Lincoln: The Father of Big Government?

To sell his tax-code tweaks, new regulatory schemes, and insatiable ardor for big government, President Obama invoked Abraham Lincoln in his State of the Union address: “I’m a Democrat. But I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.”

Was Lincoln the father of big government? In a new Special Report, Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., of Gettysburg College lays out the argument that the modern state’s paternity lies with the Progressives.

If big government means a permanently large and growing federal budget and a vast civil service, then Lincoln may deny paternity for both. 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 notes, “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.

If big government means a plethora of agencies possessing intrusive powers, then Lincoln is again vindicated. Lincoln’s Administration produced no dramatic increase in executive agencies. Between the 1850s and the end of the Civil War, the federal government added seven new agencies for a total of 22 (a far cry from the 513 agencies in 2010).



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