LIFE, LIBERTY, and the pursuit of happiness largely depend, as the Declaration of Independence stressed, on the behavior of public authority, the texture of public policy. Yet, steeped in the myth of a "laissezfaire" past, most Americans conceive of their history as having been shaped with few governmental constraints. This study illustrates the central importance of public authority in the American past and reveals some of the ways in which governments shaped peoples lives in nineteenth-century America. At the same time, it demonstrates ways in which citizens sought to use government as a tool to achieve their objectives.
Nineteenth-century Americans, unlike their twentieth-century descendants, typically were more involved with state and local government than with federal affairs. This study of public policy in nineteenth-century Georgia traces the development of state power in the United States. In 1800 Georgia spent no state money on education or transportation and had no penitentiary or mental institution. Like other states, Georgia changed all that in the years that followed, preparing the way for the 1920s, when schools and highways absorbed the bulk of greatly increased state spending. To view Georgia in broader southern and national perspectives, I have related developments there to those in neighboring states and in New York.
Georgia reflected many of the trends of nineteenth-century America; it exemplified the Old South and its transformation. Before the Civil War, Georgia comprised part of both the settled Old Southeast and the frontier Old Southwest. In the 1840s, only Virginia and South Carolina counted more slaves, and only Alabama and Mississippi grew as much cotton. War and Reconstruction forced Georgians to adjust abruptly to emancipation. I have reexamined such problems in southern history as the comparative constituencies, ideas, and programs of Whig and Democratic politicians in the Old South; the patterns of conflict and cooperation that characterized the political relations of planters, merchants, and small farmers; the importance of cities in nineteenth-century life; and the significance of race and slavery in politics and government.
This book seeks to accomplish a number of things. Where most studies of politics focus on party organization and electoral politics, I have related power to policy objectives. Rather than write only of common schools or higher education, or of mental institutions or penitentiaries, I have discussed all those, as well as schools for the deaf and the blind. Most studies of public policy focus on either social or economic affairs, in most cases for only a few decades; instead, I demonstrate the connections among education, transportation, and tax policies, and I track each of these through the entire nineteenth century.