How Small is Too Big?

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson. By: Rembrandt Peale. 1805.

When Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans came to power in 1800, they had a major priority: reverse the Federalist trend of expanding the federal government.

In Thomas Jefferson’s first message to Congress, in 1801, Jefferson framed the role of the federal government as only being “charged with the external and mutual relations only of these states.” All other matters were to be left to the states.

In 1800, the American federal government was “small even by eighteenth-century European standards.” Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty, 291. Gordon Wood explains in Empire of Liberty that in “1801 the headquarters of the War Department, for example, consisted of only the secretary, an accountant, fourteen clerks, and two messengers. The secretary of state had a staff consisting of a chief clerk, six other clerks (one of whom ran the patent office), and a messenger. The attorney general did not yet even have a clerk.” Id.

Throughout the 1790s, there was significant growth in the governmental offices, so the numbers cited for 1801 would have appeared to be a major jump from those in the first years after the adoption of the Constitution. Nonetheless, Jefferson and the Republicans were determined to reverse the trend of a growing federal government that began to resemble the bureaucratic monarchies of Europe.

Jefferson’s perspective of the role of government, and the tension between the Federalists and Republicans on the desirable and proper size of the federal government continue to be relevant today. Obviously, the federal government has grown to include numerous other departments and agencies since the early Republic, but the same question is still discussed amongst common people, analysts, and politicians: how much of a presence should the federal government have in the common person’s life?

While Jefferson and the early Republicans sought to limit the presence of the federal government to essentially handling the mail and foreign relations, the belief that the federal government needed to be involved in crucial aspects of Americans’ lives undoubtedly won the contest.

Few Americans now would advocate abolishing Social Security, taxes, downsizing of federal agencies, and having a more passive, impotent federal government overall. These federal responsibilities feel necessary to the average American. Justifiably so, as the federal government is uniquely positioned to oversee the implementation of policies that benefit all Americans.

Perhaps the gradual growth in the federal government, with occasionally growing under liberal-leaning presidents and Congresses and occasionally diminishing under conservative-leaning presidents and Congresses, was the best way for the United States to progress from a small republic to a global superpower.

It seems that the healthy debate between the parties over the past two centuries of what the federal government should be is what kept the United States on a moderate path, never straying too far from its principles.

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