Government Fantasies: Creating Dreams of Bureaucratic Careers in American Youth, 1898–1917

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 3:50 PM
Governor's Square 14 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Zackary William Gardner, Pepperdine University
Building upon the complex historiography of gender and the administrative state during the Progressive Era, my paper explores how ideas of technocratic, professionalized governance and expanded administrative state capacities were translated into teachable ideas that shaped the career ambitions of a generation of young men. An examination of popularized children’s books demonstrates how the idea of governance was presented to young boys in order to inculcate a desire to become a government agent. Given the characterization of education within these books as the only pathway to a technocratic dream, the paper further examines how educational networks were constructed and maintained by bureaucratic and school leaders. Finally, the paper concludes that despite the image of the meritocratic administrative state presented to children, government careers still depended upon patronage networks, albeit educationally determined ones. 

Through children’s books—themselves a part of a contemporaneously emerging consumer industry—and the correspondence between educational institutions and bureaucratic agencies, I demonstrate that during the 1890s and 1900s governance was reimagined as a career opportunity linked not to political patronage, but to a meritocracy defined by an idealized image of masculinity. Francis Rolt-Wheeler’s many-volume US Service Series for children presented a consistent image of who a government agent was and how a boy could grow-up to become one. Through correspondence between educational elites—school directors and college deans—and bureaucratic leaders, I contrast the ideal that captured the imaginations of Rolt-Wheeler’s readers and the reality of emerging government careers. Such a contrast is even more illuminating given the explicit bureaucratic support for Rolt-Wheeler’s literary endeavors. The builders of the Progressive Era administrative state understood the importance of creating a fantasy for future government agents.