• The Heritage Network
    • Resize:
    • A
    • A
    • A
  • Donate
  • Lincoln: The Father of Big Government?

    To sell his tax-code tweaks, new regulatory schemes, and insatiable ardor for big government, President Obama invoked Abraham Lincoln in his State of the Union address: “I’m a Democrat. But I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.”

    Was Lincoln the father of big government? In a new Special Report, Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., of Gettysburg College lays out the argument that the modern state’s paternity lies with the Progressives.

    If big government means a permanently large and growing federal budget and a vast civil service, then Lincoln may deny paternity for both. While the federal budget indeed ballooned to meet the cost of the Civil War (from $63.2 million in 1860 to $1.29 billion in 1865), it shrank once the war ended (back to $293 million by 1870). “If Lincoln had plans to create ‘big government,’” Guelzo notes, “none of his successors seems to have known what they were.” Similarly, while the federal government employed more people during the war, the number shrank once the war ended.

    If big government means a plethora of agencies possessing intrusive powers, then Lincoln is again vindicated. Lincoln’s Administration produced no dramatic increase in executive agencies. Between the 1850s and the end of the Civil War, the federal government added seven new agencies for a total of 22 (a far cry from the 513 agencies in 2010).

    The policies that leave Lincoln’s Administration most vulnerable to the charge of expanding the reach of big government were tariffs and the imposition of a graduated income tax. But upon close examination, it is clear that they were no Trojan horse to grow government.

    Government did not prosper under Lincoln’s tariff regime; instead, the American private sector did. Tariff rates tripled between the years of 1860 to 1864. Rather than pay more for imported products, however, Americans relied on domestic markets. This was a trade-off the Lincoln Administration was willing to accept: a loss of revenue from customs duties for the benefit it bestowed on domestic manufacturing, especially at a time when dependence on imports from foreign nations that favored the Confederacy imperiled the republic’s survival.

    The income tax was levied to pay the bills—not to implement some broad social vision or redistribute income. By 1862, the costs of the Civil War were so high that Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase confessed to Lincoln that the Treasury was running dry on revenue, and financiers were proving reluctant to lend. The purpose of the income tax was twofold: to fund the war and the operations of government and to take the inflationary steam out of the newly introduced “greenback” currency.

    The personal income taxes were modest burdens on Northern taxpayers: 3 percent on incomes below $10,000 and 5 percent on incomes more than $10,000. (There were steep progressive rates on those living under the Confederate government.) The personal income tax form amounted to exactly one page. These taxes lasted only until their repeal in 1872, and by that time all but the tariffs had disappeared.

    Lastly, Lincoln was deeply committed to the framework of limited government set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He admitted that he “never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” For Lincoln, the Constitution was never a living document capable of accommodating any policy he wished to implement. Even the canard that Lincoln shredded the Constitution’s protection for civil liberties has been thoroughly debunked. The true legacy of Lincoln is not enlarging government but preserving the Constitution and the Union.

    Neither Lincoln nor his Administration was any model for today’s modern bureaucratic state. The wartime emergency of 1861–1865 increased the size and scope of the federal government for a time. This increase was the creature of an emergency and was never seen by Lincoln as anything but that. His unwavering commitment to natural rights and the Constitution’s framework of limited government dispels any notions that he set the stage for the expansion of government in the 20th century.

    Posted in Featured, First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    13 Responses to Lincoln: The Father of Big Government?

    1. 475Linebaugh says:

      Yes, all that may be true; however, was it not Lincoln who established the precedent that federal power trumps State sovereignty? Thus laying the groundwork for a federal government expansion that could no longer be checked by the States? Is not the United States of America the only country in recent history to have ever fought a civil war over the issue of slavery? Can it not be logically argued that had Lincoln left well enough alone that slavery in the United States would have likely gone the same way it did in the UK and other civilized nations? Could not Lincoln have used economic sanctions on the South instead of civil war to solve the problem?

    2. Jeff, Illinois says:

      Historical dishonesty and distortion . . as usual!

    3. NickF says:

      You had me until this part…

      "Government did not prosper under Lincoln’s tariff regime; instead, the American private sector did. Tariff rates tripled between the years of 1860 to 1864. Rather than pay more for imported products, however, Americans relied on domestic markets. This was a trade-off the Lincoln Administration was willing to accept: a loss of revenue from customs duties for the benefit it bestowed on domestic manufacturing…"

      I think tariffs are a hindrance to economic advancement not a plus…

      Otherwise good article!

    4. Cindy says:

      We had the constitutional right of succession. The very act of "holding the union together" brings the heavy hand of authoritarian, centralized power against a weaker faction.

    5. Cindy says:

      We had the constitutional right of succession. The very act of "holding the union together" brings the heavy hand of authoritarian, centralized big government.

    6. Bill Downey says:

      Since we no longer spend the time to teach U. S. History or Civics Obama may get away with this historical dishonesty and distortion.

    7. allen says:

      And King Ricard III stole a Kingship who gives "A Rats BEHIND". Why is President Obama LYING?????

    8. Wow, what up with the Red's commenting on a Heritage Foundation site. Occupodo's have nothing better to do? Any who,

      I recently read an article online about how Lincoln set up a state bank in Illinois when he was a state legislator and that he was apt to give out cheap loans to railroad companies as well as cheap deals when selling off government lands. They also propose that those railroads were initially government owned and operated. I read it in passing so I didn't have the opportunity to fact check and confirm all the details. But indeed that would be lessen my admiration for the first Republican president in my mind. I can still admire him for the accomplishments that he made and realize that after all, he was just a moderate Republican who ran with a Democrat as VP (Said Democrat almost got impeached after Lincolns death by Radical republicans who took over the house and granted Black there 13'th 14'th and 15'th amendments btw). So he was probably a Nixonian, Rockefeller, Big-Business type of republican (which is ok in small doses I suppose). But now I am starting to Rant. Hopefully in the future we can get an article from you guys on Lincoln's Domestic and Fiscal policies and a comparison to today's political wranglings. Now that alone would be worth the price of admission.

    9. FranklinSV12 says:

      This was an excellent article, and it debunks the Civil War revisionists who slander Lincoln and idolize the Democrat Confederates. We Christian conservatives can understand John Adams’ statement that the Constitution only works for a moral and religious people and is wholly inadequate for the governance of any other. By the 1830s; when Andrew Jackson, a Democrat under pressure from Southern Democrat scoundrels, broke a treaty with the Christianized, free-enterprise, peaceful Cherokee Nation and sent them on the Trail of Tears; the original, PRE-13th/14th/15th-Amendments Constitution had become inadequate for the governance of many Democrats.
      Abraham Lincoln was not perfect, but whatever Lincoln did wrong in the Civil War, the Democrats brought it upon themselves.

    10. FranklinSV12 says:

      The 1850s in the USA were a decade of slavery expansion with a Lebensraum mentality by Southen Democrats, coupled with Neville Chamberlain-ish appeasement by Northern Democrat. A Democrat Congress gave the USA the Fugitive Slave Act which allowed vile Southern slave-catchers to run amok in the North and even kidnap Northern-born free blacks and sell them INTO Southern slavery, the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the subsequent admission of Kansas with a pro-slavery rump government run by carpetbagging Southern Democrat bushwackers, Dred Scott v. Missouri which ranks down there with Roe v. Wade/Doe v. Bolton, and Southern Democrat Preston Brooks’ Hitler-Youth-style assault of abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner.

    11. Jim, CT says:

      How about the Civil War being the first time a national draft was employed? That goes right to the heart of it – either your life belongs to you, to do with as you choose, or your life belongs to the government.

      The draft was also used by Wilson, FDR, Truman, Kennedy, LBJ. All legislation in recent years to reintroduce the draft has been done by radical leftists like Charlie Rangel. Nixon campaigned on repealing the draft, I think Donald Rumsfeld was the first to introduce legislation to end the draft during Vietnam, Milton Friedman argued forcefully against it, and Ron Paul continues to introduce legislation to repeal Selective Service registration.

    12. Claude Cornell says:

      You can easily tell when Obama is lying, just look to see if his lips are moving.
      If his lips are moving, he's lying. I've never seen a more anti-american president.

    Comments are subject to approval and moderation. We remind everyone that The Heritage Foundation promotes a civil society where ideas and debate flourish. Please be respectful of each other and the subjects of any criticism. While we may not always agree on policy, we should all agree that being appropriately informed is everyone's intention visiting this site. Profanity, lewdness, personal attacks, and other forms of incivility will not be tolerated. Please keep your thoughts brief and avoid ALL CAPS. While we respect your first amendment rights, we are obligated to our readers to maintain these standards. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    Big Government Is NOT the Answer

    Your tax dollars are being spent on programs that we really don't need.

    I Agree I Disagree ×

    Get Heritage In Your Inbox — FREE!

    Heritage Foundation e-mails keep you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.

    ×