Has there ever been a time in the history of the United States when the size, scope and reach of the Federal Government was not on the increase?

Mike Caplanis (a fan)

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Dear Mike,

Since American history is as much the story of domestic and later foreign expansion as well as domestic policies, you’ve got to evaluate each presidency in its turn in relation to the non-vacuum in which it existed. For example, Thomas Jefferson was for smaller government and less Federal action on principal—in preference to more states’ rights—yet he got the United States involved in war against the Barbary Pirates and stepped out of character to take quick advantage of an offer by Napoleon in the form of the Louisiana Purchase. Among the presidents who managed to shrink government was Andrew Jackson, who paradoxically (some might argue) exerted unprecedented executive power whenever he saw fit. William McKinley was all for the laissez-faire of the Gilded Age, yet he launched the United States on its path to joining the international imperialist powers at the expanse of a declining Spain. And you know about his successor, Theodore Roosevelt.

Among the most successful shrinkers of government in the 20th century were the Republican administrations of Warren G. Harding (marred by some of his self-serving cabinet appointments), Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, although the Depression, followed by World War II, brought an end to that. The Cold War and its worldwide spin-offs would get in the way of Franklin Roosevelt’s successors’ efforts (Ronald Reagan included), leaving the scandal-free Coolidge arguably the “patron saint” of modern believers in small government.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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