Jefferson & Washington on the Morality of the National Debt

Liberty Letters with Steve Farrell

American Founder Thomas Jefferson, discussing the so-called morality of a national debt — what some dare to describe in our day as something that “we owe to ourselves”! as if debt were a privilege to be sought after — had this to say in response to what debts might be incurred to finance the War of 1812 and how to retire them if such debts were necessary:

That we are bound to defray its expenses within our own time, and unauthorized to burden posterity with them, I suppose to have been proved in my former letter. I will place the question nevertheless in one additional point of view. The former regarded their independent right over the earth; this over their own persons. There have existed nations, and civilized and learned nations, who have thought that a father had a right to sell his child as a slave, in perpetuity; that he could alienate his body and industry conjointly, and á fortiori his industry separately; and consume its fruits himself. A nation asserting this fratricide right might well suppose they could burden with public as well as private debt their “nati natorum, et qui nascentur at illis.” But we, this age, and in this country especially, are advanced beyond those notions of natural law. 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. 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. In my former letter I supposed this to be a little over twenty years [Jefferson proposed in this letter a very detailed plan to pay this debt off in 19 years]. We must raise then ourselves the money for this war, either by taxes within the year, or by loans; and if by loans, we must repay them ourselves, proscribing forever the English practice of perpetual funding; the ruinous consequences of which, putting right out of the question, should be a sufficient warning to a considerate nation to avoid the example.

That’s common sense, common morality, right?  Old school. Judeo-Christian, responsible thinking, American Founders thinking.

Thus, in such a case as the War of 1812, and especially the American Revolution, when America was still an economic fledgling and yet unavoidably at war with the mightiest military power then on Earth, going into debt as a nation may be required. That is why a clause permitting a national debt was inserted into the Constitution from the start, so that we may survive and win the day as a free people in time of true national emergency, which in fact the revolutionary generation did do.

But even so, other moral obligations follow. Consistent, therefore, with Jefferson’s moral analysis of the matter, President George Washington advised “avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertion in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.” 2

Again, notice the appeal to morality, of concern for those future generations, our children and grandchildren on whom we might unjustly and unmercifully cast our burdens, and that such debts should not be sought for, but absolutely requisite, and if requisite vigorously retired … not put off till tomorrow.

Note also, that it was after such debts were retired or at a minimum reduced to a mere pittance by the living generation that both Washington and Jefferson hoped the nation would address “infrastructure” issues, like the building of canals and post roads (in that these would facilitate commerce and communication between the people of the states and thus further lift the nation economically) – but not in the midst of such challenges, for to go to that extreme would be the ultimate in moral irresponsibility, if not insanity.

What could we and our elected officials learn from such morally responsible, common sense attitudes today? And I say “what could WE learn, not only what could ‘our elected officials learn’, for President Washington also plead the following in his very next sentence: “The execution of these maxims belongs to your representatives, BUT IT IS NECESSARY THAT PUBLIC OPINION SHOULD CO-OPERATE” (emphasis mine) 3.

Indeed, and yet how is that possible for public opinion to cooperate in favor of both moral and logical fiscal restraint among a people as we have today, a people where so many of us believe we DESERVE a taxpayer provided ‘free’ lunch, and along with that, just in case we CHOOSE to do something foolish (like not set a little aside for a rainy day, or engage in irresponsible behavior), a taxpayer provided, read that ‘neighbor provided’ ‘safety’ net?

It seems we all have a lot to learn from the Founders, elected representative and citizen alike. If the time ever comes that enough of us do so learn we may yet see America achieve the inspired vision of our forefathers, and prosperity in its truest sense will be ours.

Read more of our Liberty Letters in our Founders Corner Library.

Liberty Letters is a project of Steve Farrell. Copyright © 2012 Steve Farrell.

Steve Farrell is the Founder and Editor In Chief of The Moral Liberal, a former pundit with (1999-2007), and the author of the highly praised inspirational novel, Dark Rose.


1. Thomas Jefferson to To John W. Eppes (his son-in-law and Chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means of the House of Representatives), 11 September 1813.

2. George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796.

3. Ibid.

The Moral Liberal recommends David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize Winning Biography: John Adams