But does this prove that Lincoln was the author of “big government”? Not if we factor for inflation: In today’s dollars, even the 1865 federal budget would still translate into only $17.9 billion (which wouldn’t even pay for NASA in 2010). And not if we look at what happened after the war. Between 1865 and 1870, the hydrogen went out of the federal balloon in a hurry. By 1870 the federal budget had shrunk down to $293 million — only 22.7 percent of the size it had been in 1865. It would have shrunk even more drastically, had it not been for the cost of servicing the wartime debt (which accounted for 44 percent of the budget) and paying pensions to wounded soldiers (another 9.6 percent). Sure, we could have repudiated the debt, and sure, we could have told the veterans to forget it. But I don’t believe any of us would have wanted to do that either, including Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.
The budget kept on shrinking, too. By 1880, the federal budget was only 16.7 percent of what it had been in 1865 (debt service was now down to 36 percent, but pensions were up to 21 percent as the veterans of the Civil War aged). If Lincoln had plans to create “big government,” none of his successors seems to have known what they were.
But maybe budget numbers are not the best yardstick for measuring the size of government. Let’s try the number of federal civilian employees. In 1851, the federal government had only 26,300 people on its payroll. The Civil War immediately boosted that to 36,600 in 1861 and eventually to 53,000 in 1865 — double the 1851 number. By 1871, the number of federal employees had dropped back to 51,000 — and this was while we were still stuck in reconstructing the South. If we want to find a period in the 19th century when government payrolls really soared, we won’t find it in the years of Abraham Lincoln. We would have to look instead to those well-known presidential high-rollers, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, who by 1891 had tripled the number of federal employees, to 157,400. And the single greatest leap in federal employment occurred under Franklin Roosevelt, in the eight years between 1932 and 1940, when the federal workforce rose from 605,000 to just under 1 million.
Yes, the federal government grew enormously under Abraham Lincoln. But that was only in comparison to the bite-sized federal government that had prevailed in the 1850s, and it occurred only under the unprecedented circumstances of civil war. The real measure of Lincoln’s “big government” is how quickly it shrank back to more recognizable proportions once the wartime emergency was over. Rahm Emanuel might say that Lincoln wasted a good crisis. It would be better to say that Lincoln managed a crisis without making it worse.
– Allen Carl Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce professor of the Civil War Era and director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College.