Gautham Rao


In 1983, William E. Nelson published The Roots of American Bureaucracy, 1830–1900. Nelson traced the somewhat unlikely emergence and victory of the bureaucratic model in American political and legal thought. This article summarizes the book’s argument and describes its reception. It also seeks to assess the scholarly legacy of The Roots of American Bureaucracy. I argue that the book was ahead of its time because it contradicted prevailing scholarly trends in identifying a significant federal state in nineteenth-century America. In particular, during the past two decades, historians and political scientists have built on Nelson’s insights to develop a consensus about an early federal government of limited capacity but significant capability. Nelson’s Roots of American Bureaucracy deserves appreciation for drawing scholarly attention to the construction and administration of the American state previous to the New Deal administrative revolution.