Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

A $16 trillion national debt: What would the Founders think?

October 18, 2012 by Alison Young


With three debates in the can and one to go, it’s plainly clear that the $16 trillion national debt is a central issue in this campaign. Over the past four fiscal years, our deficits have added an additional $5 trillion to the national debt.

Candidates and pundits on both sides are claiming economic catastrophe if something isn’t done soon to both increase revenue and decrease spending. But this isn’t simply a crisis created by one or two spend-heavy administrations.

Our Founding Fathers were faced with similar debt issues. But the situation was never this dire – or was it? Are the great economic minds of the 18th century—Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, among others—rolling over in their graves?

The debt was a contentious issue, even back then. Numerous debts resulting from the Revolutionary War, the funding and operation of the Continental Army, and other domestic issues were hotly debated by our Founders. The rights of states versus the role of a strong centralized government divided the delegates.

Hamilton, Jay, and Madison (under the pen name Publius) wrote the 85 essays known as The Federalist Papers, aimed at convincing enough of the delegates to ratify the new Constitution that would absorb the states’ debt and attempt to unify a nation that was failing under the Articles of Confederation.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the marks of the war were still fresh; there was deep disagreement between states and the federal government on matters of control; and the economy was in shambles.

The same could be said now. Both the Obama and Romney campaigns have issued economic plans to get the economy back on track, discuss limiting our military involvement around the world, and debate the rights of states. But there is little consensus on the campaign trail or in Congress.

Taxes are a necessary evil, but how much is too much and who foots the bill? Spending has to be controlled, but what stays and what goes? How do we pay for a global war on terror? Do we need a constitutional amendment to require approval of the states before increasing the debt as many states have proposed?

What would our Founders think of the 21st century economy? And are the issues all that different now than they were in the late 18th century?

The National Constitution Center will be exploring this topic on October 23 with historian Richard Brookhiser and American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks at the 10th Annual Templeton Lecture on Economic Liberties and the Constitution.

Tickets are free, but reservations are required—reserve your tickets here. Freedom is calling.  Join the conversation.

Alison Young is the Vice President of External Affairs at the National Constitution Center.

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