Heading Abroad: A PhD Candidate Plans for Year at Harvard University

Rob Bates
During my year abroad, I’ll be completing research that will show that the United States’ incipient welfare state was more impressive in prospect than it was in practice.

In January 2020 I was awarded a Frank Knox Memorial Visiting Fellowship at Harvard University. The fellowship was named after a former U.S. Navy Secretary who believed strong ties between the United States and Britain were essential to international peace. It supports scholarly exchanges between the United States, Britain, and the British Commonwealth. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic forced me to postpone my plans, but so long as conditions improve, I’ll be heading to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the next academic year, where I will continue my research into the United States’ bureaucratic response to what remains the largest mass-casualty event in its history.

My doctoral research, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, explores the development of U.S. military pension policy after the American Civil War. The unprecedented impact of the conflict upon American society demanded new responses to the long-term effects of combat, exemplified in the creation of a system of pensions for survivors of the Union armies and their families. During the final quarter of the nineteenth century, this pension system grew into the most comprehensive and consequential social policy in the United States, consuming millions of dollars annually and providing assistance to hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries.

Between 1880 and 1910, more than a quarter of all federal spending was distributed to Civil War veterans and their dependents. The exercise of this responsibility represented an important vehicle for the development of the federal government and its role in American life. Far from being a welfare state ‘laggard,’ the late-nineteenth-century United States was, according to Theda Skocpol, a ‘precocious social spending state.’

During my year abroad, I’ll be completing research that will show that the United States’ incipient welfare state was more impressive in prospect than it was in practice. The federal government’s uneven bureaucratic development, its inefficient investigation of suspected wrong-doing, and its racialized conception of citizenship all contributed to the declining legitimacy of the Civil War pension system during the final decades of the nineteenth century, with major implications for future policy initiatives. In addition to providing a comprehensive account of the Civil War pension system, my goal is to make a significant contribution to the ways in which scholars understand the growth of the federal government, paying new attention to what its policies looked like in practice and highlighting the piecemeal, partial, and frequently paradoxical pattern of its development.

This work may have been delayed by the ongoing pandemic, but it seems more relevant than ever now. Understanding how governments develop in reaction to crises—how they go right, and how they go wrong—seems even more urgent today than it did a year ago. While I work on my dissertation at Harvard, I also hope to further develop my interests for future research projects, in which I intend to engage more directly with contemporary debates regarding the constitutionality of the administrative state by exploring the evolution of bureaucratic practice in the nineteenth-century United States and, in particular, the emergence of the federal bureaucracy as a fourth branch of government.

Rob Bates is from Newcastle-upon-Tyne and is a doctoral candidate at Queens’ College. His research, supervised by Professor Gary Gerstle, focuses on the development of the federal government in the nineteenth-century United States.