The Historical Roots of Big Government

Our government has changed drastically since the American Founding. The implied powers of Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution have expanded greatly and almost all aspects of American life is impacted on some level by government. How did we go from a government that was designed by the Constitution to be limited to a government that has become a leviathan? For different reasons progressives or modern liberals, libertarians, and even some conservatives charge Alexander Hamilton and President Abraham Lincoln with being the creator of big government.

Alexander Hamilton was a leading Founding Father and a leader of the Federalist Party. Hamilton served as our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury under President George Washington. Political Scientist Carson Holloway notes that “certain libertarians and limited-government conservatives dismiss Hamilton as a prophet of big government,” while liberals and progressives “praise Hamilton on similar grounds, seeing in his legacy a Founding-era version of their own aspirations to use the national power as a tool of economic and social development.”

Hamilton’s libertarians and conservative critics believe that his policies not only expanded national power, but went directly against the limited government philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. Both Hamilton and Jefferson took part in a major debate over policy, the Constitution, and the proper function of government during the Washington administration. Although not enough time is permitted to discuss the Hamilton’s political thought in detail, Holloway argues that he was a conservative:

Above all, Hamilton understood the powers of government to be limited—not only by the written law of the Constitution, but also by the natural rights affirmed by the consensus of the Founding generation. Hamilton favored an activist federal government, but he did so on grounds and within limits that are recognizably part of the American conservative and constitutional tradition.

The late historian and Hamilton biographer Forrest McDonald shared Holloway’s assessment when he wrote that “Hamilton’s fiscal system, which breathed life into the Constitution, was an example of conservatism—of constructive, prudential change—at its best.”

Hamilton’s economic policies were later advocated by the Whig Party under the leadership of Henry Clay. Clay’s American System, which called for a national bank, funding of internal improvements, and a system of protective tariffs, was rooted in Hamilton’s Federalist policies. It was these policies that also attracted the attention of a young Abraham Lincoln, who as a Whig, considered Henry Clay to be his political hero.

President Abraham Lincoln, just as with Hamilton, is often blamed for contributing to today’s big government. In fact, a line can be drawn from Hamilton, Clay, and Lincoln, all of whom shared a similar political and economic philosophy.

President Lincoln’s administration was dominated by the American Civil War and the federal government did increase its size and power because of the war, but as Allen Guelzo noted the federal government “shrank back to more recognizable proportions once the wartime emergency was over.” Conservative and libertarian critics point out that during Lincoln’s administration he followed a Hamiltonian economic program with legislation that consisted of national banking, internal improvements, and tariffs, but did this program really create big government?

Conservatives and libertarians certainly can disagree with Hamilton’s and Lincoln’s policies, but they should not consider them to be the creator of big government. Progressives and modern liberals are also wrong to claim Hamilton and Lincoln as early advocates for an “activist” federal government.

The true origins for today’s big government originate with the progressive and modern liberal movement of the early 20th century. In the early 20th century progressives argued that limited government was not only outdated, but the Constitution should be interpreted as a living-Darwinian document which changed with the times. Progressives claim Hamilton and Lincoln as one of their “own” because they consider them to be early advocates of government activism, but Hamilton and Lincoln did not share in the progressive view of the Constitution.

Progressive presidential administrations under Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson called for a new aggressive federal government to regulate the economy with greater force and to promote the general welfare through social policy. Perhaps the greatest contributor to the growth of government was President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal. Roosevelt, elected in a landslide because of the Great Depression, and in response he launched the New Deal, which directly changed the way Americans look to their government. The New Deal strengthened the regulatory reach of the federal government, but it also created the modern welfare state with entitlement programs such as Social Security. Roosevelt, acting in the progressive tradition, often attacked constitutional limited government as a failure or outdated.

In his 1944 State of the Union message President Roosevelt called for a second “Bill of Rights.” Roosevelt argued that the Constitution failed to provide economic security to the American people and therefore the federal government needed to provide that security. Roosevelt’s second “Bill of Rights” consisted of:

    • The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;
    • The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
    • The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
    • The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
    • The right of every family to a decent home;
    • The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
    • The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
    • The right to a good education.

Roosevelt’s New Deal was later expanded by President Lyndon B. Johnson and his Great Society.

A careful study of Hamilton’s and Lincoln’s political philosophy will demonstrate that they were not early progressives or liberals. To truly understand our government today we must understand the impact of the progressive movement both on the Constitution and the culture, which has shifted both the government and the people away from the original constitutional principles of the American Founding.