On this day in 1865 the U.S. Army paraded through Washington, DC, to mark the end of the Civil War. The nation had a million men in uniform, enrolled in an army that the world’s military men envied and feared. To many students of the war, this army was the emblem of what the war had wrought—a modern state. The United States government had grown in size and capacity, had levied its first income tax, and had become a nation-state at last. And here was the great instrument of that state, a citizen-army.

Here’s a less picturesque picture: the number of men in U.S. uniform 1865-1900.

That fearsome army vanished almost instantly and didn’t return. The U.S. fought a quarter century of wars against the aboriginal inhabitants of the continent, and a few more wars against labor unions, with a tiny professional force. And just as the great modern army went away, so did the great modern state. What remained of the war-swollen federal apparatus? The Department of Agriculture, pretty much. Pretty much everything else—even, or especially, the machinery for enforcing civil rights—was similarly reduced. It wouldn’t be till after World War II that such establishments of state power became more or less permanent. So inasmuch as the Civil War ended slavery, it was a watershed—but the other trends it’s often credited with (or blamed for) establishing, it didn’t establish. The pattern of American development 1865-1914—a lot of growth with a little government—is thus an even odder story: it wasn’t the case that Americans had never seen or used modern state power, it was the case that they had, and preferred not to.

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