Brian Balogh, A Government Out of Sight

Brian Balogh’s 2009 book A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America reflects the political climate in which it was written.  Balogh explicitly seeks to discern the historical antecedents over debates about the role of government in the lives of citizens.  Balogh notes that in current debates, there is broad agreement between conservatives and liberals that the national government played an extremely limited role during the nineteenth century, taking a laissez-faire approach to governance.  Balogh seeks to overturn this historiographical and popular myth by demonstrating that in fact, there was no such distinction between public and private action during most of the nineteenth century, and that, while government intervention often remained hidden or disguised as “natural” processes, the national government played a central role in addressing problems of national importance, especially those relating to economic development or expansion.

Balogh argues that nineteenth-century Americans often turned to the national government for solutions, and that the government frequently provided assistance that seemed “natural,” and hidden by facilitating the involvement of state and local governments or voluntary and private groups.  There was no sharp distinction between public and private functions during most of the nineteenth century, Balogh contends, pointing to the way the federal government “created a nourished a corporate-driven market, stimulated expansion by subsidizing exploration and removing Indians, and influenced trade patterns through communication and transportation policies” (4).  Through his synthesis of the mountain of other works on nineteenth-century America, Balogh convincingly argues against the notion that the national government only took on an expanded role in the lives of Americans in the twentieth century, and as such argues that the idea of a laissez-faire nineteenth-century government being heralded or feared in current political debates are off the mark.

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