Speech grounded in U.S. history

Posted: February 18, 2013

By Steven Conn

State of the Union addresses are for setting agendas and laying out visions of the future. The address provides the president with a platform to set his legislative goals, and last week, President Obama did just that.

At the same time, in asserting unapologetically that government has a role to play in furthering the nation's business and in fostering its progress, Obama rooted his address firmly in America's most successful traditions.

Since the beginning of the republic, Americans have used the power of government to improve our economy and our society. The second piece of legislation passed by Congress and signed by the president was the so-called "Hamilton Tariff," which raised taxes on certain imported products so that those made by American manufacturers would be cheaper. Call it a stimulus package, 1789-style. And it worked.

The federal government facilitated land ownership through the Homestead Act of 1862. In exchange for "improving" the land, the government gave homesteaders land for free - tens of millions of acres of it, mostly in the trans-Mississippi West. It almost sounds like socialist land redistribution, doesn't it?

Those pioneers could get out west more easily, and their crops could get back to big markets more efficiently, because the federal government also helped fund the construction of the great railroad systems. Long before General Motors got money from Washington, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads built the first transcontinental line with generous loans from the federal government.

American business has benefited in all sorts of ways from programs undertaken by the federal government, from favorable tax policies and trade deals negotiated by U.S. diplomats to bailouts when things have gone south.

In exchange, the federal government has also provided ways for individuals to improve their economic position and offered modest protection to people whose economic well-being is determined on Wall Street.

For example, when Congress passed the Morrill Land Grant Act, also in 1862, it fostered the creation of the "land grant" universities. Congress revolutionized higher education by making it more accessible. And after the Second World War, Congress added to that remarkable achievement by passing the GI Bill. The program made education and economic opportunity - and thus a middle-class life - available to millions.

That's the American bargain and it always has been. Government acts to create the infrastructures necessary for the private sector to operate better, solving problems the private sector can't or won't.

Given that history, what's stunning was not the president's speech but the reaction to it. Conservatives have forgotten our history, or they simply refuse to acknowledge it. By setting up a black-and-white dichotomy between the public and private sectors, they fail to recognize the way the two have been intertwined since 1789.

Worse, they seem oblivious about the extent to which starving the public sector will, in turn, erode the private sector too. Failing to fix our roads, bridges, and sewers, failing to update our public-health infrastructure, and nickel-and-diming our education budget will cost us all of lot of money down the line. Indeed, it already has.

When the president insisted that "our generation's task" is to "reignite the true engine of America's economic growth," and that government has a role to play in that reignition, he was simply calling for a return to the American tradition. Somewhere Alexander Hamilton and George Washington were smiling.


Steven Conn is director of public history at Ohio State University. E-mail him at steven.conn1@gmail.com.

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