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.
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.