Have you ever wondered where the National Debt came from? Do you wonder who started it? Do you ask yourself is the National Debt constitutional? I believe that a lack of Historical knowledge and context is a major contributing factor in our current state of political deterioration. Unless we know where we came from we cannot truly appreciate where we are and we have no point of reference to guide us to where we want to go.
The National Debt didn’t start under Barak Obama or George Bush. It didn’t start under FDR or Wilson or Lincoln. So where did it come from and when did it start?
The National Debt and the economic outlook inherent in its creation have not only been with us since the beginning it was one of the most powerful arguments for the ratification of the Constitution. I may have just lost many of the recently awakened. I most assuredly lost those who worship the Constitution as American Scripture and the Framers as demigods who brought the tablets down from on high.
Don’t misunderstand the intent of the following article. It is not to malign the Constitution. I believe it is the greatest political document to come from the hand of man. I have spent a life time testifying to its importance and working to educate people as to its continued relevance. However I also believe we need to know the History of its development, ratification and the continuing saga of its effectiveness. If we don’t learn from History we will be forced to learn from our own mistakes. It’s always less painful to learn from the mistakes of others.
At the turn of the twentieth century Historian Charles Beard published An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States and set off a debate that still rages around the idea that the Constitution was a the product of a conflict between competing economic interests. The argument goes like this: the Founders, who supported a strong, centralized government and favored the Constitution during its drafting and ratification, were men whose primary economic interests were marked by extensive personal property. They consisted primarily of people involved in commerce such as merchants, shippers, bankers, speculators, private and public securities holders, southern planters and all they could influence. Those who opposed the ratification of the Constitution were supporters of a decentralized government such as already existed under the Articles of Confederation. These were people whose economic interests were connected to real estate. They consisted primarily of isolated, subsistence non-commercial farmers and laborers, people who were often also debtors, and the people they could influence. This article fits into that debate.
Building within the above outlined framework, although James Madison is generally called the Father of the Constitution when it comes to economic concerns I believe the title should belong to Alexander Hamilton.
When the Annapolis Convention which was called in September, 1786 to deal with economic concerns failed to attract enough state delegations for a quorum Hamilton requested permission from the Congress of the Confederation to call another convention in Philadelphia for the purpose of proposing amendments to the Articles of Confederation. Once they closed the doors though they had no authority. The delegates from the twelve states attending wrote a new constitution. Then ignoring the provision of the Articles which required unanimous consent to alter the nature of the American government the Framers sent the Constitution out to be ratified by special ratification conventions by-passing the State legislatures.
Alexander Hamilton was born in the West Indies. By the time he was fifteen his father was bankrupt. At sixteen he moved to New York and went to work in an accountant’s office. He was a self-made man who put himself through Columbia University and personally raised artillery regiments for the Revolution. He spent most of the war as Washington’s top aide. Hamilton had a desire to create a central government both politically and financially strong.
Once the Constitution was ratified and Washington elected as the first president he chose Hamilton as his Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton hit the ground running. He soon submitted three ground-breaking reports to Congress, one of which impacts the present discussion.
His Report on Public Credit caused controversy because of its social and financial implications. During the Revolution the Confederation and the individual States had run up large debts to both foreign and domestic individuals. Hamilton proposed that the Federal Government assume all the war debt of the states which helped the measure gain approval in Congress. These debts had devalued in worth due to the inflation. As the debts lost their value they were bought up by speculators at a fraction of their face value. Hamilton proposed to redeem them at their original value giving tremendous profits to the speculators, many of whom were prominent in Congress and State governments. The new national government was short on cash, so Hamilton proposed to pay the war debt by issuing interest-bearing bonds, and thus the national debt was born at the dawn of the Republic. It has existed ever since. It has never been paid down to zero and it never will be.
Is the national debt constitutional? Yes, in two ways. Article VI among other things states, “All Debts contracted and Engagements entered into, before the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be as valid against the United States under this Constitution, as under the Confederation.” And because the 14th Amendment states, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” So the Constitution both in its original form and as amended both validates the debt and takes the question of its legality off the table.
Over the hundreds of years since its inception our nation has continuously had a National Debt. Every President has faced it when they took office and every president has left it for their successor. Some have reduced it, most have increased it. At times it has contributed to our strength and stability. At first by helping to establish the credit of the United States and then by proving the trustworthiness of our government, no one ever doubted redemption. Today the National Debt soars beyond the perceived ability to redeem. It races ahead at an average rate of $3.93 billion per day which is $163,750,000 dollars per hour, $2,729,166,666 per minute and, $45,486 per second. We all know from our personal finances debt in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. We also know unsustainable debt is. No one can afford to spend more than they make forever. Unless of course they have their own printing press then they can do it until no one will accept the paper any more. Then they will do something else.
Stand by for something else.
Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion. Get the latest dispatches from the History of the Future and find books by Dr. Owens @ http://drrobertowens.com. Follow Dr. Robert Owens on Facebook.
© 2011 Robert R. Owens