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The dominant story of America’s so-called “Gilded Age” describes an era of private excess and public corruption. In a rapidly industrializing society, private capital, in league with venal politicians, ran roughshod over a national state apparatus incapable of responding to the emerging social and economic needs of the day. Only toward the end of this era, with the passage of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, did the national government begin to break free from a laissez-faire ideology that was antithetical to state building in virtually all of its forms. Indeed, on this conventional account, the American administrative state, and with it administrative law, only began to emerge in the early twentieth century. And both remained underdeveloped until the New Deal constitutional revolution.
There is much truth to this familiar narrative, but it is far from the whole truth. State capacities built steadily throughout the post-Reconstruction era. Congress created multiple new departments, bureaus, and programs, and federal civilian employment grew much more rapidly than population. Just as today, conflicts between political parties, the drama of electoral politics, and the vagaries of congressional lawmaking dominated the headlines. But the day-to-day activities of government were in the charge of administrative departments and bureaus. Operating under broad delegations of authority, administrators developed a rich internal law of administration that guided massive administrative adjudicatory activity and substantial regulatory action as well. Moreover, policy innovation at the legislative level depended heavily on the research and recommendations of existing administrative agencies. In short, if we look at legislative and administrative practice rather than at constitutional ideology or political rhetoric, we can see the emergence of a national administrative state and national administrative law before either had a name.
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