Wednesday’s Book Review: “A Government Out of Sight”

9780521527866A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth Century America. By Brian Balogh. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

This important book challenges the dominant perception that the United States government of the nineteenth century, imbued as it was by a laissez-faire attitude, did very little to improve the lives of the nation’s citizenry. Brian Balogh, known best as one the History Guys on the radio program/podcast “Backstory,” challenges this interpretation and emphasizes the activist nature of governmental initiative during that era. He finds that through a series of almost “hidden-hand” actions, the federal government undertook economic, state-making, and educational development.

As an example, Balogh discusses how Congress excelled at legal mechanisms to aid internal improvements, create infrastructure, and advance manufacturing and trade. He also tackles the issue of how the federal government enacted targeted subsidies to build railroads and canals, to provide for cheap development of western lands, and to focus on economic growth. Finally, through third parties, sometimes using state and local governments as surrogates, the government undertook a range of activities that helped to turn the U.S. into the economic and military powerhouse that became in the twentieth century. All the while, these actions eschewed the rise of governmental bureaucracy.

Balogh’s study spotlights the activist national government of the era, but he finds that it was an activism strikingly different from the model so common in the twentieth century. He reminds us that just because it did not take the form of governmental leadership common in our own era, but that does not mean the government was indifferent to needs and failings in its responsibilities to aid the public welfare. It did act, just not as overtly as present in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

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