Thank Abraham Lincoln for Big Government

This piece by William Nichols, a doctoral candidate in political science at Wayne State University, is bound to ruffle some feathers.  Nichols compares the “big government” rhetoric of the 19th-century Whig party with the the “big government” liberalism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Here, for example, is a quote from Daniel Webster:

But all these local advantages, and all this enlightened state policy, could never have made your city what it now is, without the aid and protection of a general government, extending over all the States, and establishing for all a common and uniform system of commercial regulation.  Without national character, without public credit, without systematic finance, without uniformity of commercial laws, all other advantages possessed by this city would have decayed and perished, like unripe fruit.

Here is Henry Clay:

Our American system, which was at once both to destroy foreign commerce, and to dry up the sources of the public income, has disappointed all the predictions of its foes, and assures us of the speedy arrival of the day when our national independence will be consummated.  The manufactures of our country have now struck such deep and strong root, that the hand of violence itself can scarcely tear up and destroy them.  Their twin – sister, internal improvements, has not been neglected.  Large and liberal appropriations, in every part of the union, have been made to that beneficent object.

And here is Lincoln:

The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.
In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.
The desirable things which the individuals of a people can not do, or can not well do, for themselves, fall into two classes:  those which have relation to wrongs, and those which have not.  Each of these branch off into an infinite variety of subdivisions.
The first—that in relation to wrongs—embraces all crimes, misdemeanors, and non-performance of contracts.  The other embraces all which, in its nature, and without wrong, requires combined action, as public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself.
From this it appears that if all men were just, there would still be some, though not so much, need of government.

We must be careful using quotes like this.  As historians know, the past is a “foreign country” where they do things differently.  As a result, we should be cautious when applying the 19th-century Whig understanding of active government to the 20th or 21st century understanding of active or “big” government.

Nevertheless, one cannot deny that the Whigs and Republicans believed that government had a very important role to play in economic life and in protecting the “welfare” of some of its citizens.  The Whigs were not “states-rights” anti-Federalist libertarians.  They were nationalists.  And their nationalism was partially built upon a strong and active federal government.

And some conservative politicians might be horrified to learn that it was Thomas Jefferson and his descendants in what would become the 19th-century Democratic Party who favored limited government.

3 thoughts on “Thank Abraham Lincoln for Big Government

  1. “In the Founding era, there was a principled vision of what good government might look like; … The post-Founding era began to make compromises to popular sentiment and exigencies.”

    Certainly you're not suggesting that the Founders never made compromises based on popular sentiment and exigencies, are you Tom?


  2. I don't think the modern welfare state can be pulled out of these quotes as it was unimaginable at the time.

    By contrast, see Madison's 1817 veto of a public works bill, per the Constitution, that “general welfare” or the now-dreaded Commerce Clause should be used as carte blanche for any bright idea that might make life better for some American somewhere.

    “To refer the power in question to the clause “to provide for common defense and general welfare” would be contrary to the established and consistent rules of interpretation, as rendering the special and careful enumeration of powers which follow the clause nugatory and improper. Such a view of the Constitution would have the effect of giving to Congress a general power of legislation instead of the defined and limited one hitherto understood to belong to them, the terms “common defense and general welfare” embracing every object and act within the purview of a legislative trust.”

    Contra its pointed-headed critics from the academic establishment, there's a firm reason the Tea Party fastens onto the Founding rather than other eras.

    In the Founding era, there was a principled vision of what good government might look like; you are as familiar with the quotes as I. The post-Founding era began to make compromises to popular sentiment and exigencies [I was working on the surviving Founders' reaction to the Missouri Compromise today, John; they were disgusted].

    There is no harm in taking a fresh and vigilant look at the Founding and the “social contract” we consider ourselves bound to as good citizens of this nation.

    Those things that fall outside the original agreement between the states and the people with their general, central, “federal” government are rightly called into question, even if a bit late.

    It's not all about race and slavery, eh? There was damned good reason they called it the “peculiar institution,” and why we should not attempt to fit every matter of the American polity into that pigeonhole. Not everything in our politics can or should be compared to our Original Sin on race.


  3. When I espouse this big government view that Lincoln was seemingly advocating and use this as a reason I don't love Lincoln as much as everybody else, my Conservative friends treat me as if I am uttering blasphemy. It's good to know somebody else is recognizing this.

    On another note, do you think it is incorrect to compare Lincoln's “big government ideas” with those of LBJ or FDR? Or are you simply saying we need to be cautious?


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