The 18th Century

1776: The Birth of Public Debt

George Washington, portrait by Gilbert Stuart

George Washington,
portrait by Gilbert Stuart

"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."

George Washington, 1793, Message to the House of Representatives

The public debt of the United States can be traced back as far as the American Revolution. In 1776, a committee of ten founders took charge of what would become the Treasury, and they helped secure funding for the war through "loan certificates" (equivalent to bonds) with which they borrowed money for the fledgling government from France and the Netherlands. This committee morphed over the next decade into the Department of Finance. Robert Morris, a wealthy merchant and Congressman (nicknamed "The Financier"), was chosen to lead a new Department of Finance in 1782.

As the new Superintendent of Finance, Morris was the first committee member to order a reporting of the total government debt owed. This marked the beginning of annual Treasury reports to the President. On January 1, 1783, the public debt of the new United States totaled $43 million.

1783: Raising Taxes to Meet Operating Expenses

In 1783, Congress was given the power to raise taxes. This helped meet the normal operating expenses of the new national government. But in 1785, revenues were still inadequate. Alexander Hamilton rallied for the government to assume some debt and help meet its expenses. He pushed the framers of the new Constitution to establish measures to provide the assurance that the debt would be paid, and thus increase confidence in the growing government. Many of Hamilton's policies have remained a part of our government's operations ever since. On September 2, 1789, Congress established The Treasury Department, naming Alexander Hamilton, its chief architect, as "Secretary."

Alexander Hamilton, portrait by John Trumbull, 1792

Alexander Hamilton,
portrait by John Trumbull,

1789: Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton (b. January 11, 1755 - d. July 12, 1804) was the first United States Secretary of the Treasury, a Founding Father, economist, political philosopher and confidant of George Washington. He was one of America's first Constitutional lawyers, and co-wrote "The Federalist Papers," a primary source for Constitutional interpretation. As Washington's Treasury Secretary, Hamilton was very influential in the policy decisions of the new government. An admirer of British political systems, Hamilton emphasized strong central government and implied powers, under which the new U.S. Congress funded the national debt, assumed state debts, created a national bank, and established tariffs and taxes. "A national debt, if it is not excessive," Hamilton argued, "will be to us a national blessing."

1790: The Funding Act

Hamilton, estimating the total public debt at $77.1 million, called for the issuance of new federal bonds to cover the debt. By assuming the obligation to pay this debt, the government firmly established its good credit. By February 1792, interest-bearing government bonds were selling for $1.20-on-the-dollar. A shrewd investor, buying $100 in bonds in 1786 (at a market price of about $15) could have sold the replacement bonds issued by the new government for $121.50 in 1792, realizing a handsome profit. The system of debt management instituted by Hamilton worked well to consolidate the debt and permit the government to make interest payments as they came due (as well as to secure the faith and credit of the government in the new United States and abroad).

1791: The Bank

To consolidate the government's financial affairs, Hamilton proposed the formation of a national bank to supplement the activities of The Treasury. Despite the opposition of Jefferson and Madison, the First Bank of the United States opened in 1791 with a total capital of $10 million. Just ten years later, though, Jeffersonian Democrats, who didn't trust banks, overturned this progress. Jefferson's Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, was a chief critic of Hamilton's methods of debt management, and made it his priority to reduce public debt. This worked for a time, reducing the public debt to $45.2 million by 1811, but was derailed by Jefferson's "Louisiana Purchase."