What Made The Government Grow

A VISITOR called on the Secretary of War in 1796 and found no sentinel at the door and only two clerks scribbling. The State Department cannot have been much bigger.

Congress deliberately kept the departments on short rations. After all, hadn’t the Declaration of Independence included in its charges against King George that he had “erected a multitude of New Offices and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their substance”? Even these modest administrative outlays troubled some state lawmakers. One from North Carolina, in 1790, deplored the “monstrous salaries given to the public officers,” and another from Virginia condemned “giving [away] the honey from the hive, the marrow from the bones of the people.”

Such outcries, however, did not impede the growth of the federal establishment—not even when the “Virginia Dynasty” of Thomas Jefferson and his supposedly frugal Democratic-Republican successors in the White House took control of the nation in 1801 and held it for the next twenty-four years. Some two-thirds of the way through that period, in 1816, the United States had already come to employ 4,837 civilians, 535 of whom worked in Washington. Of the total, 3,341—about two of every three—were employees of the Postal Department. The mail service, extending to hamlets scattered across the huge land area of the young Republic, would long continue to provide the largest share of federal jobs. The remaining 1,500-odd were probably concentrated in the Treasury Department. Its obligations had been swelled by the just ended War of 1812.

This last point seems obvious, and it brings us to a necessary pause for explanation. War is above all things irreconcilable with the ideal of frugal government. It is a shot of superhormones, jolting national authority and expenditures into adolescentlike spurts of growth that are never completely offset by later peacetime contraction. But we shall omit war from this accounting, especially since its effect both on the national debt and on governmental growth has been covered earlier in these pages (see “The Federal Debt,” by John Steele Gordon, November 1995, and “The Warfare State,” by Bruce D. Porter, July/August 1994).

A second obvious engine of growth is the simple fact of population increase. It is hardly a surprise that a nation of some 250 million (1990 census) should take more governing than one of approximately 4 million, the 1790 count. But a sixtyfold increase in the number of Americans does not explain a six-hundred-fold leap in the number of government employees serving them, from around 5,000 to more than 3 million. What is the historical explanation for the federal work force’s multiplying ten times as fast as the populace?

Any attempt to answer that question poses another tough one: What do we measure as “big government”? The yardstick I’ve chosen here—namely, the changing head count of federal workers (ignoring all other levels of government)—is admittedly crude, is subject to maddening variations depending on sources and methods of computation, and overall may well deserve the scorn of statisticians. Without any detailed breakdown of what those workers have been doing at different times, it is hard to pinpoint where the need for them has been genuine and where not. But a history of each segment of the federal establishment is clearly beyond the scope of a short summary, and gross employment totals are at least an important indicator. Moreover, they do not have to be adjusted, like figures on national income and expenditure, for inflation. Even with this limitation to one index, it is hard to avoid stupefying lists of numbers, but I hope the patient reader will be rewarded with some understanding.

The Frontier Factor