In the century after Alexander Hamilton refunded the debts of the Revolutionary War with a federal debt, the United States only
went into debt to pay for its wars. But then in the 1930s the administration of President Roosevelt attempted to get
the nation out of the Great Depression with federal borrowings.
When charted in dollars, in the Chart 4.01, the total accumulation of federal debt looks huge. Looking back over the last century, the
debt back in 1900 doesnt really register. But by charting accumulated debt as a percent of gross domestic
product (GDP) in Chart 4.02, you get a look at government debt compared to the size of the economy at the time.
The federal debt was set up in the 1790s
by the first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton. Experienced in banking, Hamilton stabilized the dollar and refunded the debts incurred by the states in the Revolutionary War by refinancing them as an obligation of the new federal government. The bonds were to be
funded by federal revenues earmarked for interest payments and repayment of
The resulting federal debt stood at 35% of gross domestic product (GDP).
By the 1830s the Revolutionary war debt had been paid
offjust in time for the Civil War when federal debt climbed back up to 33% of GDP. Still, the Civil War debt was
pretty well paid off by the turn of the 20th century.
At the beginning of the 20th century total government debt was equally divided between federal and state and local debt, totaling less than 20 percent of GDP. After World War I, the federal debt
surged to 35% of GDP. But by the mid 1920s federal debt had declined to below 20 percent of GDP with state and local debt rising to 16 percent of GDP.
- Federal gross debt
- State gross debt
- Local gross debt
Then came the Great Depression, and President Roosevelt decided to
spend his way out of trouble, boosting federal debt to 40 percent of GDP. So did the local governments, with state debt peaking at over 5 percent of GDP in 1933 and local debt peaking at over 28 percent in 1933. Government debt, including federal and state and local debt rose to 70 percent of GDP.
But it was in World War II that the US really entered new debt territory.
Starting at 45 percent of GDP in 1941 federal debt zoomed, reaching almost 122 percent of GDP in 1946 after the end of the war, with state and local debt adding another 7 percent. For the next 35 years successive governments brought down the debt, but
then came President Reagan. He increased the federal debt up over 50 percent of GDP to
win the Cold War. President Bush increased the debt to fight a war on terror and bail out the banks. President Obama is increasing the debt to fund a plan to revive the economy in the aftermath of the Crash of 2008.
Todays annual federal deficit, the difference between outlays and revenue in a single year, always seems dangerous and unprecedented. In fact, you need a war
to really get a big deficit. The peak deficits came during World War I (16% of GDP in 1919)
and World War II (24% in 1945), as the chart shows.
The deficits of the Great Depression only came to about five percent of GDP,
and the big $1.4 trillion deficit for FY 2009 amounted to 13% of GDP.
The real risk from government debt is the burden of interest payments. Experts say that
when interest payments reach about 12% of GDP then a government will likely default on its
debt. Chart 4.05 shows that the US is a long way from that risk. The peak period for government
interest payments, including federal, state, and local governments, was in the 1980s, when interest rates were still high after the inflationary
1970s. Of course, the numbers dont show the burden of interest payments from Government
Sponsored Enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
On March 4, 2014, the US government released parts of the Budget of the United States Government for fiscal year 2015. However the Historical Tables and other details will not be released until March 11, 2014.
usgovernmentspending.com will update budget details when the Historical Tables are published.