Was Lincoln the Father of Big Government?
On February 12, America will celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s 202nd birthday, but will conservatives celebrate his legacy? Lincoln is a pivotal figure in American history, yet some conservatives are wary of him. Lincoln, the Left proclaims and the Right fears, is the father of big government.
Conservatives shouldn’t be fooled. If big government means a permanently large and growing federal budget and a vast civil service (see William Voegeli’s Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State), then Lincoln may deny paternity for both. As Allen Guelzo explains, while the federal budget indeed ballooned to meet the cost of the Civil War (from $63.2 million in 1860 to $1.29 billion in 1865), it shrank once the war ended (back to $293 million by 1870). “If Lincoln had plans to create ‘big government,’” Guelzo concludes, “none of his successors seems to have known what they were.” Similarly, while the federal government employed more people during the war, the number shrank once the war ended.