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The Federal Government: From Uninvolved to Everywhere

Updated on October 29, 2014

Jennifer Garner


The Federal Government: From Uninvolved to Everywhere

From Reconstruction to the 1960s, the role of the federal government became more active and involved, both at home and abroad. At home the government transitioned from a laissez-faire, hands-off approach to modern liberalism and an active, regulatory role. Initially the federal government backed out of the race issue and left it alone. During the Progressive Era and the New Deal, the federal government started to resemble modern liberalism by taking on a regulatory and reformist role. It also became more involved in the lives of its citizens during World War I and the Cold War. By the 1960s and Johnson’s Great Society, the government had fully transitioned to modern liberalism and an active role in society, including abolishing Jim Crow. Similarly, the government’s role abroad shifted from a stance of isolationism to direct intervention in other nations. Initially, as in the Spanish-American War and World War I, we acted on the global stage only when directly threatened. Slowly, however, this transitioned to a willingness to intervene abroad preemptively to protect our interests, and culminated in the Vietnam War. The role of our government as a whole shifted from small and detached to an ever-increasing level of involvement and activity, both domestic and international.

During Reconstruction the federal government was actively involved in the race issue for a time, but eventually backed down. Lincoln wanted to abolish slavery and support education for blacks, but later Johnson vetoed both the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill and the Civil Rights Bill, which would have helped blacks transition to freedom and secured their status as citizens. As a result, Congress became so radical in its approach that for a while it seemed race relations might improve. The Reconstruction Acts of 1867, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments seemed to signify that the federal government was taking steps toward helping black citizens. Congressional Reconstruction marked a high point in the federal government’s involvement in transitioning black citizens to freedom and protecting them from whites.

However, this involvement was all but eliminated by the Bargain of 1877, when Hayes promised to let the Democrats control the South in order to secure their votes in his presidential election. This pulled the federal government out of the race issue in the South for decades to come, and symbolized the laissez-faire, or hands-off, policy that was prominent at the time. The case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 signified another reduction in the government’s involvement in the issue, when the Supreme Court decided that segregation was lawful. This not only meant the federal government was no longer interested in mediating race relations, but it also directly led to the rise of Jim Crow in the South. It took until the 1960s for the federal government to get actively involved in race relations again.

The federal government started to shift toward modern liberalism by taking on regulatory and reformist roles during industrialization and the Progressive Era. President Theodore Roosevelt established a new regulatory relationship between the government and businesses with his antitrust regulation and support of discussion between business and union leaders. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Meat Inspection Act of the same year established standards for cleanliness and safety for consumers. The 17th Amendment of 1913 reformed the federal government by mandating the direct election of U.S. Senators. The ratification of the 19th Amendment symbolized a shift toward the federal government enacting reform in society, by granting women the right to vote. With the Progressive Era came many instances of the federal government taking on new regulatory and reformist roles that increased its involvement in industry, business, and daily life. This period signified the first shift from laissez-faire liberalism to modern liberalism and a belief in an active government with broad regulatory powers.

World War I caused the new regulatory role of the federal government to expand from industry and business to regulation of its citizens. The Committee on Public Information and the Espionage and Sedition Acts limited Americans’ right to free speech and controlled the public reaction to the war. Using these measures, the federal government controlled the way Americans received information about the war and restricted the way they could talk and feel about it. It also vastly limited the products citizens could buy by taking over industry for the war effort, and encouraged Americans to conserve food and to buy liberty bonds. Shortly after the war, the federal government also started to increase regulation over who could comprise its citizens through immigration restrictions. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 paved the way, and later the National Origins Act of 1924 severely limited the number of immigrants from each country that could enter the United States. World War I marked a new level of activity of the federal government in the daily lives of its citizens.

The Great Depression caused an explosion in social programs.
The Great Depression caused an explosion in social programs. | Source

Shortly thereafter, the Great Depression caused an explosion of new programs that increased the size, spending, and activity of the federal government and tied it more closely to modern liberalism. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation expanded the role of the government into many new areas such as works projects, granting aid to the needy, welfare, regulating the economy, and more. The Social Security Act of 1935 established payments for the unemployed, elderly, and disabled. The Wagner Act of the same year offered protection to labor and upheld workers’ right to unionize. The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation regulated the stock market and insured the nation’s bank deposits, respectively. Many other programs also took steps to regulate the economy. The New Deal vastly expanded the regulatory role of the federal government, and added the role of providing direct aid to its citizens in times of crisis. In this way, the New Deal signified an enormous growth in the amount that the federal government interacted with its citizens and with the economy. It also further demonstrated the rise of modern liberalism in the role of American government.

During the Cold War, the federal government’s role at home was extended to maintaining a culture of containment. This was a monitoring of American citizens that harkened back to the restrictive measures of World War I. One of these was HUAC, or the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was formed in Congress to crack down on communists in America and limit their influence. HUAC targeted Hollywood, compelling many to testify to the presence of communists in Hollywood and blacklisting those who refused to cooperate. The Federal Employee Loyalty Program of 1947 monitored citizens’ political leanings and fired those who could possibly be branded Communist. In this respect, the Cold War had a very similar effect upon the role of the federal government as did World War I. It caused the government to place similar restrictions on the freedom of speech, so that civilians could be imprisoned for saying or doing the wrong thing. In this way, the amount that the federal government regulated and monitored the everyday lives of its citizens saw a sharp increase.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s forced the federal government to once more get involved in race relations. This period saw modern liberalism extended to a desire for a government active in social issues. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate but equal was unlawful, reversing the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson which had largely led to the rampant growth of Jim Crow in the South. This signified a shift in the federal government’s willingness to get involved in the issue of racial equality in America. Although Eisenhower did not immediately support the decision and U.S. Senators issued a “Southern Manifesto” to protest it, the federal government eventually backed the decision. When the Little Rock Nine were endangered in Arkansas, Eisenhower sent in troops to guard the students and escort them through school. Its reaction may have been slow to gain momentum, but eventually the federal government became more involved in pushing for equality.

Although President Kennedy did not accomplish much on the Civil Rights stage, his assassination largely enabled President Johnson to pass radical new legislation to fight Jim Crow in the South. Johnson firmly believed in modern liberalism and that the government must help individuals achieve equality. As such, he pushed for and passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned segregation and discrimination against blacks and gave the federal government the power to fight discrimination in schools. Furthermore, Johnson’s Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed the measures that Southerners had used to disenfranchise blacks, and gave the attorney general the power to register voters where discrimination might be occurring. This active involvement of the federal government finally started to bring about an end to segregation and disenfranchisement in the South that had been in place for decades. These two measures, perhaps more than anything else, help demonstrate how far the federal government had come since Reconstruction with regards to its level of involvement in regulation, reform, and social issues.

President Johnson's Great Society programs made the federal government more liberal.
President Johnson's Great Society programs made the federal government more liberal. | Source

Johnson’s Great Society programs also aligned the role of the federal government more closely with modern liberalism and an increased involvement in addressing social issues like immigration, poverty and education. The Immigration Act of 1965 repealed the immigration quotas from the 1920s, allowing more immigrants to come to America. Many of his programs provided aid to the poor: the Medical Care Act of 1965 established medical aid to the poor and elderly; the Omnibus Housing Act of 1964 led to the construction of housing and the provision of rent subsidies; and the Minimum Wage Act of 1966 raised the minimum wage and expanded the number of people eligible to receive it. His legislation also targeted education, like the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which led to the creation of Head Start, a free, beneficial preschool program, and the Higher Education Act of 1965, which provided loans and scholarships to needy students. Johnson’s Great Society represented an unprecedented level of government activity in addressing a wide range of social issues, and signified how much the federal government was influenced by modern liberalism.

Similarly, the role of the federal government abroad transitioned from isolationist to interventionist. Initially, we concerned ourselves with global affairs only when our interests were directly threatened or we could gain directly from it. One example of this is the Spanish-American War. Although we wanted to be isolationist at the time, we entered the Spanish-American War largely on the grounds of protecting economic interests in and obtaining strategic resources from Cuba. This can easily be seen from our acquisition of Guantanamo Bay and our domination of the Cuban economy, which both occurred after the war ended. Our advantages in Cuba would have been extended by the establishment of Western-friendly leaders in Cuba, an outcome we tried legally to achieve in their elections. After that failed, the Platt Amendment was an attempt to be involved in Cuba even after we left. The role of the federal government abroad at the time of the Spanish-American War consisted of protecting and securing U.S. interests abroad only when they were directly threatened, and doing so in ways generally considered legal and relatively fair – this would not be the case later, during the Cold War.

When World War I started, America tried to retreat into isolationism once more. This time the U.S. did not have any interests at risk nor anything to gain, so there was little incentive to dedicate resources and manpower to a war. It was only when we became more closely tied to the economy of Britain through war-time trade, felt threatened at home by the Zimmerman Telegram, and had our trading ships sunk by German U-boats that we decided to get involved. Once again, our entrance into war was grounded in protecting U.S. interests, both at home and abroad, only when they were directly threatened. After the war, President Woodrow Wilson advocated the creation of the League of Nations, an association of nations which would guarantee collective security. The rest of the federal government was more interested in retreating from world affairs, however, and so after World War I the federal government once more adopted a stance of isolationism, choosing not to join the newly created League of Nations.

Similarly, with World War II our government desired to stay isolationist, as we had been since World War I. Congress passed the Neutrality Act in 1935 to prevent some of the mistakes that had led to our involvement in World War I. However, President Franklin Roosevelt convinced Congress to pass a lend-lease program to provide military supplies to Great Britain and its allies. This signified our unofficial entrance into the war, and also marked the start of a transition to a preemptive role in protecting U.S. interests. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 it sparked our official entry into the war, but the economic underpinnings were already in place. The government was for the first time unofficially, preemptively involved in aiding our allies even before being directly threatened. This represented a higher level of involvement and activity on the world stage overall.

With the Cold War, the role of the federal government shifted to a policy of direct, preemptive intervention in other countries to prevent the spread of Communism. Our policy of containment was the first time our government took outright preventative action in other nations, using economic and military aid. The Marshall Plan was a financial package for the countries of Europe intended to stabilize democracies and keep them in power. In contrast, the training of rebels and guerrilla invasions into Cuba, Guatemala, and other countries were attempts to control the governing bodies of foreign nations by aiding insurrections. Whereas initially our government intervened in the affairs of other nations only when U.S. interests were directly threatened, during the Cold War the government operated in a prolonged state of war against the possibility of Communist regimes that might threaten U.S. interests abroad. The preventative nature of our involvement abroad signaled the end of our transition from an isolationist nation to an active foreign power.

This is perhaps best demonstrated by our involvement in the Vietnam War. We supported Diem against Ho Chi Minh to try to prevent a Communist regime, and when Diem called off the election and civil war broke out in Vietnam, the U.S. was afraid to let a Communist leader wrest control of the country. We poured U.S. money and troops into Vietnam to try to secure Diem’s victory, and even dropped bombs on Vietnam and its neighboring countries. The war represented a greater level of concern about the affairs of nations worldwide, and specifically a proactive attitude regarding the possibility of Communist regimes in other nations. No longer content to sit on the sidelines and wait until provoked, the federal government was now getting actively involved in other nations to try to ensure beneficial outcomes in the leadership and organization of their governments – even going so far as to go to war.

The federal government started out isolationist and laissez-faire and transitioned to active and omnipresent over the decades from Reconstruction to the 1960s. It expanded into many new roles, most notably regulation, reform, and proactive intervention abroad. The New Deal and Progressive Era marked the most dramatic shifts toward modern liberalism with expansions in the regulatory role of the federal government. The reform legislation of the Civil Rights Movement and Great Society symbolized a growing inclination to get involved in social issues. Abroad, the federal government initially entered into war with other nations only when U.S. interests were directly threatened; by the Vietnam War, we were intervening in civil wars in other nations as a preventative measure to contain Communism. The government’s role abroad changed from being largely detached to desiring to control the very governance of other nations. In this way, the role of the federal government expanded into many new areas and overall became far more heavily involved in all aspects of daily life and world affairs.


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    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 

      4 years ago from Ohio, USA

      And somehow the Supreme Court finds all these activities in The Constitution.


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