Founding Fathers’ Ideas About the National Debt

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July 5, 2011

In a recent article on, Zachary Karabell argues that the Founding Fathers would be opposed to the idea of the United States defaulting on its national debt.  Karabell concedes that the game of “what would the Founding Fathers say… usually says more about today’s partisan fights than about the Founders,” but notes that they did have strong opinions about the national debt.  From the article:

James Madison, architect of the nation if there ever was one, described national debts as “moral obligations” in Federalist Paper No. 43. George Washington, who was always measured and diplomatic in public utterances, was unequivocal in his thoughts on public debts: “No pecuniary consideration is more urgent than the regular redemption and discharge of the public debt; on none can delay be more injurious, or an economy of the time more valuable.” And that message was delivered directly to the House of Representatives in 1793, where some members were contemplating various defaults.

Karabell argues that these statements represented the prevailing attitudes of the Founding Fathers and are not the result of “cherry-picking quotations.”  He notes that Alexander Hamilton even (controversially) “saw the national debt as a glue for the union, binding disparate elements together in a web of mutual responsibility.”  Karabell concludes that while the pros and cons of incurring national debt can be debated (as they were by the Founding Fathers), “the way of out of debt is not to refuse to pay, or to risk the credit of the country.”

Teachers could use this article as part of a US history lesson about the founding of the nation.  Students could be presented with the documents cited in this article, along with other essays and correspondence written by the Founding Fathers, and discuss whether or not Karabell accurately presented their arguments.

As part of this lesson, students could participate in a class discussion guided by the following questions:  Why do we play, as Karabell put it, the game of “What Would the Founding Fathers Say?”  How do our answers to that question shape the decisions we make as a nation?  What are the strengths and weaknesses with that approach to national issues?  Is Karabell correct that lawmakers’ answers to that question say “more about today’s partisan fights than about the Founders”?  Why or why not?

This lesson would help students connect the events they study in their history classes with the ongoing debate about the national debt, the federal budget deficit, and the debt ceiling.  As students learn more about the history of the nation’s economy, they will be better able to form their own opinions about how best to address our fiscal issues.

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