Paul Mellon Professor of American History at the University of Cambridge
Author of Liberty and Coercion: The Paradox of American Government, and historian of the twentieth-century United States speaking and writing on issues of American politics, immigration, and inequality
Winner of the 2016 Ellis W. Hawley Prize of the Organization of American Historians, for the best book-length study of the political economy, politics, or institutions of the United States, in its domestic or international affairs, from the Civil War to the present.
American governance is burdened by a paradox. On the one hand, Americans don’t want “big government” meddling in their lives; on the other hand, they have repeatedly enlisted governmental help to impose their views regarding marriage, abortion, religion, and schooling on their neighbors. These contradictory stances on the role of public power have paralyzed policymaking and generated rancorous disputes about government’s legitimate scope. How did we reach this political impasse? Historian Gary Gerstle, looking at two hundred years of U.S. history, argues that the roots of the current crisis lie in two contrasting theories of power that the Framers inscribed in the Constitution.
One theory shaped the federal government, setting limits on its power in order to protect personal liberty. Another theory molded the states, authorizing them to go to extraordinary lengths, even to the point of violating individual rights, to advance the “good and welfare of the commonwealth.” The Framers believed these theories could coexist comfortably, but conflict between the two has largely defined American history. Gerstle shows how national political leaders improvised brilliantly to stretch the power of the federal government beyond where it was meant to go—but at the cost of giving private interests and state governments too much sway over public policy. The states could be innovative, too. More impressive was their staying power. Only in the 1960s did the federal government, impelled by the Cold War and civil rights movement, definitively assert its primacy. But as the power of the central state expanded, its constitutional authority did not keep pace. Conservatives rebelled, making the battle over government’s proper dominion the defining issue of our time.
From the Revolution to the Tea Party, and the Bill of Rights to the national security state, Liberty and Coercion is a revelatory account of the making and unmaking of government in America.
"Terrific, engaging and deeply analytical. . . . An ambitious reinterpretation of American political history from the founding to the present."
–Beverly Gage in the New York Times Book Review, 01/24/2016
"Liberty and Coercion is a pitch-perfect analysis of the contradictions built into America’s federalist system. It’s serious and disciplined yet piquant, provocative, and highly readable."
–Mark Joseph Stern, Slate, 03/08/2016
"Gary Gerstle's complex book shines a light down countless twisted alleyways and switchbacks of America's past....[an] enlightening, alarming analysis."
–Elizabeth Cobbs in Times Higher Education, 01/14/2016
"Historians, politicians, and the public all seem to agree that Americans, especially when compared with their counterparts abroad, are libertarians at heart. Cambridge historian Gary Gerstle offers a provocative rejoinder to this assumption in his new history of the American state....[A] new way of thinking about the past and future of American politics."
–Best Books of 2015, Yale Center for History Enquiry and the Social Sciences, 01/25/2016
“Gary Gerstle is one of the country’s best and most thoughtful historians. He specializes in shedding light on important parts of our national story that we have overlooked. After reading Liberty and Coercion you will never be able to think about our founding or our present in quite the same way. Gerstle shows persuasively how both impulses were present at the creation of our republic and how the states retained an enormous reservoir of coercive power long after the Bill of Rights was adopted. This is a genuinely pathbreaking work.”
–E. J. Dionne Jr., author of Souled Out and Our Divided Political Heart
“This impressive analytical history of the liberal state—liberal in its quest for freedom, statist in its forcible claims and behavior—offers a compelling, original framework within which to consider some of the most vexing issues in American life, from the founding to the present. Written with verve and based on a depth of understanding, Liberty and Coercion is sweeping, reflective, and significant.”
–Ira Katznelson, author of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time
“As The Federalist Papers pointed out, an enduring constitution must create not only a government strong enough to accomplish intensely difficult tasks but also controls over the government that preserve liberty and autonomy. Tracing, explaining, and evaluating these delicate balances over three centuries require an extraordinary historian. That person is Gary Gerstle and his book Liberty and Coercion will shape how we understand American governance for years to come.”
–Jennifer Hochschild, coauthor of Creating a New Racial Order
“A beautifully intricate history of the twin impulses of American political life: the movement toward a more powerful state, and away from one. Gary Gerstle tracks this contradiction across its many different dimensions–from the states to the federal government, and from private morality to public policy–to shed much-needed light on the deep-seated conflicts of the present.”
–David Runciman, author of The Confidence Trap
“A landmark work of political history that will make liberals, conservatives, and radicals rethink their assumptions about the weak or strong American state. With great authority and muscular prose, Gerstle explains the development of the United States as a narrative of continuities and discontinuities, growing centralization, and enduring limits on federal power.”
–Michael Kazin, author of American Dreamers
“This outstanding, bold, and provocative book offers a sophisticated but very accessible exploration into the relationship between the state and governance throughout U.S. history. Gerstle writes with authority, economy, and clarity, and I can’t think of another work like this one. It will become an important part of the conversation about the character of American politics.”
–Steven Hahn, author of A Nation under Our Feet
“Liberty and Coercion is a much-needed, cogent, and deftly executed exploration of the American state. Gerstle’s lucid and widely informed argument provides insights never advanced before and will attract a wide readership. This book is a home run.”
–Daniel Carpenter, Harvard University