This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Regulating a Global Technology within the American Federalist System: The Ideological Origins of the 1926 Air Commerce Act




Seyer, Sean

Type of Degree





The 1926 Air Commerce Act represented the institutionalization of a specific mental model for aviation regulation within the United States. This dissertation focuses on how individuals and groups responded to three distinct influences—(1) the Constitution’s state/federal separation of powers; (2) the 1919 Convention Relating to the Regulation of Aerial Navigation; and (3) practical aerial experience along the U.S.– Canadian border—to develop a regulatory system that corresponded to America’s particular socio-political traditions. I argue that the development of aviation regulation in the United States, a process previously presented as a solely domestic narrative, can only be fully understood when approached from a global perspective. As a device capable of three-dimensional movement, the airplane possessed the innate ability to undermine state sovereignty. Though pioneering regulatory advocates in the United States believed the airplane’s speed and freedom of movement necessitated federal legislation, states and municipalities turned to their constitutionally-sanctioned police powers to regulate the airplane as early as 1908. The airplane’s use in World War I accentuated the need to constrain this potentially radical technology, but constitutional questions remained. Although the 1919 convention’s ties to the League of Nations precluded official American membership, the regulatory uniformity necessary for international flight resulted in American acceptance of the convention’s principles and norms. I present the idea of “techno-regulatory peer pressure”—the modification of a government’s regulations to correspond to those of another to facilitate the cross-border use of technology—as a means of placing the Air Commerce Act within its appropriate international context.