- 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
After 1849 the Department of the Interior continued both the sales and donations at a quickening pace except in hard times. Grants to railroads (the idea being that they would sell the land to raise capital) rose from 3.75 million acres in 1851 to 41.5 million in 1865, when the first transcontinental line was in full construction. In 1862, with the passage of the Homestead Act, the nation theoretically abandoned selling land directly to individual families in favor of giving it away in 160-acre farmsteads. But even this overall process of rapidly privatizing much of the public domain, this unprecedented government handout of potentially income-producing property, required paperwork to accomplish. Not for nothing was the phrase doing a land-office business invented to describe the kind of boom that kept the Department of the Interior busy and growing.
THE PHRASE doing a land-office business was invented to describe the kind of boom that kept the Department of the Interior growing while the West was being settled.
Interior also took over, from the Department of War, the management of Indian Affairs, with a growing list of administrative responsibilities. It relieved War of the Pension Department, an apparently minor shift in 1849 but with explosive workload results seventeen years later, when suddenly there were nearly two million Union veterans to deal with. It disencumbered the State Department of the Patent Office, which, considering that the number of applications filed per year rose from under 2,200 in 1850 to almost 40,000 forty years later, goes far toward explaining why the Secretary of the Interior complained in 1888 of having to keep up with “the accumulation of business by the rapid development of the country.”
The patent office is a first-class reminder of another major boost in the number of federal jobholders, the involvement of the government in science and technology. The office had been lodged in the Department of State by Thomas Jefferson when he was Secretary, hardly a surprise given his own inventive bent. In fact, wherever science and learning were concerned, Jefferson managed to overcome his innate suspicion of government. In early meditations on federal support for postal roads, for example, he worried that contracts to build and maintain them would be a “source of boundless patronage” and “eternal scramble,” but he badly wanted public support for the increase and diffusion of knowledge, and he soon learned that senators and representatives might be persuaded to open the public purse for science if a commercial motive could be invoked.
In getting an appropriation to finance the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Jefferson cited its potential usefulness in “extending the external commerce of the United States.” In 1806, initial misgivings suspended, he proposed a constitutional amendment empowering the central government to open “new channels of communication” and support a “national establishment for education,” a favored project of his. Nothing came of this, so the next year, when he sought an appropriation for a complete mapping of America’s shorelines by a new agency, the Coast Survey (the head of which would be a European geographer and mathematician, Ferdinand R. Hassler), he took care to stress the utility of the survey to “the lives of our seamen, the interests of our merchants, and the benefits to the revenue.” Congress came through with an initial $50,000, but the progress languished in dry spells of funding and was still unfinished when Hassler died in 1843.
Yet by then the foundations had been laid for a surprising and generally unrecognized expansion of the federal role in science and invention, always justified by some presumable practical results. The Army’s Corps of Topographical Engineers was authorized in 1824 to make surveys and plans for canals and roads and improve the navigation of rivers. Army expeditions made survey after survey of possible routes through the uncharted Rocky Mountains and Pacific West. Those of Lt. John C. Frßmont made him a national hero, and in the 1850s no fewer than six possible routes for a transcontinental railroad were explored under Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. All these reconnoitering parties diligently collected masses of environmental and economic data—more than could be tolerated by some officials like Edward Bates, a future Attorney General, who groused that the reports of Davis’s surveys “contain[ed] very little about the road, but [were] filled up mainly with a mass of learning on… Geology, Ornithology, and ichthyology , and many beautiful pictures of rocks, beasts, birds and fishes!”