How Did George Washington Feel About the National Debt
Comment of the Day

February 18 2013

Commentary by David Fuller

How Did George Washington Feel About the National Debt

This item from Bloomberg is appropriate on President's Day. Here is a brief section, posted without further comment
Every February since 1896, the U.S. Senate has observed the birthday of George Washingtonby having one of its members read his 1796 Farewell Address into the record.

The ceremony is usually purely symbolic. This year, however, it could influence policy: The country's first president had some interesting ideas about the national debt that might resonate as Congress gears up for more fights over spending and taxes.


Another paragraph, about the national debt, may be more compelling today. Washington, a Federalist, began by advising Americans to "cherish public credit" because it was "a very important source of strength and security." In the view of most of the Founders, securing life, liberty and property was the major public good that the government had to provide, so endangering public credit, especially in the service of partisan politics, wasn't something Washington would have countenanced.


Washington closed the paragraph on national debt with a few thoughts on taxation. Citizens, he wrote, "should practically bear in mind that towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant." Once levied due to "public exigencies," however, Americans were duty-bound to pay their taxes with "a spirit of acquiescence."

It is important to note that Washington wasn't calling for blind obedience to the government, simply the separation of cause and effect. If Americans didn't want to suffer from "the intrinsic embarrassment" of high taxation, they needed to prevent the government from spending and borrowing too much in the first place, by ensuring that it remained focused on its "proper objects."
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