Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

38. The National Debt

Loading up the nation with debt and leaving it for the following generations to pay is morally irresponsible. Excessive debt is a means by which governments oppress the people and waste their substance. No nation has a right to contract debt for periods longer than the majority contracting it can expect to live.

"I sincerely believe... that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity under the name of funding is but swindling futurity on a large scale." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816. ME 15:23

"[With the decline of society] begins, indeed, the bellum omnium in omnia [war of all against all], which some philosophers observing to be so general in this world, have mistaken it for the natural, instead of the abusive state of man. And the fore horse of this frightful team is public debt. Taxation follows that, and in its train wretchedness and oppression." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:40

38.1 The Nation's Credit

"Though much an enemy to the system of borrowing, yet I feel strongly the necessity of preserving the power to borrow. Without this, we might be overwhelmed by another nation, merely by the force of its credit." --Thomas Jefferson to the Commissioners of the Treasury, 1788. ME 6:423

"I am anxious about everything which may affect our credit. My wish would be, to possess it in the highest degree, but to use it little. Were we without credit, we might be crushed by a nation of much inferior resources, but possessing higher credit." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1788. ME 6:453

"Though I am an enemy to the using our credit but under absolute necessity, yet the possessing a good credit I consider as indispensable in the present system of carrying on war. The existence of a nation having no credit is always precarious." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1788. ME 6:455

"I wish it were possible to obtain a single amendment to our Constitution. I would be willing to depend on that alone for the reduction of the administration of our government; I mean an additional article taking from the Federal Government the power of borrowing. I now deny their power of making paper money or anything else a legal tender. I know that to pay all proper expenses within the year would, in case of war, be hard on us. But not so hard as ten wars instead of one. For wars could be reduced in that proportion; besides that the State governments would be free to lend their credit in borrowing quotas." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1798. ME 10:64

38.2 The Limits on Contracting Debt

"The term of redemption must be moderate, and at any rate within the limits of [the government's] rightful powers. But what limits, it will be asked, does this prescribe to their powers? What is to hinder them from creating a perpetual debt? The laws of nature, I answer. The earth belongs to the living, not to the dead. The will and the power of man expire with his life, by nature's law." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1813. ME 13:169

"We acknowledge that our children are born free; that that freedom is the gift of nature, and not of him who begot them; that though under our care during infancy, and therefore of necessity under a duly tempered authority, that care is confided to us to be exercised for the preservation and good of the child only; and his labors during youth are given as a retribution for the charges of infancy. As he was never the property of his father, so when adult he is sui juris, entitled himself to the use of his own limbs and the fruits of his own exertions: so far we are advanced, without mind enough, it seems, to take the whole step." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1813. ME 13:357

"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." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:455

"[Using], for instance, the table of M. de Buffon, [it can be determined that] the half of those of 21 years and upwards living at any one instant of time will be dead in 18 years, 8 months, or say 19 years as the nearest integral number. Then 19 years is the term beyond which neither the representatives of a nation nor even the whole nation itself assembled can validly extend a debt... With respect to future debts, would it not be wise and just for [a] nation to declare in [its] constitution that neither the legislature nor the nation itself can validly contract more debt than they may pay within their own age, or within the term of 19 years? And that all future contracts shall be deemed void as to what shall remain unpaid at the end of 19 years from their date?" --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789.

"The conclusion then, is, that neither the representatives of a nation, nor the whole nation itself assembled, can validly engage debts beyond what they may pay in their own time." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:457

"I suppose that the received opinion, that the public debts of one generation devolve on the next, has been suggested by our seeing, habitually, in private life, that he who succeeds to lands is required to pay the debts of his predecessor; without considering that this requisition is municipal only, not moral, flowing from the will of the society, which has found it convenient to appropriate the lands of a decedent on the condition of a payment of his debts; but that between society and society, or generation and generation, there is no municipal obligation, no umpire but the law of nature." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:458

"Funding I consider as limited, rightfully, to a redemption of the debt within the lives of a majority of the generation contracting it; every generation coming equally, by the laws of the Creator of the world, to the free possession of the earth He made for their subsistence, unincumbered by their predecessors, who, like them, were but tenants for life." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1816. ME 15:18

"[The natural right to be free of the debts of a previous generation is] a salutary curb on the spirit of war and indebtment, which, since the modern theory of the perpetuation of debt, has drenched the earth with blood, and crushed its inhabitants under burdens ever accumulating." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1813. ME 13:272

38.3 Saddling Posterity with Debt

"We believe--or we act as if we believed--that although an individual father cannot alienate the labor of his son, the aggregate body of fathers may alienate the labor of all their sons, of their posterity, in the aggregate, and oblige them to pay for all the enterprises, just or unjust, profitable or ruinous, into which our vices, our passions or our personal interests may lead us. But I trust that this proposition needs only to be looked at by an American to be seen in its true point of view, and that we shall all consider ourselves unauthorized to saddle posterity with our debts, and morally bound to pay them ourselves; and consequently within what may be deemed the period of a generation, or the life of the majority." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1813. ME 13:357

"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." --Thomas Jefferson to A. L. C. Destutt de Tracy, 1820. FE 10:175

"Ought not then the right of each successive generation to be guaranteed against the dissipations and corruptions of those preceding, by a fundamental provision in our Constitution? And if that has not been made, does it exist the less, there being between generation and generation as between nation and nation no other law than that of nature? And is it the less dishonest to do what is wrong because not expressly prohibited by written law? Let us hope our moral principles are not yet in that stage of degeneracy, and that in instituting the system of finance to be hereafter pursued we shall adopt the only safe, the only lawful and honest one, of borrowing on such short terms of reimbursement of interest and principal as will fall within the accomplishment of our own lives." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1813. ME 13:360

38.4 A Tax for Every Debt

"It is a wise rule and should be fundamental in a government disposed to cherish its credit and at the same time to restrain the use of it within the limits of its faculties, "never to borrow a dollar without laying a tax in the same instant for paying the interest annually and the principal within a given term; and to consider that tax as pledged to the creditors on the public faith." On such a pledge as this, sacredly observed, a government may always command, on a reasonable interest, all the lendable money of their citizens, while the necessity of an equivalent tax is a salutary warning to them and their constituents against oppressions, bankruptcy, and its inevitable consequence, revolution." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1813. ME 13:269

"Our government has not as yet begun to act on the rule of loans and taxation going hand in hand. Had any loan taken place in my time, I should have strongly urged a redeeming tax." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1813. ME 13:273

"Of the modes which are within the limits of right, that of raising within the year its whole expenses by taxation, might be beyond the abilities of our citizens to bear. It is, moreover, generally desirable that the public contributions should be as uniform as practicable from year to year, that our habits of industry and of expense may become adapted to them; and that they may be duly digested and incorporated with our annual economy." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1813. ME 13:359

"We should now set the example of appropriating some particular tax [for loans made] sufficient to pay the interest annually and the principal within a fixed term, less than nineteen years." --Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, 1813. ME 13:273

"Interest, simple or compound, is a compensation for the use of money." --Thomas Jefferson to John Nelson, 1818. ME 18:300

38.5 Maintaining Good Credit

"I told... President [Washington] all that was ever necessary to establish our credit was an efficient government and an honest one, declaring it would sacredly pay our debts, laying taxes for this purpose and applying them to it." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1792. ME 1:319

"The English credit is the first, because they never open a loan without laying and appropriating taxes for the payment of the interest, and there has never been an instance of their failing one day in that payment." --Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1788. ME 6:452

"Equal provision for the interest, adding to it a certain prospect for the principal, will give us a preference to all nations, the English not excepted." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1788. ME 6:456

"I deem [this one of] the essential principles of our government and consequently [one] which ought to shape its administration:... The honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public faith. " --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801. ME 3:322

"There can never be a fear but that the paper which represents the public debt will be ever sacredly good. The public faith is bound for this, and no change of system will ever be permitted to touch this; but no other paper stands on ground equally sure." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1792. ME 8:317

"It is not our desire to pay off... bills [of exchange in paper money] according to the present depreciation, but according to their actual value in hard money at the time they were drawn, with interest. The State having received value, so far as it is just it should be substantially paid. All beyond this would be plunder, made by some person or other." --Thomas Jefferson to the Virginia Delegates in Congress, 1781. ME 4:390, Papers 5:152

"I once thought that in the event of a war we should be obliged to suspend paying the interest of the public debt. But a dozen years more of experience and observation on our people and government have satisfied me it will never be done. The sense of the necessity of public credit is so universal and so deeply rooted that no other necessity will prevail against it." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1814. ME 14:217

38.6 Freeing the Nation from Debt

"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." --Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1809. FE 9:264

"There [is a measure] which if not taken we are undone...[It is] to cease borrowing money and to pay off the national debt. If this cannot be done without dismissing the army and putting the ships out of commission, haul them up high and dry and reduce the army to the lowest point at which it was ever established. 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 against whom this army and navy are to protect us." --Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Macon, 1821. (*) FE 10:193

"To preserve [the] independence [of the people,] we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude. If we run into such debts as that we must be taxed in our meat and in our drink, in our necessaries and our comforts, in our labors and our amusements, for our callings and our creeds, as the people of England are, our people, like them, must come to labor sixteen hours in the twenty-four, give the earnings of fifteen of these to the government for their debts and daily expenses, and the sixteenth being insufficient to afford us bread, we must live, as they now do, on oatmeal and potatoes, have no time to think, no means of calling the mismanagers to account, but be glad to obtain subsistence by hiring ourselves to rivet their chains on the necks of our fellow-sufferers." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:39

"No earthly consideration could induce my consent to contract such a debt as England has by her wars for commerce, to reduce our citizens by taxes to such wretchedness, as that laboring sixteen of the twenty-four hours, they are still unable to afford themselves bread, or barely to earn as much oatmeal or potatoes as will keep soul and body together. And all this to feed the avidity of a few millionary merchants and to keep up one thousand ships of war for the protection of their commercial speculations." --Thomas Jefferson to William H. Crawford, 1816. ME 15:29

"Our distance from the wars of Europe, and our disposition to take no part in them, will, we hope, enable us to keep clear of the debts which they occasion to other powers." --Thomas Jefferson to C. W. F. Dumas, 1790. ME 8:47

ME, FE = Memorial Edition, Ford Edition.   See Sources.

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