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How Would Thomas Jefferson Solve the Fiscal Crisis?

Jefferson managed to cut military spending by nearly half, end the whiskey tax and buy a third of North America

Cut spending, be immortalized on the nickel Image: Monticello Foundation

Some founding fathers were no strangers to the sort of fiscal woes that Congress, under increasing pressure to solve the ever-worsening financial crisis, faces today. Thomas Jefferson, elected in 1800, inherited $83 million dollars worth of federal debt. His plan to get the fledgling United States out of the hole? Government spending cuts! The History News Network lays out his plan:

Jefferson understood that debt was necessary to pay for war and to invest in the public good, but he believed that “neither the representatives of a nation, nor the whole nation itself, assembled can validly engage debts beyond what they may pay in their own time….” That was a generation, according to Jefferson, and his debt reduction plan, devised by his Secretary of Treasury Albert Gallatin, was to eliminate the debt he inherited in sixteen years.

“We are hunting out and abolishing multitudes of useless offices,” Jefferson proudly wrote his son-in-law, “striking off jobs, lopping them down silently.”

The problem was that the civilian government was more muscle than lard, including only 130 employees. Gallatin explained to Jefferson that while cutting civilian jobs saved thousands of dollars, they could save hundreds of thousands more if they followed federal expenditures, which mostly went to the military.

Jefferson took his anti-military spending platform even further in his 1801 State of the Nation address:

War, indeed, and untoward events may change this prospect of things and call for expenses which imposts could not meet; but sound principles will not justify our taxing the industry of our fellow citizens to accumulate treasure for wars to happen we know not when, and which might not, perhaps, happen but from the temptations offered by that treasure.

Through a series of strategic moves that would puzzle even the most savvy political strategist of 2013, Jefferson managed to cut military spending by nearly half (for comparison, the cuts facing the military as a result of the sequester hover in the 10 percent range), end the whiskey tax and buy a third of North America.

More from Smithsonian.com:

The Essentials: Five Books on Thomas Jefferson
A Little Perspective: Congress First Mandated Health Care in 1798

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