On the issue of government spending and debt, there is a gulf far greater than a mere 223 years between the Founders and the present generation of American leaders. In the period spanning the final year of George W. Bush’s second term in the White House and President Barack Obama’s tenure to date, the national debt has exploded from $9.1 trillion to nearly $13.2 trillion, reaching 90 percent of the gross domestic product. On a graph, the direction of the national debt for this period is almost straight up, recalling what fighter pilots mean when they “go vertical” in a dogfight. We are accumulating a debt so massive that our children and grandchildren will still be paying it off decades hence.
There is no doubt that George Washington, our first president, Alexander Hamilton, our first secretary of the Treasury, and Thomas Jefferson, drafter of the Declaration of Independence and our third president, would be horrified by the present financial condition of the federal government. Public debt was anathema for Washington, who in his farewell address admonished us to “cherish public credit,” noting that “one method of preserving it, is to use it sparingly … avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt.” Washington warned that one generation could spend itself into great debt, then “not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burthen …”
Hamilton’s greatest service to the nation was his management of the federal government’s assumption of states’ debt accumulated during the Revolutionary War and under the Articles of Confederation. He knew firsthand the devastating effects of growing public debt on every sector of a society. As historian David Barton notes, Hamilton’s most succinct advice to his countrymen was that they always remember “to avoid as much as possible the incurring of any new debt.”
Jefferson was Hamilton’s great nemesis in the political world, but the two adversaries agreed on the evils of public debt. As evidence of their agreement on this issue, Barton points to Jefferson’s statement in an 1816 letter to John Taylor of Virginia: “The principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale.”
President Obama has recently observed that the national debt and federal entitlement spending have reached levels that are “unsustainable.” It would be difficult today to find any politicians in either of the two major parties who would disagree with that assessment. But they’ve talked this talk for years without making the hard decisions that come with walking the walk. The time for talk is past.