On Uncle Sams Knee: The American Administrative State and Youth during the Progressive Era

AHA Session 270
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 3
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Governor's Square 14 (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Concourse Level)
James Marten, Marquette University
James Marten, Marquette University

Session Abstract

Children mattered. Yet the historical age scale used by many historians ignores them. During the Progressive Era, at the onset of modernity, children and juveniles were subject to increasingly sophisticated and complex ideologies and regulations by and for the state. As Julia Bowes explains, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the state legitimated the expansion of its power by wielding claims about the “rights of the child,” yet courts were reticent to consider children as rights-bearing citizens. Deborah Skok delves further into the politicization of childhood, while questioning the agency accorded to the subjects of urban reformers. Brian Rouleau explores how juveniles were convinced during the imperial age to expand the physical boundaries of the state throughout the Anglo-American colonized world. Zackary Gardner pushes our understanding of how youths were encouraged to think about and dream of bureaucratic careers in the expanding administrative state. In becoming subjects of and subject to the state during the Progressive Era, children influenced what the state did and how administrative agencies functioned. To better understand the origins of the modern state, scholars need to adjust the age scale of their subject matter to include children.

In order to incorporate children into the age scale, historians need to utilize new sources and reevaluate more traditional material. The panelists each explore different methodological ways of understanding children and childhood agency. Court documents, pension records, juvenile literature, and bureaucratic correspondence all provide insights into how historians can construct narratives that include youths. The panelists will encourage a discussion about what other sources can be utilized in the construction of child and youth agency during the Progressive Era.   

In exploring the relationship between children and governance during the Progressive Era, the panelists examine how youth engaged with and were engaged by the state between the 1880s and the 1920s. The panelists question how examining historical narratives through the lens of age—an ‘age scale’ as it were—changes our existing understanding of the development of the modern state during the fin-de-siècle.

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