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Liberty and Coercion:
The Paradox of American Government from the Founding to the Present
Gary Gerstle

Winner of the 2016 Ellis W. Hawley Prize, Organization of American Historians

Hardcover | 2015 | $35.00 | £27.95 | ISBN: 9780691162942
472 pp. | 6 x 9 | 1 table.
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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.

Gary Gerstle is the Paul Mellon Professor of American History at the University of Cambridge. His many books include American Crucible and The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order (both Princeton). He lives in Cambridge, England, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.


"Terrific, engaging and deeply analytical. . . . An ambitious reinterpretation of American political history from the founding to the present."--New York Times Book Review

"Liberty and Coercion is a towering achievement, bristling with stimulating arguments and historical erudition."--Desmond King, Financial Times

"[A] triumph."--Bookforum

"[A]n informative and sophisticated account of the impact and import of this contradiction throughout American history. . . . [A] thoughtful and timely book about the character and constraints of American politics."--Tulsa World

"[A] pathbreaking interpretive approach. . . . By no means is this a book for historians only. It should be widely read, its arguments widely considered. And the evidence Gerstle adduces ought to be sobering for everyone."--James Banner, Weekly Standard

"A tour de force account of American governance."--Thomas Rodgers, Reviews in History

"[A] brilliant work of American political history."--National Book Review

"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

"Gary Gerstle's complex book shines a light down countless twisted alleyways and switchbacks of America's past. . . . [An] enlightening, alarming analysis."--Elizabeth Cobbs, Times Higher Education

"Provocative."--Alan Ehrenhalt, Governing Magazine

"[A] clear, wide-ranging work of political history. . . . He develops considerable evidence for improvisational state-building and draws out the problematic implications of relying on strategies that effectively expand federal power without the accompanying constitutional authority."--Choice

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Table of Contents:

Acknowledgments ix
Introduction 1
Part I Foundations, 1780s–1860s
1 A Liberal Central State Emerges 17
2 The States and Their Police Power 55
Part II Improvisations, 1860s–1920s
3 Strategies of Liberal Rule 89
4 Lessons of Total War 125
5 Parties, Money, Corruption 149
Part III Compromises, 1920s–1940s
6 Agrarian Protest and the New Liberal State 185
7 Reconfiguring Labor-Capital Relations 217
Part IV American Leviathan, 1940s–2010s
8 An Era of Near-Permanent War 251
9 Breaking the Power of the States 275
10 Conservative Revolt 311
Conclusion 345
Notes 353
Index 437

Other Princeton books authored or coauthored by Gary Gerstle:

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