- Historic Sites
What Made The Government Grow
…and grow, and grow, from almost no employees to three million. Don’t blame the welfare state, or the military; the truth is much more interesting.
September 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 5
So how, then, did the Federal government grow? First of all, in step with the pace of the nation’s modernization. This wasn’t a uniquely American process; during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries many nations experienced a relentless thrust toward administrative centralization and growth. But in the United States the first era of governmental expansion—roughly from 1830 to 1880—owed much to what was a special American experience, the opening of the frontier. By 1820, after a mere thirty-one years under the Constitution, the nation had already doubled its area, from some 890,000 square miles to approximately 1,790,000, thanks to the purchases of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 and of Florida in 1819. Not long after came an eight-year acquisition spree: Texas in 1845 and Oregon in 1846, the Mexican Cession in 1848, and the Gadsden Purchase of 1853—another almost 1,235,000 square miles in all. These additions created the continental United States (excluding Alaska, not bought until 1867) and swelled the public domain to more than a billion acres, many of them pristine wilderness, that had to be secured, protected, explored, and surveyed; later provided with law, postal services, and other official inducements to settlers; and finally conveyed to the states or to private owners. These were unmistakably government functions, and those who argue that the West was settled by individuals acting independently of government simply do not know what they are talking about. Moreover, government helped private capital create networks of roads, rails, navigable rivers, and canals (“internal improvements,” in the political lexicon of the era), which were indispensable for integrating the new territories into the growing national economy.
That was one clear impetus toward an enlarged federal establishment. Two other strong economic trends were nudging in the same direction. One was a steady increase in foreign trade. American exports were valued at $74 million in 1830 and $853 million in 1880, while imports in the same period soared from $71 to $761 millions’ worth. This threw extra demands upon the State Department’s consular services and the Treasury’s collectors, for even though the tariff rose and fell with changing political tides (generally low in the 1840s and 1850s and high from 1862 on), the sheer volume of the customs services’ business followed a steady upward course. In addition, the rise of a manufacturing economy drew the government into greater participation in encouraging applied science, as a closer look at the growth of new bureaus shows.
But first, merely examine the overall figures. To repeat, the entire federal civilian work force of 1816—4,837—could have fitted comfortably into a present-day minor-league grandstand. Twenty-five years later, in 1841, it had not quite quadrupled, coming to just over 18,000, of whom 14,290 were in the Post Office. In 1851 the total was 26,274. In the next twenty years the number virtually doubled—51,020 in 1871—and then in ten years nearly doubled again, just cracking the 100,000 mark. For comparative purposes, while the general population tripled (from approximately 17 million to 51 million) between 1841 and 1881, the number of federal employees increased five-and-a-half-fold.
It is possible to follow some of the individual streams feeding this swelling reservoir by taking note of the enlargement of the presidential cabinet. The major source was the Post Office; remember that in 1841 it carried on its rolls about 14,000 out of 18,000 federal civilian workers—about three out of every four. (Its share did not fall below half until 1917.) The Postmaster General was given cabinet rank in 1829, and the first holder of the job in its new dignity was William T. Barry. Until modern times it was not unusual for the P.M.G. to be the chairman or at least a major power broker of whichever party held the White House.
The Postmaster General’s seat in the cabinet was the first new one in nearly thirty years—since the creation of the Department of the Navy in 1798. The next cabinet slot created was the somewhat broadly named Department of the Interior, in 1849, and it began as something of a catchall for the overflow of work that was swamping the older agencies. To begin with, Interior inherited the General Land Office from the Treasury. Treasury had already lavishly doled out acres of the public domain to the states (two million in 1836, for example); the states then used the land to fund schools, colleges, charitable undertakings, and transportation improvements. There were also direct federal grants for roads and canals, and millions of acres were sold each year: as few as a million and a quarter in 1829, as many as twenty million in 1836. Land sales, even at the extremely modest prices that the political power of the West demanded, accounted together with customs receipts for most of the national government’s revenue.