There is a persistent rumor in the ether of talking heads that runs something like this: If we want to know who the “father” of big government in the United States is, point the finger at . . . Abraham Lincoln.
Of course, it has been a long time since Abraham Lincoln was headline news, and most Americans will meet this with little more than a shrug of the shoulders. But there is a certain strain of conservative thinking today (some of it on display at the Conservative Political Action Conference this February) that gets its jollies from wailing that big government has been a slow-growing cancer in American life, so slow in fact that its origins need to be traced back to the 16th president. Sometimes the motivation for this is a neo-Confederate urge to take yet another shot at the man who presided over the loss of the Lost Cause. Sometimes it comes from the satisfaction paleo-conservatives get in beating up their neo-conservative rivals, who are supposed to have given away the conservative store in the Bush years by endorsing big-government solutions under the standard of “compassionate conservatism.”
Whatever the motivation, they’ve got the wrong man in Abraham Lincoln.
First of all, let’s agree on what we mean by “big government”; then let’s discuss how its bigness ought to be measured. I think it’s reasonable to assume that by “big government,” we mean mostly the federal government, and a federal government that has grown to such a gargantuan size that the entire American system seems to have become a relentless, interfering bureaucracy rather than an of-by-and-for-the-people democracy. One obvious way we can measure such bigness is to look at the federal bottom line. In 1860, the entire federal budget consisted of exactly $63.2 million. Even if we factor for inflation between then and now, we still get a federal budget whose modern equivalent would be only about $1.5 billion. That’s just a little less than what the General Services Administration alone plans to spend in 2010 on office supplies, computers, vehicles, and whatnot.
Now shift to the Civil War years and the Lincoln administration. In raw numbers, the federal budget leapt from $66.6 million in 1861 (the first year of the Civil War and the first of the Lincoln administration) to $1.29 billion in 1865 (the year the war ended and the year Lincoln was assassinated). Now, the Lincoln-haters smile, isn’t that big government? Bear in mind, of course, that there was a war in progress, and wars are pricey for nations to wage. The war years were plagued by an annualized inflation rate of 14.4 percent (comparable to the runaway inflation of the Jimmy Carter years). The only way not to spend a lot of money fighting wars is to avoid them altogether. And I’m not sure anyone really believes it would have been a good thing for President Lincoln to have simply let the South secede from the Union — unless you’re a lineal descendant of Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee.