On February 12, America will celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s 202nd birthday, but will conservatives celebrate his legacy? Lincoln is a pivotal figure in American history, yet some conservatives are wary of him. Lincoln, the Left proclaims and the Right fears, is the father of big government.
Conservatives shouldn’t be fooled. If big government means a permanently large and growing federal budget and a vast civil service (see William Voegeli’s Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State), then Lincoln may deny paternity for both. As Allen Guelzo explains, 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 concludes, “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.
In reality, big government is a Progressive invention, designed by Progressive thinkers such as Herbert Croly and John Dewey and perpetrated by Progressive presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. These men embraced big government, because they held certain principles opposed to the limited government framework set forth in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
By contrast, Lincoln held a different set of premises. He defended the Constitution and “never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” To understand Lincoln, therefore, we must turn to the documents he held so dear.
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