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State Capacity and Bureaucratic Autonomy in the Early United States: The Case of the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 August 2012

William D. Adler*
Affiliation:
Johns Hopkins University

Abstract

This article reconsiders early American state capacity through a close examination of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. The topographical corps, a bureau in the antebellum War Department, developed a form of conditional bureaucratic autonomy far earlier than recognized in previous scholarship, giving it a central role in shaping national economic development policies, especially in the nation's periphery. Unlike robust bureaucratic autonomy, such as that described by Daniel Carpenter (2001, 2010; see footnote 4), conditional autonomy is highly contingent and can quickly fracture if the surrounding environment changes. The long-serving chief of the corps, Col. John J. Abert, shaped the opinions of his supposed principals by managing the ideas, information, and proposals directed to them. When faced with challenges, the corps proved to be a flexible organization that adapted its methods to accomplish its preferred ultimate goals using different instruments. In the end, however, the corps' autonomy was threatened when it became involved in the sectional politics surrounding the potential building of a transcontinental railroad line. Once the corps lost several of the conditions supporting its autonomy, its downfall was swift. This article thus joins a recent wave of scholarship highlighting strengths within the early American state by foregrounding the role of the armed forces in statebuilding.

Type
The Military in American Political Development
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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Footnotes

*

For their advice on this and previous versions, I would like to thank Daniel Carpenter, Ruth Anne French-Hodson, Jonathan Keller, Andrew Polsky, Daniel Skinner, and the anonymous reviewers.

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41. Dearborn to Decius Wadsworth, April 7, 1802, in National Archives, Records of the Office of the Secretary of War (RG 107), Letters Sent by the Secretary of War Relating to Military Affairs, 1800–1889; Dearborn to Eli Whitney, June 16, 1801, in National Archives, Records of the Office of the Secretary of War (RG 107), Miscellaneous Letters Sent by the Secretary of War, 1800–1809.

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46. Angevine, The Railroad and the State, 22–24; Shallat, Structures in the Stream, 80.

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67. George W. Crawford to Colonel J. J. Abert, July 11, 1849, in Report of the Secretary of War, November 30, 1849, 31st Congress, 1st Session, S. Ex. Doc. 1.

68. Jefferson Davis to Brevet Brigadier General Joseph G. Totten, Chief Engineer, April 5, 1853; Davis to Governor Isaac J. Stevens, Washington Territory, April 8, 1853; and Davis to Lt. R. S. Williamson, May 6, 1853, all in National Archives, Records of the Office of the Secretary of War (RG 107), Letters Sent by the Secretary of War Relating to Military Affairs, 1800–1889; Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, chapter 7.

69. Angevine, The Railroad and the State, 117.

70. Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, chapter 8; Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire: The Explorer and Scientist in the Winning of the American West (New York: Norton, 1978 [1966]), chapter 8Google Scholar.

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75. Schubert, The Nation Builders, chapter 1; Shallat, Structures in the Stream, 43–62.

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77. Ryan, “War Department Topographical Bureau,” 47–48.

78. Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Volume 14, January 19, 1821.

79. Ibid; Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 16th Congress, 2nd Session, January 19, 1821.

80. Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 16th Congress, 2nd Session, January 20, 1821.

81. Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 16th Congress, 2nd Session, January 20, 1821, 913.

82. Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 16th Congress, 2nd Session, January 20, 1821, 924–25.

83. Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 16th Congress, 2nd Session, January 22, 1821, 933–34, and Appendix, 1798–99.

84. American State Papers, Military Affairs Volume 3, Senate, 18th Congress, 2nd Session, January 24, 1825.

85. Register of Debates, 18th Congress, 2nd Session, February 11, 1825, 556.

86. Register of Debates, 18th Congress, 2nd Session, February 11, 1825 (quote on p. 554).

87. Register of Debates, 18th Congress, 2nd Session, February 11, 1825.

88. On Jackson's support for improvements, especially for western states and territories, see Malone, Opening the West.

89. American State Papers, Military Affairs Volume 3, 19th Congress, 1st Session, December 1, 1825.

90. American State Papers, Military Affairs Volume 3, 19th Congress, 2nd Session, November 18, 1826.

91. American State Papers, Military Affairs Volume 3, House of Representatives, 19th Congress, 1st Session, January 16, 1826, 185.

92. American State Papers, Military Affairs Volume 3, House of Representatives, 19th Congress, 1st Session, January 10, 1826.

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95. Shallat, Structures in the Stream, 152–53, for instance, only discusses Abert's actions from 1831 through 1838. Schubert, The Nation Builders, chapter 2, starts his examination of their campaign for independence beginning in 1829.

96. American State Papers, Military Affairs Volume 3, House of Representatives, 19th Congress, 2nd Session, January 2, 1827.

97. Ibid.

98. American State Papers, Military Affairs Volume 3, House of Representatives, 19th Congress, 2nd Session, January 2, 1827.

99. H.R. 345, 19th Congress, 2nd Session, January 5, 1827.

100. Niles' Weekly Register, November 5, 1825, 157.

101. Niles' Weekly Register, October 22, 1825, 121. Emphasis in the original.

102. The Literary Casket, November 11, 1826, 155; North American, Or, Weekly Journal of Politics, Science, and Literature, November 10, 1827, 202.

103. Schubert, The Nation Builders, 17.

104. Quoted in Ryan, “War Department Topographical Bureau,” 75.

105. H.R. 57, 21st Congress, 1st Session, January 4, 1830; H.R. 96, 22nd Congress, 1st Session, December 23, 1831; Register of Debates, House of Representatives, 21st Congress, 1st Session, March 31, 1830; American State Papers, Military Affairs Volume 4, 21st Congress, 2nd Session, January 14, 1831.

106. Annual Report of the Secretary of War, Lewis Cass, November 21, 1831, 22nd Congress, 1st Session, H. Doc. 2; Schubert, The Nation Builders, 19–20.

107. Annual Report of the Secretary of War, Lewis Cass, November 21, 1831, 22nd Congress, 1st Session, H. Doc. 2; Shallat, Structures in the Stream, 139–40.

108. Register of Debates, Senate, 22nd Congress, 1st Session, June 1, 1832. The bill is S. 137, 22nd Congress, 1st Session, March 5, 1832, also noted in Journal of the Senate of the United States of America, Volume 21, March 5, 1832, when it passed to a second reading.

109. Register of Debates, Senate, 22nd Congress, 1st Session, June 1, 1832.

110. Report from the Topographical Bureau, November 7, 1831, 22nd Congress, 1st Session, H. Doc. 2; Report from the Topographical Bureau, October 30, 1834, 23rd Congress, 2nd Session, S. Doc. 1.

111. Register of Debates, Senate, 23rd Congress, 2nd Session, December 16, 1834.

112. H.R. 567, 23rd Congress, 2nd Session, December 16, 1834; Register of Debates, 23rd Congress, 2nd Session, Appendix, December 16, 1834.

113. Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 9–11.

114. Ryan, “War Department Topographical Bureau,” 114.

115. Malone, Opening the West, chapter 4.

116. Congressional Globe, 24th Congress, 2nd Session, February 16, 1837; Register of Debates, Senate, 24th Congress, 1st Session, June 10, 1836.

117. S. 52, 24th Congress, 1st Session, January 13, 1836; H.R. 104, 24th Congress, 1st Session, January 12, 1836.

118. American State Papers, Military Affairs Volume 6, House of Representatives, 24th Congress, 1st Session, January 12, 1836.

119. American State Papers, Military Affairs Volume 6, House of Representatives, 24th Congress, 1st Session, June 23, 1836.

120. Congressional Globe, House of Representatives, 25th Congress, 2nd Session, July 2, 1838.

121. Report from the Topographical Bureau, November 2, 1835, 24th Congress, 1st Session, H. Doc. 2; Report from the Topographical Bureau, November 15, 1836, 24th Congress, 2nd Session, H. Doc. 2; Report from the Topographical Bureau, November 7, 1837, 25th Congress, 2nd Session, S. Doc. 1; Annual Report of the Secretary of War, J. R. Poinsett, November 28, 1838, 25th Congress, 3rd Session, H. Doc. 2; Schubert, The Nation Builders, 21–24; Shallat, Structures in the Stream, 152–53.

122. Report from the Topographical Bureau, November 7, 1837, 25th Congress, 2nd Session, S. Doc. 1.

123. Annual Report of the Secretary of War, J.R. Poinsett, November 28, 1838, 25th Congress, 3rd Session, H. Doc. 2.

124. Baltimore Sun, December 20, 1837, 2.

125. Baltimore Sun, July 17, 1838, 4.

126. Army and Navy Chronicle, February 27, 1840, 136. On the role of service journals in the continuing professionalization of the antebellum military, see Skelton, An American Profession of Arms, 204–5.

127. Shallat, Structures in the Stream, 170–72; Annual Message of the President of the United States to the Two Houses of Congress, December 5, 1848, 30th Congress, 2nd Session, H. Exec. Doc. 1.

128. Chaffin, Pathfinder, 95–97, 242–43; Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 65–108; Volpe, Vernon L., “The Origins of the Fremont Expeditions: John J. Abert and the Scientific Exploration of the Trans-Mississippi West,” The Historian 62 (2000): 245–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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130. Schubert, The Nation Builders, 27.

131. Shallat, Structures in the Stream, 106; Ryan, “War Department Topographical Bureau,” 143–44, 155–59; Schubert, The Nation Builders, 28–29.

132. Journal of the Senate of the United States of America, Volume 44, February 18, 1853; Congressional Globe, 32nd Congress, 2nd Session, February 18, 1853, and February 19, 1853; Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 262–65.

133. Hill, Roads, Rails, and Waterways, 135–38.

134. Baltimore Sun, October 19, 1849, 1; New York Daily Times, May 27, 1853, 3; New York Daily Times, June 13, 1853, 3; New York Daily Times, July 19, 1853, 8; New York Daily Times, April 11, 1854, 1; American Railway Times, July 7, 1853, 2; American Railway Times, June 1, 1854, 2; American Railway Times, March 5, 1857, 1.

135. Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 209–10.

136. Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, chapter 7; Angevine, The Railroad and the State, 114–19.

137. Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 341–42; Annual Report of the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, December 4, 1854, 33rd Congress, 2nd Session, S. Ex. Doc. 1.

138. Shallat, Structures in the Stream, 178; Ryan, “War Department Topographical Bureau,” 185–92.

139. Schubert, The Nation Builders, 74–79; Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 429–33. Goetzmann argues that the Civil War caused the destruction of the topographical corps, but his own evidence clearly indicates the loss of cross-partisan and cross-sectional support for the corps prior to the war's outbreak.

140. Risch, Quartermaster Support of the Army, chapters 6–8; Wilson, The Business of Civil War.

141. Wilson, “The Politics of Procurement.”

142. Wilson, The Business of Civil War, 57–58, 74–78.

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