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Robert A. Schneider
Editor, American Historical Review

Last modified: Monday, July 12, 2010

History journal features exchange on myth of 'weak' American state

July 12, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Historians continue a lively discussion of the structure, capacity and function of the American state in the latest issue of the American Historical Review, whose editorial offices are at Indiana University Bloomington.

The June 2010 AHR cover shows a decoration from a noodle shop that provided a playful guide for translating the Aizu dialect into standard Japanese.

The journal began the conversation two years ago, when it published "The Myth of the 'Weak' American State," in which William J. Novak argued that scholars have long underestimated the power and intrusiveness of the U.S. national government. Because of the provocative nature of Novak's claims and the wide academic interest in the history of state power, the journal's editors invited three scholars to respond.

Their essays, and Novak's reply, constitute an AHR Exchange in the current issue:

  • John Fabian Witt, in "Law and War in American History," criticizes Novak for failing to acknowledge a large body of literature focused on foreign affairs as an arena where the American state power is most evident.
  • Gary Gerstle, in "A State Both Strong and Weak," contends the emergence of a "strong" American state was a recent phenomenon, connected with the transformation from a "gunfighter nation" in the 19th century to a "garrison state" during the Cold War.
  • Julia Adams, in "The Puzzle of the American State . . . and Its Historians," argues that general histories and textbooks may express the weak-state myth, but there "simply is not a vibrant American historical tradition of writing about 'state-building' that Novak can credibly take to task."

Also in the current issue of the American Historical Review are two articles that analyze the meaning of food among American colonists.

Michael A. LaCombe, in "'A continuall and dayly Table for Gentlemen of fashion': Humanism, Food and Authority at Jamestown, 1607-1609," uses the meaning of food as symbol, rhetorical device and basic human need to shed new light on familiar figures and events of the early Virginia colony.

Rebecca Earle, in "'If You Eat Their Food . . . ': Diets and Bodies in Early Colonial Spanish America," describes how "correct" foods were believed to protect Europeans from the rigors of the unfamiliar American climate. She argues that food possessed the paradoxical power to create or blur bodily differences that separated Europeans from colonized peoples.

In other articles:

  • Hiraku Shimoda's "Tongues-Tied: The Making of a 'National Language' and the Discovery of Dialects in Meiji Japan" examines the process of standardizing spoken Japanese from early modern times to the early 20th century.
  • Amy Dru Stanley's "Instead of Waiting for the Thirteenth Amendment: The War Power, Slave Marriage and Inviolate Human Rights" explores the counterpoint between Congress's approval of the amendment that outlawed slavery and its passage of an enlistment measure that freed the wives of Union soldiers in the loyal border states during the Civil War.

The American Historical Review, published five times a year by University of Chicago Press, is the official publication of the American Historical Association. More information and links to a digital version of the current issue are on the AHR website at