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‘Diffusion against Centralization’: Centralization and Its Discontents in America, 1848-1860

Thompson, Charles (2016) ‘Diffusion against Centralization’: Centralization and Its Discontents in America, 1848-1860. PhD thesis, University of Sheffield.

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This thesis explores how American conservatives in the 1850s used centralization as a term and process to understand social change, sectional conflict, and political economy, but paradoxically used opposition to centralization tactically to expand economic networks, extend state capacity, and rein in the effects of Jacksonian democracy. Opposition to centralization might seem an inherently democratic language. But a diverse group of northerners sought to reclaim this language for their own purposes. Drawing from revolutionary warnings against democratic excess and contemporary fears of popular violence, they tried to redefine the people as the greatest centralizing threat. The transformation of France from democratic republic to authoritarian empire gave conservatives an opportunity to show that democracies inevitably allowed power to centralize. But centralization also had a geographic dimension, and conservatives in eastern metropolises often used the term to warn against the growing power of rival empire cities and long-distance trade. Anxieties about consolidating divided municipal governments and concentrating voting power in a majority northern electorate also found expression in critiques of centralization. Yet historians have also identified processes of centralization underway in the period, and conservatives engaged with these too. Reformers embraced stronger municipal governments, city boosters pushed to entrench their economic dominance over expanding hinterlands, and pro-compromise unionists urged the federal government to intervene in the sectional crisis. Conservatives often supported these changes, arguing centralization without further democratisation was a necessary step. When confronted with disunion, urban disorder, and economic growth, they often backed centring power both institutionally and geographically in response. Denouncing democracy and rival cities as centralizers only helped conservatives legitimise their own centralizing agenda. Exploring how conservatives used centralization therefore highlights a sometimes neglected conservative modernising agenda in the 1850s, one that used an Early Republican political language but anticipated postbellum administrative rationalisation and democratic retreat.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Academic Units: The University of Sheffield > Faculty of Arts and Humanities (Sheffield) > History (Sheffield)
Identification Number/EthosID: uk.bl.ethos.713263
Depositing User: Mr Charles Thompson
Date Deposited: 15 May 2017 08:08
Last Modified: 12 Oct 2018 09:38
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/16891

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