In an earlier post, kitchenmudge asked if this nation ever had a balanced budget. I don’t know, but this post says the last time we did it was 1957. He has some nice clean tables there. In this one, note that the deficit went down every one of Clinton’s 8 years in office and it went up in 7 of 8 years of George Bush. Say no more.
And this is a good summary of historic trends in our debt; it sounds like any law demanding a balanced budget would preclude our ability to go to war since wars are always fought on borrowed money. I’ve faulted GW Bush for that, but the real problem was that he simultaneously implemented huge tax cuts.
The United States has had public debt since its inception. Debts incurred during the American Revolutionary War and under the Articles of Confederation led to the first yearly reported value of $75,463,476.52 on January 1, 1791. From 1796 to 1811 there were 14 surpluses and only 2 deficits. The first dramatic growth spurt of the debt occurred because of the War of 1812. In the first 20 years following the War of 1812, 18 surpluses were experienced and the US paid off 99.97% of its debt.
The second dramatic growth spurt of the debt occurred because of the Civil War. The debt was just $65 million in 1860, but passed $1 billion in 1863 and had reached $2.7 billion following the war. In the following 47 years America returned to the practice of running surpluses during times of peace experiencing 36 surpluses and only 11 deficits. During this period 55% of the US national debt was paid off.
The next period of major growth in debt came during WWI reaching $25.5 billion at its conclusion. It was followed by 11 straight surpluses and saw the debt reduced by 36%.