This seems to be an informative number, and more than a little scary:
President Obama Monday invoked Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence to justify his expansive view of government, but Jefferson might be surprised to learn that the number of federal employees today is nearly equal to the entire population of the nation in 1776.
According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the current civilian federal workforce, excluding postal service employees, was 2.15 million in 2011. The Census Bureau estimates that in 1776, the entire population of the United States was just a bit higher, at about 2.5 million. The number suggests that every adult man and woman living at the time – at least – would have been needed to staff today’s federal government.
But I'm not sure why 1776 is a relevant comparison. The federal government as we know it today didn't exist until 1789. Before that, we were just a loose confederation with all the power in the states and very little for the central government -- if you could even call it that -- to do. Equating the number of the federal employees now to the population in 1776 is a cute gimmick that gets in a good dig at Obama, but it's meaningless if we're really trying to understand the growth of the federal bureaucracy.
It would be more revealing to use 1789 as a comparison year, which he includes just as a sort of throwaway line near the bottom of the piece:
In his first term as president, George Washington had only five Cabinet members and about 1,000 federal workers in his employ.
Elsewhere, I found that the population of the country was estimated at 3.9 million in the 1790 Census, so that would give us one federal employee for every 3,900 Americans. Today (using his number) and an estimated population of 315,000,000, we have one federal employee for every 147 Americans. That does make the federal government a little more, um, involved with us, doesn't it?
And, no, I'm not just ragging on Obama. He didn't invent Big Government, he merely embraced it with relish. Under him, the federal civilian workforce has grown by nearly 200,000 from the level of 1.86 million in 2008. He only accelerated the pace that became breakneck long before he got into office.