A Government Out of Sight
The Mystery of National Authority in 19th-Century America
Cambridge University Press 2009
Americans don’t like “big government” right? Not exactly. In the Early Republic (1789 to the 1820s) folks were quite keen on building up the (you guessed it) republic. As in res publica, the “things held in common.” The “founding fathers”–all “Classical Republicans”–designed a form of government that, though “checked and balanced,” gave the federal government significant powers. And throughout the 19th-century Americans asked the federal government to use those powers to do all kinds of things, many of them profoundly self-interested. But as Brian Balogh points out in his thought-provoking new book A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in 19th-Century America (Cambridge UP, 2009) they–that is, the American people–preferred that the federal government render aid in a certain way, namely, unobtrusively. Americans wanted the federal government to help, but they didn’t want to see any federal officials. This created a system of “associative” government: the center collected money (or incurred debt) and then distributed it to cities, counties, and states to get what it–and they–wanted done. But the federal government didn’t give the money to local governments alone; they also, even in the 19th century, gave it in the forms of subsidies, tax credits, loans and so on to private individuals and entities. It hardly needs to be said that the impact of this traditional American way of “doing” central power can be seen today. From block grants to states for welfare programs, to for-profit military contractors in Iraq, to “public” healthcare administered by the private insurance industry–it’s all part of “associative” government. So do Americans hate “big government”? Only “big government” they can see.
Brian and two of his colleagues have a radio history show that you should listen to. You can find it here.
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