About our staff
Dr Sveinn Jóhannesson
Fennell Early Career Development Fellow in US History
I am a historian of the United States in the long nineteenth century, with a particular emphasis on the history of the state and its relationship to science and technology.
Born and raised in Reykjavik, Iceland, I completed my PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2018 under the supervision of Gary Gerstle. I also hold degrees from the University of Oxford and Vanderbilt University. Before coming to Edinburgh, I was Past & Present Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London.
Summary of research interestsPlaces:
- North America
- Nineteenth Century
My research focuses on the political, intellectual and social history of nineteenth-century America, with a particular emphasis on issues of statebuilding, science and technology, and emergency government. I am currently working on three research project. My first monograph, based on the PhD dissertation, defended at the University of Cambridge in 2018, explores the interconnections between science and America's central state from the Founding to the Civil War. The book, which is entitled The Scientific-Military State, charts a previously hidden revolution in American government. Scholars such as Charles Tilly, John Brewer and Michael Mann have correctly highlighted the importance of the fiscal and military transformation of the modern state in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Yet historians and social scientists have underestimated the transatlantic revolt against the modern system of war finance in the ages of the Enlightenment and Revolution. American supporters of the republic looked beyond imposing constitutional limitations on state power; their ambition was to transform the nature of state power itself. Between the Founding and the Civil War, the book shows that they created a new kind of central state within which experimental science, mathematics and engineering practice had great political moment. It also reveals how, by mid-nineteenth century, the slaveholding South—more than the industrializing North—presided over this statebuilding agenda, and that American science owes more than we often think to American slave power.
I am also working on a collaborative research project on emergency government and other challenges facing liberal democracies. In 2017, I published an article in the Journal of American History on the framing of emergency powers into the Constitution, and how James Madison dealt with the problem of creating and justifying special emergency powers in a polity that saw itself as republican. What would be the justification for allowing a government “of the people” to suppress an uprising by the people against their own government? Currently, I am co-editing a volume (with Prof. Valur Ingimundarson), entitled Liberal Disorder: States of Exception, Populist Uprisings and Digital Dictatorships, to be published by Routledge in 2020.
Current research activities
My next research project focuses on the relationship between states and technological revolutions in a transnational context. The formation of the modern state has coincided with, and been deeply implicated in, a series of technological revolutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Currently, we are in the midst of yet another such revolution centred on digital technology. Yet we do not know much about how these developments have shaped and mutually constituted one another. By focusing on the transformations of the American state and the technological and industrial revolutions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this new project aims to build a new framework for understanding the impact of technological change on the modern state, and vice versa.
‘“Securing the State”: James Madison, Federal Emergency Powers, and the Rise of the Liberal State in Postrevolutionary America’, Journal of American History 104 (September 2017), 363–385.
“Farsældarríki Jóns Sigurðssonar: Ríkisvísindi og ríkisþróun frá endurreisn Alþingis til byltinganna árið 1848,” [Jón Sigurðsson, the Sciences of the State, and the Making of Modern Icelandic Politics, 1840-1848] Saga 55:2 (Fall 2019), 51–82.
Liberal Disorder: Emergency Politics, Populist Uprisings, and Digital Dictatorships. Coeditor with Valur Ingimundarson. Routledge, forthcoming 2020.