How long have we had a national debt?

US Gov Debt Projection (Year 2000)I recently listened to a rather interesting  episode of the NPR podcast, Planet Money.  Through a Freedom of Information Act request, NPR received a report from 2000 entitled Life After Debt.  At the time, it was estimated that with the current budgetary surpluses, the US federal government would have the national deficit paid off in the year 2012.  The report was not originally released and since then, we have developed a record deficit.  This change of course was partially because of two simultaneous wars and partially because of high tax cuts and stimulus spending.  The podcast primarily asked why things changed so dramatically since 2000.

The podcast is worth listening to but, I found myself asking another question: “How long have we had a national debt?”  There has been a lot of talk about management of the national debt but how long have we had it?  Have we always had it.  I found a governmental source that shows historical outstanding national debt figures going back to the fiscal year starting on January 1, 1791.  For some context, the first fiscal year for the US Government started January 1, 1789 and George Washington gave the first State of the Union Address on January 9, 1790.

In 1791, the national debt was $75,463,476.52 (source).  The GDP is 1791 was $204,000,000 (source).  This means that in 1791, the national debt was 37% of GDP.  Another way of looking at it is that (based upon a population of 4,048,000 (source)) the the debt was $18.64.  In an attempt to compare see the changes in the nation debt over time, I looked up the same information (using the same sources) for the years 1891, 1991, and 2010.  You can see the results below.

US National Debt 1791, 1891, 1991, and 2010

So, there appears to be a very jump in the national debt, when you look at the numbers in this admittedly narrow way.  More to the original question, we have had the national debt since the dawn of the nation.  I think that it is an excellent goal to eliminate the national debt.  I am just not sure that it will be possible in our current economic climate.  The republicans insist that revenue can not be increased and the democrats insist that expenses can not be decreased.  Maybe by 2091, we will have a new party that knows better. 🙂

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