The 2014 Kenneth T. Jackson Prize for Best Book in American history goes to Gail Radford for The Rise of the Public Authority: Statebuilding and Economic Development in Twentieth-Century America, published by the University of Chicago Press. Radford questions the common perception that public authorities are undemocratic, insulated from public oversight, and responsive only to market forces, and challenges the conclusion of many scholars that this state of affairs is intentional. Meanwhile her elegant account of these agencies contributes to an important debate among scholars about the role of public institutions in shaping the modern metropolitan form.
Radford’s study is a painstaking historical reconstruction of the development of the authority as a governing structure. The public authorities that proliferated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, she demonstrates, were earnest efforts to achieve public purposes and meet public need in the nation’s rapidly urbanizing regions. The designers of these metropolitan experiments were limited by the legal structures of American federalism and state constitutional limits on municipal powers, and the forms that took shape represented those designers’ best efforts to create public capacity, given those constraints. Any discussions of the these agencies’ operations and of the potential for improving them, Radford persuasively shows, must be understood in this context.
By scrutinizing these seldom-examined pre-World War II government corporations, Radford breaks new ground. She challenges the historiography of the Progressive Era by demonstrating that the Progressives who created these corporations sought to make them more democratic and not solely instruments of a top-down de-politicized administrative state. Radford demonstrates how the early ideas of Progressives, such as William Gibbs McAdoo, might lead states and the Federal government to democratize the investment of public capital and vindicate the initial promise of public corporate forms, starting an important conversation among scholars about the trajectory of public authorities in the modern era and efforts to both sustain and improve them. Finally, Radford’s meticulous reconstruction of these mundane and, to most Americans, invisible manifestations of state power will help historians grapple with a defining characteristic of American political culture: the disconnect between, on the one hand, popular indifference or hostility to state-building and, on the other, widespread reliance upon an ever-expanding public infrastructure.
Gail Radford is professor of history at the University at Buffalo, SUNY.
This text was provided by the UHA Committee for the Kenneth Jackson Award for Best Book in North American history.