I’m thrilled to be guest blogging this month, and looking forward to discussing the administrative state, political parties, and other topics. For my first post I want to bring up an interesting question that emerged in a review by Ted McAllister (and in the comments) from last week, regarding the origins of the modern regulatory/administrative state. Scholars often trace the birth of the administrative state to the 1880s, especially in two critical episodes: the passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883 which created the modern civil service, and (more importantly) the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887, which created the Interstate Commerce Commission. This history of the administrative state makes the late nineteenth century the critical turning point in American history.
This is a plausible, but ultimately I think a mistaken history. The regulatory initiatives of the late 19th Century were much more consistent with an earlier view of American constitutionalism that they appear at first glance. They were not necessarily harbingers of the modern administrative state. Tracing the birth of the administrative state to the 1880s is somewhat misleading.