Thomas Jefferson on Debt

by Derrick G. Jeter

The current debt debate in the United States Congress—whether we should raise the debt ceiling, raise taxes, or cut spending—set me to thinking about what Thomas Jefferson would think about America’s $14.2 trillion debt. Why? Because he was a man who believed debt was not a blessing but a curse. And although personally he didn’t practice what he preached—he died deep in debt—Jefferson’s hypocrisy between his words and his wallet shouldn’t keep us from heeding his words of warning about the dangers of national debts.

✯ ✯ ✯

[We should] put off buying anything until we have the money to pay for it. (Letter to Dr. Currie, 1787)

As the doctrine is that a public debt is a public blessing, so they [the supporters of State debt assumption] think a perpetual one is a perpetual blessing and, therefore, wish to make it so large that we can never pay it off. (Letter to Nicholas Lewis, 1792)

It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes. A principle which, if acted on, would save one-half the wars of the world. (Letter to Destutt Trace, 1820)

I am miserable till I shall owe not a shilling. (Letter to Nicholas Lewis, 1786)

What is to hinder [the government] from creating a perpetual debt? The laws of nature, I answer. The earth belongs to the living not to the dead The will and the power of man expire with his life, by nature’s law. . . . Each generation has the usufruct [the right to use another’s property] of the earth during the period of its continuance. When it ceases to exist the usufruct passes on to the succeeding generation, free and unincumbered, and so on, successively, from one generation to another forever. We may consider each generation as a distinct nation, with a right by the will of its majority, to bind themselves, but not to bind the succeeding generation, more than the inhabitants of another country. (Letter to John Wayles Eppes, 1813)

It is a miserable arithmetic which makes any single privation whatever so painful as a total privation of everything which must necessarily follow the living so far beyond our income. What is to extricate us I know not, whether law, or loss of credit. If the source of the former are corrupted, so as to prevent justice, the latter must supply its place, leave us possessed of our infamous gains, but prevent all future ones of the same character. (Letter to William Hay, 1787)

How happy a people were we during the war from the single circumstance that we could not run in debt. (Letter to Dr. Currie, 1787)

I place economy among the first and most important of republican virtues, and public debt as the greatest of the dangers to be feared. (Letter to Governor Plumber, 1816)

I am for applying all the possible savings of the public revenue to the discharge of the national debt. (Letter to Elbridge Gerry, 1799)

If we run into such debts, as that we must be taxed in our meat and in our drink, in our necessaries and our comforts, in our labors and our amusements, for our callings and our creeds, as the people of England are, our people like them, must come to labor sixteen hours in the twenty-four, give the earnings of fifteen to these to the government for their debts and daily expenses; and the sixteenth being insufficient to afford us bread, we must live, as they now do, on oatmeal and potatoes; have no time to think, no means of calling the mismangers to account; but be glad to obtain subsistence by hiring ourselves out to rivet their chains on the necks of our fellow-suffers. (Letter to Samuel Kerchival, 1816)

A debt of an hundred millions, growing by usurious interest, and an artificial paper phalanx, overruling the agricultural mass of our country have a portentous aspect. (Letter to Samuel Adams, 1800)

The growth and entailment of a public debt is an indication soliciting the employment of the pruning knife. (Letter to Spencer Roane, 1821)

No man is more ardently intent to see the public debt soon and sacredly paid off than I am. This exactly marks the difference between Colonel Hamilton’s view and mine, that I would wish the debt paid to-morrow; he wishes it never to be paid, but always to be a thing wherewith to corrupt and manage the Legislature. (Letter to George Washington, 1792)

There does not exist an engine so corruptive of the government and so demoralizing of the nation as a public debt. It will bring on us more ruin at home than all the enemies from abroad against whom this army and navy are to protect us. (Letter to Nathaniel Macon, 1821)

We are ruined if we do not overrule the principles that “the more we owe, the more prosperous we shall be”; “that a public debt furnishes the means of enterprise”; “that if ours should be once paid off, we should incur another by any means however extravagant.” (Letter to James Monroe, 1791)

The payment made in discharge of the principle and interest of the national debt, will show that the public faith has been exactly maintained. (First Annual Message to Congress, 1801)

To preserve our independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude. (Letter to Samuel Kerchival, 1816)

All quotations from The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, The University of Virginia,, (accessed August 2, 2011).