It’s a staple of the political election season in the United States. “The founders wanted this kind of government,” a candidate confidently declares. “The founders wanted that.”
Not so fast, says Peter Kastor, chair of history and professor of American culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
“You’d think we might already know the answers to those questions. What’s interesting to learn is that we don’t.”
Over the last several years, Kastor has served as principal investigator for Creating a Federal Government, a digital archive that will reconstruct the institutional profile, individual lives, and geographic distribution of the early federal workforce.
For all the deference we pay the founders, there is surprisingly little scholarship on the size and scope of the government they created. How many people did the early American republic employ? Who were they? How did they get their jobs?
“You’d think we might already know the answers to those questions,” Kastor says. “What’s interesting to learn is that we don’t.”
In this video, Kastor discusses the early federal government, its principal activities, and how those activities continued to evolve and expand even during the presidencies of small government advocates such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
“After all,” Kastor says, “the first people to interpret the Constitution were the same people who wrote it.”