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What Made The Government Grow

June 2024
31min read

…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.


The tradition of distrusting government—almost any government—has such deep roots in the American past that a newcomer could justifiably think of the United States as a nation of a quarter of a billion near-anarchists. After all, it was Tom Paine, a major voice of the American Revolution, who declared that “government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” Is Paine too radical for you?


The tradition of distrusting government—almost any government—has such deep roots in the American past that a newcomer could justifiably think of the United States as a nation of a quarter of a billion near-anarchists. After all, it was Tom Paine, a major voice of the American Revolution, who declared that “government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” Is Paine too radical for you? Try, then, a congressman in the First Congress: “[All] governments incline to despotism, as naturally as rivers run into the sea.” Or President Jefferson, in his 1801 inaugural: A “wise and frugal government which shall restrain men from injuring one another…[and] leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits is the very “sum of good government.” Or our national sage, Emerson, some years later: “The less government we have, the better.”

One could go on indefinitely netting sentiments like these from the mainstream of American discourse. Yet for a people who seem to be inherently skeptical of government, we have, after two centuries of national existence, an unbelievably generous amount of it. Even those of us who have friendly—or at least explanatory—words to say on behalf of “big government” can’t deny the gargantuan size of the creature. A glance at the federal establishment alone, which usually provokes the loudest critical outcries, is sobering. A handy Information Please Almanac informs me that at the end of 1991 the total number of civilian federal employees, rounded off to the nearest thousand (a practice that we shall follow throughout this excursion), was 3.103 million. Their payroll for the single month of October (likewise in round numbers) was $9.687 billion. State and local governments left those numbers in the shade; they employed 15.455 million workers and paid them, in the same month, more than $31 billion.

Before falling into apoplexy, however, antigovernment readers should recall that all these public employees, like those in private industry, return some of that money in tax payments and pump the rest of it into the economy through purchases and savings. All the same, a very natural curiosity arises about what on earth they all are doing.

A Guide to the Gargantuan

The official answer with respect to the National Government is contained in The United States Government Manual , which is compiled annually by the Office of the Federal Register, a division of the National Archives and Records Administration. You can order the 1996–97 edition by mail from the Superintendent of Documents or buy it for thirty-six dollars at one of the bookstores maintained by the Government Printing Office in major cities. The text is available in electronic format, too, through the GPO’s Electronic Information Dissemination Services. In print or in bytes, the Manual dissects and labels the working parts of the federal bureaucracy with dismaying thoroughness.

The 1994–95 edition, for example, is 917 pages thick, including 73 pages of appendices, 8 of which are devoted exclusively to listing the acronyms that speckle documents composed in bureaucratese. Even the most cursory and partial overview is somewhat numbing. Let us turn to a single agency of the legislative branch, the General Accounting Office.

The GAO’s “fundamental” mission is defined as “supporting the Congress” through “a variety of services, the most prominent of which are audits and evaluations of Government programs and activities.” Its chief official is the Comptroller General of the United States, who has a Deputy and a Special Assistant. Behind them stand five more Assistants, one each for Planning and Reporting, Operations, Policy, Quality Management, and Information-Management and Communications. Six more Assistants direct divisions, including General Government; Health, Education, and Human Services; National Security and International Affairs; and Program Evaluation and Methodology.

We have only begun. There is a General Counsel, and following him in the charts are thirteen Directors of Support Functions, whose dominions include the Civil Rights Office and the Office of Affirmative Action Plans, Congressional Relations, Counseling and Career Development, Internal Evaluation, and International Audit Organization Liaison. Each of these has a staff and employees whose total number goes unreported in the Manual .

It is not my purpose to pick on the GAO, which I choose largely because it was established in 1921, years before the contemporary welfare state. It should not be confused with the Congressional Budget Office, a relative newcomer, created in 1974. But it is a good example of how the system proliferates titles and appointments in its steady process of multiplying and rearranging tasks.

I needn’t furnish many further excerpts from the Manual to make the point of bigness. The lightest skimming of its thousands of entries tells almost all. Under listings for the judicial branch, for instance, there is an Administrative Office of the United States Courts that has thirty-six directors, deputies, and chiefs of such divisions as “Accounting and Financial Systems” and “Relocation and Travel Management.” The Executive branch has a “White House Office” that includes the President’s Assistants, Deputy Assistants, and Special Assistants in areas that range from “Science and Technology” and “Environmental Affairs” to “News Analysis” and “Public Liaison.” There are also, for the First Lady separately, a Chief of Staff, Press Secretary, and Director of Scheduling. In all, 126 such Executive-branch executives are listed, each naturally with support personnel of his or her own.

The fourteen Departments of the Cabinet account for about 425 pages of the Manual , and another 225 pages cover Independent Establishments and Government Corporations, sixty strong. Some of these are frequent headliners—for example, the United States Postal Service, the Federal Communications Commission, NASA, and the CIA—while others are so specialized as to be almost unknown, such as the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board and the African Development Foundation.

To go inside some of these departments and agencies, old and new, is to swim in the multitudinous sea of responsibilities that the national government has assumed in the course of our history. Look at a single domain in the Department of Agriculture (USDA), which achieved cabinet status in 1889—say, that of the Under Secretary, Small Community and Rural Development. This functionary is the overlord of the Rural Electrification Administration, the Farmers Home Administration, and the Rural Development Administration, meaning that he or she is, among other things, in the electric-power, real estate, and banking businesses, since the Farmers Home Administration turns out to be an agency for guaranteeing loans to young and beginning farmers and to “limited-resource farmers” or those facing emergencies. Other Assistant Secretaries within the USDA (it’s hard to resist the acronymic tug) supervise the regulation of packers and stockyards, the rendering of advice to consumers, the compilation of agricultural statistics and forecasts, the health inspection of plants and animals, the management of forests, and the conservation of soil. All these responsibilities have been gradually shoveled into the USDA hopper by congressional enactments over 135 years, so it is no wonder that there are so many.

But youthfulness as an agency is no barrier to growth either. Look at one single, randomly chosen page of subordinate agencies of the Department of the Air Force, which came into being only in the late 1940s: Frequency (i.e., radio frequency) Management; Historical Research; Inspection; Legal Services; Logistics Management; Management Engineering; Medical Operations; Medical Support; Military Personnel Center and Morale; Welfare; and Recreation and Services. Here, then, is the explanation for the inclusion on the federal payroll of hundreds and possibly thousands of historians, engineers, management specialists, doctors, lawyers, and entertainers serving only one branch of one subdepartment of the cabinet.

Enough. The point is surely made, and when one is confronted with these facts, it is easy to understand the urge to “re-invent” or even dismantle a governing apparatus so massive. But to do so with an instrument better than the indiscriminate hatchet, we must first understand how the creature grew to its present size from most modest beginnings.

A Multitude off New Offices

To illustrate just how modest, step back in time to President Washington’s first administration. He had only four principal advisers, the Secretaries of State, War, and the Treasury, and the Attorney General. They managed their affairs with a bare minimum of support. A visiting French officer called on the Secretary of War in 1796 and found no sentinel at the door and only two clerks scribbling away while the Secretary himself was next door getting a shave. The State Department cannot have been much bigger; even four years later its Washington headquarters had only eight clerks and a messenger. Treasury was the swollen bureaucracy. It had 39 employees on the payroll at the end of 1789, but only twelve years later it had 78 officials and employees in Washington alone and 1,615 in the “field service,” collecting duties and taxes and paying the government’s bills.

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

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.

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.”

Science, Invention—and Government

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!”

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.

“Acquiring Habits of Lavish Expenditure and Extravagance”

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.

By 1891 it is ten years since federal civilian employment hit 100,000; another 57,000 such workers have been added, and the Official Register is now an encyclopedialike 990 pages long. The breakdown suggests the growing range and complexity of functions. It requires 18 pages to describe the various functionaries who assist the Fifty-second Congress, hungry for administrative help as congressional membership grows and the legislative agenda becomes more crowded. The Treasury Department needs 239 pages to list not only its collectors but the employees of the Mint, the Coast and Geodetic Survey (which it seems to have taken from the Navy), the Light-House Board, and the very busy Bureau of Immigration. The War Department takes up the same number of pages—239—a good number of them listing employees of the Engineering Department, then actively engaged in flood control and internal-waterways improvement. The Post Office now requires a separate volume to list all its postmasters. The Department of the Interior takes up 147 pages of this 1891 Register . About a fifth of them list employees of the Commissioner of Pensions; another fifth are needed to cover the Census Office. Slightly over a quarter—40 pages—particularize the personnel of the Office of Indian Affairs.

THERE WERE fewer than 5,000 employees in 1816 and more than 155,000 seventy-five years later—multiplication with a vengeance in the nineteenth century.

There are some new arrivals in 1891. The Department of Justice, established in 1870 to give the Attorney General an organizational base, uses up only 7 pages, but Agriculture, finally made a cabinet department in 1889, already has more than 20 pages listing specialists scattered among divisions including Chemistry, Forestry, Vegetable Pathology, Economic Ornithology and Mammology, and Statistics. As a big-time employer the Department of Agriculture lags behind the Government Printing Office (a post-Civil War creation), which gets 34 pages, and the government of the District of Columbia, occupying 25, but is well ahead of two agencies less than ten years old: the Civil Service Commission (1 page) and the Interstate Commerce Commission (2 pages).

So there were fewer than 5,000 federal employees in 1816 and more than 155,000 seventy-five years later. Multiplication with a vengeance: Such was the nineteenth century. What would the twentieth bring?

Into the Twentieth Century

We all know the answer very well: more of the same. The federal civilian payroll reached 400,150 in 1912. Six years later, in 1918, it had more than doubled—to 854,500 —a predictable result of our entry into World War I. Yet when the fighting ended and the Republicans restored the Republic to “normalcy,” the number did not contract to pre-war levels, and in fact it never fell below half a million during the 1920s. In 1929 it was 579,559. To some extent this illustrates a truism that government agencies have a tendency to linger on well beyond their initial usefulness, thanks to political protectors and civil service tenure. But it is also evidence of the lasting effects of war itself.

Handling the legal and financial minutiae and aftereffects of demobilization, as well as taking care of veterans, provided more than adequate rationale for additions to the Treasury, Commerce, Interior, Justice, War, and Navy Departments. Similarly, during the post-Civil War decades, the volume of claims by the boys in blue made the Pension Office, according to its commissioner in 1891, “the largest executive bureau in the world,” with a staff of 6,241. The much larger scale of the 1917–18 war’s cleanup strained the Washington of the twenties at the seams. It was during that time that preparations went forward for realizing an earlier expansion plan, the construction of the massive Federal Triangle, the great complex of government office buildings that still stands between the White House and the Capitol.

But it was not merely the residue of wartime responsibilities that accounted for the enlarged national establishment under Harding and Coolidge. The same forces that had impelled the government to facilitate railroad and steamboat development in the previous century were still at work as the transportation and communications revolutions rolled on. Extra workers were needed to implement the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, which allotted some $75 million to help states build highways (and was followed by another Federal Highway Act in 1921); likewise there had to be people to carry out the missions of the Federal Radio Commission, created in 1927 to allocate broadcast frequencies, and the Bureau of Commercial Aviation, set up in 1926 to systematize the licensing of planes and pilots on the fast-growing commercial air routes. The end purpose of several Congresses in assigning these responsibilities to Washington was to help business grow, and between 1921 and 1928 no one pushed harder for such benign intervention than the Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover. The Department of Commerce itself, created in 1903, was the twentieth century’s first addition to the cabinet.

“The Same Old Fight With Too Much Government”—1923

There is a natural tendency to assume that much of the government’s enlargement at this time was brought on by the progressive movement, which swept the nation between 1901 and 1916, fostering an array of laws for the regulation of the economy and the improvement of public health and safety. Such new responsibilities undoubtedly swelled state payrolls, but in the federal government they present a fuzzier picture, in spite of complaints like those voiced by one Charles N. Fay in a 1923 volume that would doubtless still appeal to today’s conservatives. Fay railed that Americans were facing “the same old fight with Too Much Government and Too Much Taxation [the capitalized words being the title of his book] that has scarred the history of every nation.” He blamed the Granger movement (which attacked the railroads), William Jennings Bryan, “Progressivism,…Wall Street, the bankers, and the trusts, etc., and finally Woodrow Wilson’s vague doctrine of ‘The New Freedom.’” All were variants of “the Marxian attack on ‘Capital.’”


A look at the figures for June 30, 1916, however, does not clearly support such a charge. Of some 438,000 civilian workers for the United States, just under 251,000, or about 57 percent, were still in the Post Office Department. The brand-new Federal Trade Commission, set up in 1914 to enforce antitrust law, had only 238 employees. The Department of Labor, separated from Commerce in 1913, had 2,504. The thirty-year-old Interstate Commerce Commission still had a payroll of just 2,243—far fewer than the 19,291 workers operating the recently opened Panama Canal. The preprogressive cabinet departments (other than the Post Office and Labor) were led in numbers by the War and Navy Departments, with 37,695 and 35,722 respectively. The Treasury employed between 30,000 and 31,000; then came Interior with 19,347, closely trailed by Agriculture at 18,736 and Commerce with 9,903. Justice had a mere 2,610 civil servants at its call.

It is true, of course, that many new “socialistic” tasks of government simply became lodged in traditional departments. Certainly the job of collecting the income tax after 1913 enlarged the Treasury Department; policing the purity of food and drugs under 1907 legislation added to the staff of the Department of Agriculture (a separate Food and Drug Administration did not come along until 1931); and conservation responsibilities increased Interior’s payroll. At any rate, in the fifteen years between 1901 and 1916 total federal civilian employment rose from about 240,000 to 400,000, a 66 percent increase, and in the next fifteen years, when for most of the time the business of America was business, there was further growth to some 600,000. Between mid-1916 and the end of 1929 Treasury and Commerce increased ranks by approximately 70 percent, Agriculture by a third, and Labor by 88 percent. Interior, however, actually lost some 5,000 employees. The I.C.C. remained about the same; the F.T.C. grew, but only to 397 workers.

Pause for another breather now, and brace for the explosion as the historian confronts the New Deal, World War II, the Cold War, and the reshaping of the nation’s economy and society from the 1960s to the present day—in all, sixty-four years of practically rocketlike acceleration in the size and power of the national government. Fully describing the changes would require a complete history of our times replete with statistical data. But perhaps we can pick our way among highlights and garner explanatory clues to our further progression toward accepting the monster—supergovernment—despite our proclaimed antistatist heritage. To begin with, an overview.

Three Million Bureaucrats

In 1932, the final year of the Hoover presidency, the federal civilian payroll stood at 605,496. As of June 30, 1940, the last year before the start of a military buildup, it was 1,042,420, a 72 percent jump in eight years. Starting from George Washington’s first administration, it had taken 151 years to create a national government big enough to employ a million people. Under the stress of war, it took only two more to reach the second million (in fact 2.29 million) in 1942. After victory the number never fell below two million except briefly in 1950, before the start of the Korean War, which immediately shot it upward again. Seventeen years later, in 1967, the federal civilian work force was 3,002,461. That, too, was a wartime year (if in fact there is any year during the Cold War that can be considered peacetime), and any post-Vietnam shrinkage was small and short-lived. The totals hovered around 2.9 million from 1970 through 1984, and in 1985 again surged to more than three million, where they have remained at least through 1992, despite the Cold War’s end in 1989. Even if 1967 is excluded as unusual and 1985 therefore taken as the benchmark, we still are confronted with a jump from a few hundred to one million government workers in 151 years, and from one million to three million in the following forty-five.

Any kind of detailed look will quickly show the impossibility of explaining these numbers without reference to the last fifty years of constant military readiness. We stipulated at the outset that war-related expansion would not be taken into account in explaining growth, yet since 1945 the line of demarcation between war and peace has been hard to find. All the same, it is worth a try. We can begin at any rate with an unambiguously domestic six-year boom in big government (1933–39) that goes under the label of the New Deal. Did the proliferation of the much defamed “alphabetical agencies” of the first two FDR administrations bring on the age of mega-administration and social engineering?

IN 1939, despite all FDR’s Depression-relief programs, more than half of the record-size work force was delivering the mail or manning the ramparts.

Yes, but with some qualifications. A breakdown of the 1939 federal payroll of 953,891 shows that the Post Office was still the biggest agency, with 291,114, followed by the War Department (even in its state of unreadiness), with 123,624, and the Department of the Navy, with 99,024. In short, more than half of that big work force was delivering the mail and manning the ramparts. Many Depression-relief agencies had already disappeared (like the Agricultural Adjustment Administration and the National Recovery Administration, ruled unconstitutional) or been folded into the cabinet departments. Of those remaining, the Federal Works Agency, the shrinking remnant of the Works Progress Administration that occupied the unemployed with public-works projects, had 46,659 workers, but that was scarcely more than the 45,844 in the Department of the Interior. A pair of freestanding assistance programs, the Federal Security Agency (running the four-year-old Social Security Board) and the Federal Loan Agency, kept 40,713 people at work between them, but the long-established Department of Agriculture towered over these at 86,250. The most far-reaching example of government intervention into making over an entire region, the Tennessee Valley Authority, counted 14,597 employees, but the Panama Canal Department had more (16,505), and the Veterans’ Administration two and a half times as many (38,493). As for the regulatory authorities, the National Labor Relations Board had all of 874 civil servants at its beck; the Securities and Exchange Commission, 1,616; the Federal Communications Commission, only 624. For comparison, the Government Printing Office kept 5,874 men and women at work.

It appears on the one hand, then, that the growth was largely a continuation of long-term trends within the already established departments, which kept on doing on a larger scale what they had long been doing—mainly helping grease the wheels of a capitalist economy. On the other hand, many new or enlarged subdivisions of the Agriculture and Interior Departments, for example, were carrying out unprecedented programs of conservation, housing assistance, electrification, relocation, and other forms of state planning. After the massive shock of the Depression, the federal government was expected to concern itself as never before with the public welfare—with social security in a very general sense—and with doing for new beneficiaries some of the favors that it had long routinely done for Western settlers or businessmen seeking foreign markets. As Franklin D. Roosevelt put it in a speech shortly before the 1936 election, “ Of course we will continue to seek to improve working conditions for the workers of America.… Of course we will continue to work for cheaper electricity in the homes and on the farms of America.… Of course we will continue our efforts in behalf of the farmers of America.… Of course we will continue our efforts for young men and women…for the crippled, for the blind, for the mothers, our insurance for the unemployed, our security for the aged. Of course we will continue to protect the consumer.…”

Shortly afterward a majority of voters in forty-six states registered their agreement by re-electing him. Perhaps it was because FDR’s “we” referred to a government that he was always careful to call in his fireside chats “ your government.” It was Roosevelt’s personification of government as trustworthy, friendly, and responsive to the most ordinary citizen that was revolutionary and that became the basis for a new American confidence—now lost—that a big and socially active national establishment was not necessarily, as Jefferson might have held, an evil in itself.

War Both Hot and Cold

Americans had, of course, almost always accepted the necessity of a powerful government in times of war and international crisis, and it is impossible to underrate the influence of the embattled 1940s and 1950s on getting almost unopposed consent to an explosion in the size and distribution of the federal work force. The figures for 1954, for example—a year in which Korea was just behind us, and Vietnam still far ahead—measure the impact of the preceding fifteen years. Well over two million people worked for the national government—2,407,676, to be precise—and half of them—1.208 million—for the Department of Defense, in charge of all the armed services since 1947. The Post Office did remain the second-largest federal employer, with just over 507,000, but the third was the Veterans’ Administration, with a triple-digit staff of 178,857 tending to the veterans of three wars within the preceding thirty-nine years, though that mission also included the final phases of administering a mighty piece of social engineering, the GI Bill of Rights.


Social, economic, and defense-related purposes were inextricably tangled together. The biggest cabinet department after the Department of Defense was the Treasury, which kept 80,893 people busy writing all those checks for veterans and military contractors as well as for numerous other creditors of the United States—from bankers to dirt farmers and Social Security recipients. The IRS also accounted for much of Treasury’s magnitude, reminding me of “Mr. Dooley’s” comment on learning, in 1898, that the Spanish-American War was over. “Th’ part that ye see in th’ pitcher pa-apers is over,” he mused, “but th’ tax collector will continyoo his part iv th’ war with relentless fury.”

Old departments and agencies kept high staffing levels (by pre-war standards) in the 1950s in spite of the government’s new emphases and priorities. In rounded figures Agriculture was 76,000 strong in 1954 and Commerce employed 42,000. The recently created Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, which absorbed many existing social service programs, was, with 35,000, near the bottom of the cabinet departments in size; the lowest rank was held by Labor with 5,129. Old regulatory offices, such as the Interstate Commerce Commission, Federal Trade Commission, Federal Power Commission, and Federal Communications Commission, had fewer than one or two thousand employees. New independent bodies charged with carrying out the propaganda and diplomatic side of the Cold War were not much bigger. The U.S. Information Agency employed 9,539; the Foreign Operations Administration, charged with foreign aid, 5,856. Even the scientific-research organizations with military overtones—heirs to such century-old bodies as the Coast and Geodetic Survey—were minor players. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor to NASA, had 7,161 operatives; the Atomic Energy Commission, 6,195. Many times that number of people were engaged merely in the sheer mechanics of keeping the government running. The General Services Administration had more than 26,000 employees, and almost 22,000 worked for Congress, more than double the number of twenty-five years earlier. If all these numbers are somewhat wearying, the lesson they teach is nonetheless plain. In 1954 the portion of government administering the welfare state was far less than the part concerned with national security.

Who Wants Big Government?

Our fearful trip is nearly done—but increasingly difficult. Numbers get bigger, trends harder to define, and debate about the deep meaning of it all more contentious and partisan. Yet it may be possible to chance a few defensible generalizations without too many more thrashings in statistical thickets. To begin with, how and why did the total civilian work force of the federal government reach that threshold of three million around which it hovered steadily throughout the 1970s and 1980s?

There is a natural inclination to focus on the idealistic programs of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, particularly LBJ’s Great Society initiatives. In fact the Peace Corps was set up in 1961 and the Office of Economic Opportunity (headquarters of the war on poverty) in 1964, which also marked the birth of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the passage of the Clean Air Act, prefiguring the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency two years after. And Medicare came along in 1965. These help account for the increase in the grand total of federal workers from 1960’s 2,398,704 to that of 1970, 2,981,574—with that spike in 1967 to 3,002,461. But they do not stand alone. Military and economic developments were the primary purposes of two Eisenhower-era legacies—the Federal Aid Highway Act, also known as the Interstate and Defense Highway Act of 1956, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, authorized in 1958 to run the space race. A companion measure, the National Defense Education Act, put the government more deeply than ever into financing higher education.

Once embedded in the federal structure, these enterprises remained alive and often growing throughout the two decades after 1970, a period during which the Republicans controlled the White House for sixteen years, the Senate for six of those sixteen, but the House of Representatives for none at all. The turn to Washington for assistance took many forms, not all of them exclusively the design of liberals. The National Environmental Policy Act (1969); the Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970); the Consumer Product Safety, Water Pollution Control, and Equal Employment Opportunity Acts (1972); a Federal Energy Administration Act; and measures providing for important subsidies to mass transit and to school systems (1974)—all were passed on Nixon’s watch, though sometimes over his objections or his veto. These acts put more power and personnel into the Department of Transportation, dating from 1966, and into two more cabinet departments created in the seventies, Energy (1977) and Education (1979), the latter bringing on the renaming of Health, Education, and Welfare as the Department of Health and Human Services. (The final department of the current fourteen-member cabinet, Veterans Affairs, was fashioned in 1988 under Ronald Reagan.) Nor can any recent history of the United States overlook the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, or the Toxic Substances Control Act, conferring fresh responsibilities on the FDA, or various laws mandating federal aid to local law enforcers.

THE FACT is, people did not truly want government “off their backs.” They expected it to act in their behalf—though not necessarily that of others.

The message of the seventies, at least, and possibly of the eighties too, was that America’s expectations of the federal government were still high, even though the rhetoric of the Great Society had been stilled. Whatever politicians might say, the “moderate” voters sent back congressional majorities to enlist Washington in keeping the air and water clean, the roads open, gas pumps flowing, retirement funds protected, workplaces safe, opportunities equal, the poor fed, students’ noses in books, and businessmen’s thumbs off the scale. Ripples of increase spread down the governmental chain; state and local government personnel boomed from 10.14 million in 1970 to 15.26 million in 1990.

The impact of the many new or expanded federal government ventures on the distribution of its employees resists easy description. Bear with me for one final flurry of numbers. A look at the statistics for 1976, the year of the bicentennial, shows a Defense Department still employing more than a million civilians, the United States Postal Service 675,653, and the Veterans’ Administration nearly 222,313. The Treasury Department was 125,600 strong, having gained 33,079 workers in only the preceding six years. Health, Education, and Welfare counted 155,096 in its ranks, a big 43 percent jump over 1970. The Agriculture Department, in a nation with few farmers left, still had 128,052 employees, the Interior Department 81,844, and the Department of Justice nearly 54,000. HUD accounted for only 16,579.

A summation of the 1980s without fear, favor, or partisanship is also enlightening. At the end of the Reagan-Bush era—1992—there were 3.085 million federal toilers. More than 38,000 of them worked for Congress, and nearly 28,000 for the judiciary, nearly double as many as twelve years before. The Defense Department still led the cabinet with its 982,774 employees. Veterans Affairs (essentially the former VA) had 260,205 in its ranks, and the never resting Treasury Department now paid the salaries of almost 131,191. Health and Human Services stood at 155,662; Agriculture, still at a surprising 128,324. The Department of Justice had hugely expanded from 56,327 in 1980 to 96,927. Interior employed 85,260. The Department of Education, a favored target of conservatives, had only 5,113 workers. Of the independent agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency had 18,196 at work and was exceeded by NASA, with some 25,425, and by two bodies dating all the way back to New Deal days—the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, with 22,467, and the TVA, with 19,493, although the latter represented a major downsizing from the 1980 figure of 51,714. There were other shrinkages too, the General Services Administration having dropped since 1980 from about 37,654 to 20,770. Likewise, smaller agencies such as the U.S. International Development Cooperation Agency—that is, foreign aid—underwent reductions, but they had begun the decade of the eighties with fewer than 10,000, so their big layoffs represented small real numbers.

And Where Will It Ever End?

Such cuts aside, the fundamental fact was that in 1990 the national government was still huge and still growing, albeit at a slackened pace. The reason was that for all the growing dissatisfaction with expensive bureaucracies, people did not truly want government “off their backs.” They expected it to act in their behalf—though not necessarily that of others—in a variety of ways, and it did so in response to the same pressures that had led it in the 1800s to give away free homesteads, create land-grant colleges and agricultural experiment stations, erect naval observatories, and send consuls to foreign commercial centers.


A pair of political scientists wrote in 1990 that between 1964 and 1972 “a new age emerged [whose] most defining characteristic is an uneasy acceptance by liberals, moderates and even at times conservatives of a powerful national establishment.” Ironically, they speculated, Ronald Reagan’s personal appeal might have put a friendly face on it and thereby made it more acceptable even as he railed against it. In any case, they concluded, “Although big government may make all Americans queasy some of the time, it now makes only a tiny fragment nervous all of the time. With fewer and fewer exceptions, Americans have come to terms with a powerful central establishment. It may be telling that when they are informed that they have become quite comfortable ‘living with leviathan,’ most Americans today cannot begin to fathom what that means.”

It is tempting to leave that as the final word, but it is impossible at close range to know if it really is. Following the election of 1992 (in which Ross Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote with stinging attacks on inept and bloated government), there came rumbles of a growing revolution, or perhaps a counterrevolution, and these culminated in the 1994 election of a Republican Congress swearing to cut the monster down to size. By January of 1996 President Clinton himself had apparently signed on with his declaration in the State of the Union message that “the era of big government is over.” By then the “damn-the-government” outcry ranged from the extremes of right-wing militia revolutionaries to the modest promises of Vice President Gore to “re-invent” government.

But is there, in fact, a revival of the individualist philosophy of an Emerson or the praise of government frugality of a Jefferson cited at the beginning of this investigation? Are Americans willing to pay the price of a genuine and sweeping reduction in government? The 104th Congress, chosen in 1994, for all its promises to swing the ax, cut no important entitlement program with a large constituency—defense included. Its members, like everyone else, seemed uncertain of what the voters would do if they really kept their antigovernment promises.

“Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook?” God asked of Job. Perhaps the question that the American people have yet to answer clearly is not only “Canst thou?” but “Wilt thou truly?”

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