Washington Really Does Have the Answer–George, not D. C.

by Burt on April 18, 2011

As our leaders struggle to deal with the U. S. national debt, we can look to George Washington for advice on the subject. Avoid “the accumulation of debt,” Washington advised in his Farewell Address, “not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertion in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned.”

Washington tells us to avoid “the accumulation of debt,” and suggests that “unavoidable wars” are a chief cause of debt. Use the years of peace to pay off debts. For almost two centuries, Americans followed this advice. Our three most expensive wars–the Civil War, World War I and World War II–were all followed by some kind of debt reduction. After the Civil War, the U. S. had 28 straight years of budget surpluses and removed two-thirds of the entire national debt. After World War I, the U. S. had budget surpluses each year during the 1920s, and trimmed more than one-fourth of the national debt during the 1920s. Even after World War II, the U. S. slashed federal expenses, cut tax rates, and spurred economic growth. As a result, the national debt quit ballooning and stabilized for more than a decade.

In other words, in times of crisis (war in particular) American leaders followed George Washington’s advice and after the crisis they always slashed expenses, often cut tax rates, and then–when economic recovery followed–the nation began paying off the debt.

Our current leaders, however, go through crises, such as a housing recession and two wars, then add new expenses, such as an expensive health care program, and then add a new war (such as the current war in Libya) into the mix and watch the national debt skyrocket. Washington noted that if debts are not paid, the next generation suffers. As a leader he wanted to leave a nation in sound financial condition to future Americans. That farsighted attitude is the heart of fine character and splendid leadership.

As a history professor, I am excited at the chance to inspire students with examples from our history of Americans who displayed superb leadership in times of crisis. Washington not only led our nation well in perilous times but also told us the strategy to face debt and vanquish it. Will we follow it?

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