In their productive outpouring, the scholarly literatures on “the state” in American history and political development have advanced myriad working assumptions about the state without reconciling those assumptions within a coherent rubric. This introductory essay makes a preliminary case for addressing this challenge by focusing research on the boundary conditions of state formation, where the limits of government authority reveal the principles of its operation. Focusing on boundary conditions allows us to move beyond a merely refractory view of the state to probe the ways in which public power has been constitutive of politics and indeed of social categories themselves. This approach has the added advantage of accounting for the dynamism and flexibility of American power, whereas more established scholarly approaches centered on bureaucratic autonomy or elite networks paint a more static portrait. It would appear that these boundaries are not simply limits or loci of visibility for American government, but are themselves generators of new quanta of power, providing sites for the transformation of social into public power.