NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Public Debt Binds Succeeding Generations

October 3, 2003

Thomas Jefferson, representing rural, small-government and small-business interests, argued that sustaining a national debt would centralize economic influence in a small number of privileged hands. It could also lead to the kind of class inequality that had galvanized so many American immigrants to flee their native countries.

Legally and ethically, Jefferson argued, "We should consider ourselves unauthorized to saddle posterity with our debts, and morally bound to pay them ourselves."

When Jefferson became president in 1801, he immediately began trying to reduce the debt:

  • Within six years -- and despite having borrowed $11 million for the Louisiana Purchase -- Jefferson had liquidated $23 million of the national debt.
  • In every year but one of Jefferson's administration, the government ran a surplus.

Then came the War of 1812, "the greatest military and financial debacle in American history," as James Savage, author of "Balanced Budgets and American Politics," put it. In 1811, America's debt was $45 million. Four years later, it was $127 million.

Although in debt at the end of his life, Jefferson never wavered in his opposition to long-term borrowing. Each generation has the right, "by will of its majority, to bind themselves," he wrote in 1813, "but none to bind the succeeding generation."

Source: Cynthia Crossen, "Our Founders Argued: Is Debt a Unifying Force Or an Immoral Burden?" Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2003.

For text (WSJ subscription required),,SB106496324818513200,00.html


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