Thomas Jefferson on Government Debt (Then & Now)

[Dateline: 24 October 2008]

In my previous essay (The Story of Thomas Jefferson's Personal Debt), I told you the story of Thomas Jefferson’s problems with personal debt and how he, as a result of his debt, was financially devastated later in life.

There are lessons for those of us here and now in that Jefferson story from the early 1800s:

1. Live within your means
2. Avoid taking on debt.
3. Do not cosign loans

So it was that Thomas Jefferson personally understood the dangers of debt. And, no doubt, it was this firsthand experience, as well as his well-read historical perspective, that led Jefferson to have strong opinions about the subject of national debt.

Thomas Jefferson was our third President. Prior to his taking office in 1801, the previous administration of John Adams had run up the national debt. One of Jefferson’s goals as president was to pay off that debt. It was not an easy thing to do. Reducing the size and budget of any government entity, especially on the federal level, is always difficult. But Jefferson was resolute in this matter.

The Jefferson quotations that follow reveal a degree of wisdom and foresight that deserve not only our admiration but our serious consideration (more of my commentary follows):
”There does not exist an engine so corruptive of the government and so demoralizing of the nation as a public debt. It will bring on us more ruin at home than all the enemies from abroad ...”
"It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which if acted on would save one-half the wars of the world."
"Then I say, the earth belongs to each of these generations during its course, fully and in its own right. The second generation receives it clear of the debts and incumbrances of the first, the third of the second, and so on. For if the first could charge it with a debt, then the earth would belong to the dead and not to the living generation. Then, no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence."
"Private fortunes are destroyed by public as well as by private extravagance. And this is the tendency of all human governments."
"I consider the fortunes of our republic as depending in an eminent degree on the extinguishment of the public debt before we engage in any war; because that done, we shall have revenue enough to improve our country in peace and defend it in war without recurring either to new taxes or loans. But if the debt should once more be swelled to a formidable size, its entire discharge will be despaired of, and we shall be committed to the English career of debt, corruption and rottenness, closing with revolution. The discharge of public debt, therefore, is vital to the destinies of our government."
"Having seen the people of all other nations bowed down to the earth under the wars and prodigalities of their rulers, I have cherished their opposites: peace, economy, and riddance of public debt, believing that these were the high road to public as well as private prosperity and happiness."
"The accounts of the United States ought to be and may be made as simple as those of a common farmer and capable of being understood by common farmers."
Paul Krugman, an American professor, has won the Nobel Prize in Economics this year. I heard an interview with Krugman the other day. This man’s solution to the current financial problems of America is, essentially, for government to spend more money—a LOT more money. The current national debt is now in excess of ten trillion dollars, and growing at an alarming rate. But Krugman believes more debt is good. His “solution” is in direct opposition to the political and financial ideology of one of America’s greatest founding fathers. And Thomas Jefferson was not alone among the founders in this regard.

But, of course, creating more debt is the only possible “solution” in a world where our whole financial system is built on the fiat-money schemes of central bankers; debt is the lifeblood of the monster they have created to serve their own purposes.

It wasn’t always this way, and it didn’t have to be this way. Jefferson’s vision for America was, as I noted in a previous essay, that we would be an agrarian nation. Usurious, debt-based economic systems are contrary to the agrarian ideal. But they are absolutely necessary to build an industrial nation and an industrial culture, and that is what happened.

Thomas Jefferson could see the madness of European-style, corporate-industrialism. He knew it was headed our way. He didn’t like it. But he couldn’t stop it.

I think Thomas Jefferson was a far better economist than Paul Krugman is. If it were up to me, I would have awarded the Nobel economics prize posthumously to Thomas Jefferson.

In my next essay (the final one of this series) I will look once more to Thomas Jefferson for his insights and wisdom into another aspect of national economics. To read the essay, Click Here: Thomas Jefferson vs Paul Krugman, Alan Greenspan, et al.


Robert said...

This has been a very informative series of posts. Thanks for putting them up.

Anonymous said...

Come on!
Try thinking about this as opposed to finding half-facts to support your desire for this great country to slip back into an agrarian state.
I love farming - farmers - and food... but your way off track Henrick... gonna start loosing the faithful...
Spend some time on showing us your activities... keep your warped logic posts to a minimum. Please.

Jeffrey Alan Klute said...

I've been blessed by these posts, Herrick. Nothing warped in sharing your activities in exploring history and making application of what you've learned. Thanks for being faithful to the truth.

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work, Herrick, both at home and here on the blog. I, for one, count myself included in the warped-thinking faithful. :)

Bless you.


Simplegirl said...

I will happily take company with the "warped" Thomas Jefferson. Thanks for your excellent blog!

Anonymous said...

Nice articles,

To Anonymous, October 26, 2008 :

Strange that someone who thinks the Agrarian ways are a slip back, yet spends time to live an agrarian life?
If you don't like something, just move on to something that you like, no need to be bitter.

And btw.. 2012, ..and the story goes on..It's a shame that people stay so dependent on money.

Anonymous said...

If we read and trust the Bible we will find that God encourages people to have that we can give and to lend. The borrower is slave to the lender, and so the vast majority of North America has sold our birthright of freedom for the "pottage" of debt based consumerism.
Debt is the major source of stress in marriages and also a major source of wars as Jefferson alluded to and all sizes of conflict in between when people realize that they are slaves and lash out in anger.
God did not allow long term debt for his people the Jews;they were to have a recurring time of Jubilee where all debts among their people would be forgiven, and the nation was instructed always to lend and not to borrow from their neighboring countries.
Debt free life for us in Canada today means renting our farm for now, and living low stress and happily with more freedom than almost everyone we know!

Anonymous said...

"I would have awarded the Nobel economics prize posthumously to Thomas Jefferson."

And kicked Krugman in his balls.

Anonymous said...

While I admire Jefferson greatly, his actions, more oft than not, were directly counter to his "beliefs" in both his personal and political life. The desire to end slavery, though owning slaves, denouncing the national debt while borrowing from England to buy Louisiana, and being a hard-core constitutionalist yet he was frequently doing things (as president) he himself believed "questionable" constitutionally, were just some of the paradoxes of Jefferson, the man. Before holding him up as the ideal Libertarian whether stated or implied, consider the man in his entirety, not just the bits that support your world view. Truth be told, in practice, Jefferson was one of the more liberal presidents in US History, expanding the interpretation of the US Constitution and setting precedents for his successors that have led us to where we are today. What Jefferson said is what he's remembered for most, but it's what he did that helped make this country what it is today. Had he not violated his own principles so often, the French would border the US today and possess most of that sweet Gulf crude oil and the copious natural gas wells in and around what we now know as "Louisiana."

What's it all mean? I don't know, but the man put the country a lot deeper in debt with no clue how to pay it off and lacking the confidence he even possessed the constitutional authority to do so. The only thing worse than "tax and spend" is "cut taxes and military then spend." Jefferson was good at the latter.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anonymous..Thomas Jefferson had many wonderful qualities. The man was a polymath genius. He promoted agriculture. However, he also lived a rather profligate life style and died in debt. Therefore, he is not a good example to use to advocate for a debt-free, economically balanced life or economy.

Anonymous said...

In reply to myself, in the above comment:
I live in Virginia, the land of Mr. Jefferson , so I know from old TJ!