Abraham Lincoln on the Debt

You probably thought that now that we have awarded the grand prize, we wouldn’t be releasing any more Power Line Prize entries. Not so! There are several more that we think our readers, and the general public, will find interesting.

Of the 200 to 300 entries in the contest, a considerable number were essays. Most were good; quite a few recited the now-familiar statistics associated with the federal debt crisis. But this one by John Long, titled Address on the Public Debt by Abraham Lincoln, we thought was the most creative essay we received. Lincoln returns to the stage to comment on today’s greatest crisis; I think Mr. Long captures his tone quite well:


It has been granted to me to address you once again, not in person but in writing, because of the grave danger into which our country has drifted over the past several decades: a grave danger, to avert the consequences of which, you must take considered action now.

When I was young and under the sway of Daniel Webster’s oratory, I gave a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum at Springfield about the “perpetuation of our political institutions.” I quote one of my principal assertions in that speech, which, though florid, was – and remains – true:

“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

At what point is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live though all time, or die by suicide.”

This nation of freemen is in peril of dying by suicide.

A study of the democracies that – having once taken root and flourished – fell, would reveal three prominent causes of their destruction, either singly or in combination. The first is the determination of a minority not to accept the will of the majority on some matter of importance, and to break up housekeeping, divide effects, and depart, rather than to accept it. The second is the unavoidable tendency of the people to desire (abetted by the unavoidable willingness of a substantial portion of political leaders to grant) ever-increasing largess from the national treasury, which tendency, if unchecked, destroys the national treasury and, ultimately, the nation’s productive capacity. The third is the itch – if I may call it that – to engage in ill-judged and unnecessary military adventures abroad, the scratching of which bleeds the people of their sons and daughters, diverts the people from peaceful and profitable endeavors, demoralizes the people, and, finally, also destroys the national treasury and the nation’s productive capacity.

The second and third causes, of the fall of thriving democracies, have been operating – essentially without check – in this nation for almost five decades. If those causes are allowed to operate indefinitely longer, the destruction of our country is more than possible or probable; it is assured. If that should occur, when – if ever – will men be so rash as to place themselves again under government of the people, by the people, and for the people? Far from upholding the sacred principle of self-government, based upon the belief that all men are created equal, we will have unwittingly demonstrated that the belief is fatuous and that, in the long run, self- government does not work. What you, of this generation, do to restore the health of the United States of America, thus will have consequences – not only for your children and grandchildren – but for all later generations to be born on the face of the earth.

The nation’s public debt is a symptom of the long and continuous operation of the second and third causes of the dissolution of a great democracy. It is like the fever that drenches a beloved child’s body in sweat and makes him delirious three hours before dawn. It is necessary to deal with the fever, and to bring it down to a safer level, so that the child can live till dawn, when the fever is likely to break. But those causes of dissolution – which are the disease itself – must also be treated, or else the symptom will return.

Before I could venture to prescribe any remedy for the disease, I must address three distressing and false opinions, held by various groups of citizens concerning the nation’s public debt: namely, (1) The public debt is not now, and can never be, a real problem for the country; (2) The country is not worth saving, in its current manifestation, in any event, and, so, let come what may; and (3) The country remains today, as I described it, “the last, best hope of earth,” but its problems – including that of the rising public debt – can not be solved.

As to the first distressing, false opinion, many seemingly intelligent persons, who possess the credentials of an expert in economics or finance, or who hold positions of authority in the federal government, assert that neither the size of the public debt nor the rate of its increase threatens the nation. I mark their assertion down to the natural human inclination not to acknowledge looming danger, so that one will not be called upon to face it with courage. The prophet of old, Jeremiah, had to deal with such persons, and so, too, did Demosthenes in Athens. The persons with whom they had to deal, and whose ridicule they had to endure, were utterly, disastrously, wrong. Those who now say that the public debt of the United States of America does not threaten the nation’s very existence, are utterly, disastrously wrong.

The Civil War – which I did not want, but which I accepted, rather than let the nation perish – lasted four years. The best estimate of the expenditures made by the federal government to wage that war, expressed in 1860 dollars is $1,805,597,000.1 Expressed in 2010 dollars, this amount is 27.1 times as large: that is, $48,931,678,700.2 The public debt of the United States of America increased, in 2010, by this amount every ten and a half days.3 Consequently, the United States of America adds to its public debt the equivalent of the expenditures for fighting the Civil War 35 times every year. And the rate of increase in the public debt is accelerating drastically.4

How any ordinary citizen can examine the facts and not conclude that the time for alarm, for his country’s future, has arrived, I do not know. It would take an expert, like Horace Greeley – who was wrong about almost everything he wrote concerning me, my administration, and the proper conduct of the Civil War – to conclude that all is yet well. When I ponder the value of conclusions of self-appointed experts, or of experts elevated to prominence by the consensus of other experts, I cannot help but remember seeing a white rooster at midday in a barnyard in Indiana, fluttering his wings, peering about in lordly rooster fashion, who flew to the top rail of a fence and crowed splendidly. I asked my cousin, Dennis Hanks what such a crow, at noon, meant. He replied that it didn’t mean anything, other than the rooster’s good opinion of himself.

Those experts, who assure us that the public debt poses no problem, assume the existence of a locus poenitentiae – situated comfortably ahead of the total destruction of the nation’s credit, ability to maintain its military forces, and moral authority – wherein the nation can belatedly and grudgingly make fiscal amends and, so, avert disaster. Such an assumption puts me in mind of my two visits to Niagara Falls. I was astounded that persons who lived along the Niagara River insisted on taking pleasure boat cruises on it, even in places where the mist rising from the Falls was visible in the distance. They appeared to have the same beliefs as those experts who counsel calmness and disregard for the accumulation of the public debt at a rate never before experienced by this nation: namely, that the danger was not really so bad, and that, if the danger actually overtook one who drifted too close to the Falls, the drop was survivable. The reality – for both the boaters on the Niagara River, and for this nation with respect to its public debt – is otherwise. All seems fine, and the same as it has always been, until the pleasure boat drifts too close to the Falls. One can not even determine, with precision, where the point of no return lies. But, after the boat passes that point, no power on earth can save it. The boat and its passengers are doomed to go over the Falls.

This country’s drift, close to the point of no return, is demonstrated by three things: first, in its desperation to borrow huge amounts, it must perforce borrow from the rest of the world, rather than merely from its citizens and companies; second, in its desperation to borrow huge amounts, it is glad to borrow repeatedly from a foreign country that – in a contest in the future – might be its adversary; and, third, even such unwise borrowing being insufficient, it is also forced to practice the ruse of having its central bank purchase the debt that it sells. The last expedient carries the risk of destroying the nation’s currency and, with it, both the people’s savings and their means of purchasing the necessities of living from day to day. If this should occur, then the first cause, of the end of democracies, would assert itself again, and civil disorders (I dread to say more) should be expected.

As to the second distressing, false opinion – that this country is not special in any way, and that it is not worth saving – holding that opinion is the province of persons with a minuscule experience of the world as it is, such as university professors and their gullible students. I never saw an Irishman, who had made his way to this country, entertain such a view. James Shields, for example, came to this country alone when he was about 17 years old. He burned with a passionate love for this country; he repeatedly fought and risked his life for this country. I doubt that any other immigrant, fleeing injustice in his own country, ever thought that the freedom and opportunity he found in the United States of America were negligible. Although slavery defiled American soil for 250 years, we, as a people, in a great and bloody convulsion, got rid of it. I beg your indulgence, in making here an observation about a matter outside the limit of my own life, which is thus anachronistic. How I know it, I am not certain, but I do know it, and knowing it is a blessing amid tragedy. No one, having any sense of reality, can look at the photographs of Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton at Ohrdruf – no one, having any respect for the truth, can look at the flags of United States Army divisions that liberated the concentration camps in Germany – without knowing in his heart that this country has been a precious place, that good exists objectively, and that this country should be a force for good. I do not deny that it has not always been a force for good. Yet I remain convinced, as I was convinced during the worst days of the Civil War, that a duty – to aspire to, and to labor for – the good in human affairs, has been laid upon it. If ever a country and its democracy were worth saving, from the follies of its leaders and the temporary weaknesses of its people, this is the country, and this is the democracy.

As to the third distressing, false opinion – that this country’s problems, including the rising public debt, can not be solved – this is the fear that weighs down ordinary families when they talk around their kitchen tables. I make two observations.

A problem can not be solved until it is faced. Problems seem difficult of resolution in this country today, in large part, because they are not faced with the determination to try every sensible measure to solve them. Trying every sensible measure means that citizens must face the unpleasant fact that they and their families – and not merely other citizens and families – must consent to decreases in the monetary benefits they receive from various social programs. The nation itself and its survival, in good health, indefinitely, are more important than any social program ever devised. I am convinced that – though this is not all of the matter – this is the crux of the matter. If citizens refuse to recognize this, and continue to clamor for more and more – as their supposed right – then, I fear, all is lost, and our time as a great nation is at an end. If citizens recognize this and mutually resolve to do all that is necessary to bear this country and its free institutions safely into the distant future, for the benefit of their posterity, then all will yet be well.

With respect to the difficulty that the people will encounter, in mastering the public debt, after having faced the problem, I draw hope from my experience of dealing with slavery, after I had concluded that I must oppose it publicly. When I stood on the platform with Douglas at the Seventh Joint Debate in Alton on October 15, 1858, nothing seemed more impossible than the end of slavery in this country. All the moneyed powers of the South were for it; most of the moneyed powers of the North connived to let it alone, for there was money to be made in servicing the moneyed powers of the South. Yet, four years, two months, and 17 days later – on January 1, 1863 – I issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Within another two years and one month, both houses of Congress had passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which amendment, upon ratification by the States, abolished slavery. Courage (I speak of the courage of the people, and not my own) makes all good things possible.

As to the precise remedy, or remedies, that I would prescribe for the disease – the second and third causes of the dissolution of this democracy – that is a topic for another speech. I have ideas, the hearing of which will be hard to endure. My purpose here has been to rouse the people to action, and to encourage them to face the problem of the swiftly rising public debt. I have found that the ordinary citizens of this country have enormous good sense, which enables them – if they together decide to face a problem – to find, and to insist upon, a solution to the problem.

A. Lincoln

July 4, 2011

1 Claudia D. Goldin and Frank D. Lewis, “The Economic Cost of the American Civil War: Estimates and Implications,” The Journal of Economic History 35, no. 2 (1975): 299 – 326. See line (1) of Table 1, “Direct Cost of the Civil War to the North,” 304.

2 The multiplier 27.1 was obtained by going to Measuring Worth at http://www.measuringworth.com/ , clicking on the calculator named “Purchasing Power – US $” to go to web page at http://www.measuringworth.com/ppowerus/, then entering the information “Initial Year: 1860,” “Initial Amount $: 1000,” “Desired Year: 2010,” and clicking on “Calculate,” which actions resulted in the display of the message, “$27100.00 in the year 2010 has the same ‘purchase power’ as $1000 in the year 1860.” Dividing the first bolded number by the second bolded number produces the multiplier 27.1.

3 These figures were derived from the federal government’s “Debt History Search Application” under “The Debt to the Penny and Who Holds It” at http://www.treasurydirect.gov/NP/BPDLogin?application=np by using the dropdown menus in the left boxes to enter “December 31, 2009” as the Beginning Date and the dropdown menus in the right boxes to enter “December 31, 2010” as the Ending Date. These actions yield a table of daily values for the public debt, on which the value of the debt on the Beginning Date was $12,311,349,677,512.03 and the value of the debt on the Ending Date was $14,025,215,218,708.52: that is, an increase of $1,713,865,541,196.49 during 2010. This corresponds to an average daily increase, during 2010, of $4,695,522,032.71. If the federal government’s direct expenditures for the Civil War, expressed in 2010 dollars ($48,931,678,700) are divided by this per diem increase in the debt ($4,695,522,032.71), the result is 10.42 days. In each 365-day year, there are 35.02 periods of 10.42 days.

4 See the graph labeled “History of the Public Debt,” covering the years from 1990 – 2010, provided by the federal government at http://www.treasurydirect.gov/govt/reports/pd/pd_debtposactrpt_1105.pdf.