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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
Bates’s kind of thinking supposedly shaped the so-called Jacksonian era of states’ supremacy between 1830 and 1860. But while Jacksonianism did hinder the outlay of federal dollars on “pure” science, it did not prevent, for example, the dispatch of a United States Exploring Expedition under the Navy commander Charles Wilkes, which between 1838 and 1842 thoroughly mapped and described the weather, oceanic currents, peoples, plants, and animals of parts of the Antarctic and Pacific oceans and western South America—at a cost of more than $928,000. The United States Naval Observatory was completed in 1844, and in the following year the stalled coast survey was finally completed, a hydrographic survey of worldwide winds and tides was undertaken, and small naval expeditions by officers scientifically trained at Annapolis (established in 1845) began charting waters and harbors in places as unexpected as the Amazon, West Africa, and the Dead Sea. So much for America’s supposed nineteenth-century isolation.
In 1843 Congress voted a modest amount for a demonstration of Samuel F. B. Morse’s electric telegraph, a line between Baltimore and Washington. In the 1850s a special division was set up in the Patent Office to evaluate proposed new agricultural machinery. It also began to test new varieties of seed, feed, and fertilizer. Elevated to the status of an independent Bureau of Agriculture in 1862, it served as the nucleus of the Department of Agriculture in 1889. But that is getting ahead of the story.
The Navy’s exploration and studies, the agricultural research, and the telegraph experiment could all be defended as having some ultimate commercial utility, but it was harder to see any crass objectives in the Smithsonian Institution, whose sole purpose from the moment its first director was chosen in 1846 was “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Far more than a museum, the Smithsonian was active from its earliest days, spurring research in ethnology, mineralogy, and other branches of what we would now call human and earth sciences. It was part of a federal establishment that was growing during the industrialization of the 1840s and 1850s to take on responsibilities that were outside the will or capacity of the private associations praised by Tocqueville at the time as the backbone of American democracy.
Resistance to the trend was always manifest. Sen. Thomas Hart Benton thundered in 1826 that any increase in national public spending must have a fatal multiplying effect: “The actual increase of federal power and patronage…will be, not in the arithmetical ratio, but in geometrical progression.” A Maine representative lamented ten years later that “every Government, like every individual, has a moral being…susceptible of acquiring habits of lavish expenditure and extravagance.…These habits, by a long course of perseverance, become incurable.” Such complaints sound remarkably contemporary, but so do the words of the Ohio Canal Commissioners of 1825 arguing that tax money, not private investment, should improve the state’s waterways. “Such works,” said the commissioners, “should be considered with a view to the greatest possible accommodation to our citizens…public convenience is the paramount object: and a private company will look only to the best means for increasing their profits.”
As the American growth process actually worked itself out, Benton’s warning proved prophetic. Summary testimony to the trends we have been describing can be found in a glance at the Official Registers of the United States (the predecessors of The United States Government Manual of today) for 1829, 1861, and 1891. The first of them is a modest volume of 225 pages that lists by name all civil employees and military officers of the federal government. The Army list takes 22 of the 225 pages, the Navy even fewer, but Customs Collectors and Light House Superintendents take up 41. There are 15 pages of Mail Contractors, and 5 of U.S. Consuls in places as scattered as Smyrna, “Hayti,” and “Tuscany, Sardinia, etc . ”
Thirty-two years later, on the eve of the Civil War, the volume has grown to 592 pages, 147 of them detailing post offices and postal contractors, while 85 pages go to Customs Collectors and other Treasury officials. The War and Navy Departments, even before hostilities have begun, claim 86 pages. The twelve-year-old Department of the Interior occupies 27, more than half of them devoted to the Land Office and the Indian Affairs section.