flexible” when it came to the real demands of governing. This seems like a promising framework for understanding more recent presidents, who take office after running on big ideas but often find their plans thwarted by entrenched institutions and interests. The Jefferson case study produces insights that could be very valuable for those studying later presidential transitions.

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