U.S. Has Love/Hate Relationship With Debt

John Boehner

WHATEVER the outcome of the debate on the debt ceiling, everyone seems to agree that it has been one of the most alienating spectacles in recent political history — a peculiarly Beltway form of theater, with much of the public still confused about what exactly is at stake.

But here is a disquieting fact: In one version or another, this conflict, centered on protest against the federal debt, has been going on almost since the beginning of the Republic.

America’s first elected opposition party, the Democratic-Republican Party formed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the 1790s, promised a “second revolution” whose axioms included “the general principle that payment of debt should take precedence of all other expenditure,” as Henry Adams put it in “History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson,” his monumental study.

The trouble, as Adams noted, was that this principle conflicted with another, “reduction of taxes; and the revenue was not sufficient to satisfy both demands.”

The solution was to trim the size of government. The biggest departments were the Army and the Navy, which were duly cut back. It seemed a sensible solution since Jefferson, along with the public, wanted no more wars. But the Barbary pirates were attacking American merchant ships, and since taxes were needed to pay for a series of naval battles, Jefferson authorized a new federal fund, in violation of his anti-Federalist politics.

Démarches of this kind became the essence of Jefferson’s two terms. He forswore “entangling alliances” with foreign powers, but when Napoleon offered to sell France’s holdings in the Louisiana territory, Jefferson accepted. He raised the $15 million fee by issuing government bonds and taking over payment of the French debt to American citizens. Some objected to Jefferson’s annexing “a foreign people and a vast territory,” Adams wrote. Others protested that Jefferson, the devout anti-monarchist, had recast himself as the virtual king of this new land acquisition.

Thus did Jefferson’s mission to eliminate the debt and repeal taxes — “the foundation for his system of politics abroad and at home,” as Adams described it — yield to the practical demands of governing a young, ambitious nation.

For all this, Jefferson remains the originator of the anti-statist movement, with its aversion to debt and taxes, that is dominating the debt-ceiling impasse and has been a defining and recurrent strain of American politics. He has had many ideological successors, up through today’s Tea Party movement.

In the past, conservatives attained office espousing small-government politics only to see those principles subverted by political realities that led them, time and again, to enlarge the government they fervently meant to starve. By this measurement, Jefferson and his heirs have been abject failures. But in other, more crucial ways, perhaps not.

THE anti-debt politicians of 2011 are in some respects the direct descendants of Robert A. Taft, the Ohio legislator who led the Republican insurgency in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the party briefly held majorities in Congress and set in motion a rigorous plan to roll back the New Deal by scaling back federal government and advocating pro-business policies.

Taft wanted to slash taxes by 20 percent, skewed toward middle- and lower-income groups, and he opposed the billions spent on reconstructing European democracies via the Marshall Plan. In this instance his loathing of big spending combined with his Jeffersonian suspicion of “entangling alliances” with other countries, including corrupt “socialist” ones like Great Britain. (This isolationism also characterizes many Tea Partiers, who have been relatively quiet on foreign policy issues.)

Taft succeeded in getting a huge tax cut, though the battle with President Harry S. Truman, who insisted that revenue was needed to conduct the cold war, raged for 15 months and included two presidential vetoes.

At the same time, Taft drafted the Taft-Hartley Act, which repealed major labor initiatives enacted during the New Deal, including the closed union shop and industry-wide bargaining. This legislation prefigured the recent actions that have curbed the bargaining power of state employees in Wisconsin and New Jersey, and the protests were equally forceful. In New York City, as many as 100,000 union members gathered, demanding that Truman veto the bill. He did. But the veto was overturned, perhaps Taft’s crowning legislative victory.

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