The Founders on Taxation and Debt
This has not been a particularly joyful season inside the beltway. All we’ve seen is a lot of clamoring, to little effect. In the hinterlands, we hear the echoes of the politicians’ raucous debate about government spending, government borrowing, and government intrusion into our homes and business. One side yells that the only solution is to tax the rich until they squeal, while the other side of the aisle insists we must reform entitlements or go the way of Greece.
What would the Founders think about all this? Here is what they said in their own words.
The people of the U.S. owe their independence and their liberty, to the wisdom of descrying in the minute tax of 3 pence on tea, the magnitude of the evil comprized in the precedent. Let them exert the same wisdom, in watching against every evil lurking under plausible disguises, and growing up from small beginnings. — James Madison
As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible: avoiding occasions of expensed by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it; avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burthen which we ourselves ought to bear. — George Washington, Farewell Address
The apportionment of taxes on the various descriptions of property is an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality; yet there is, perhaps, no legislative act in which greater opportunity and temptation are given to a predominant party to trample on the rules of justice. — James Madison, Federalist 10
If we run into such [government] debts, as that we must be taxed in our meat and in our drink, in our necessaries and our comforts, in our labors and our amusements, for our callings and our creeds, as the people of England are, our people, like them, must come to labor sixteen hours in twenty-four, give the earnings of fifteen of these to the government for their debts and daily expenses, and the sixteenth being insufficient to afford us bread, we must live, as they now do, on oatmeal and potatoes, have no time to think, no means of calling the mismanagers to account; but be glad to obtain subsistence by hiring ourselves to rivet their chains on the necks of our fellow-suffers. — Thomas Jefferson
By any plain method of argument, as we are running the next generation into debt, we ought to do the work of it, otherwise we use them meanly and pitifully. — Thomas Paine
Excessive taxation … will carry reason and reflection to every man’s door, and particularly in the hour of election. — Thomas Jefferson
If the system be established on basis of Income, and his just proportion on that scale has been already drawn from every one, to step into the field of consumption, and tax special articles in that, as broadcloth or homespun, wine or whiskey, a coach or a wagon, is doubly taxing the same article. For that portion of Income with which these articles are purchased, having already paid its tax as Income, to pay another tax on the thing it purchased, is paying twice for the same thing; it is an aggrievance on the citizens who use these articles in exoneration of those who do not, contrary to the most sacred of the duties of a government, to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.— Thomas Jefferson
If duties are too high, they lessen the consumption; the collection is eluded; and the product to the treasury is not so great as when they are confined within proper and moderate bounds. — Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 21
In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. — Benjamin Franklin
And here are a quote on the subject from a more current president.
No matter what anyone may say about making the rich and the corporations pay the taxes, in the end they come out of the people who toil. It is your fellow workers who are ordered to work for the Government, every time an appropriation bill is passed. The people pay the expense of government, often many times over, in the increased cost of living. I want taxes to be less, that the people may have more. — Calvin Coolidge
Jon Bruning is Attorney General for Nebraska and past president of the National Association of Attorneys General of the United States. He is now a candidate for the U.S. Senate. James D. Best is the author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Look for their forthcoming book, Principled Action, Lessons from the Origins of the American Republic.