In 1801, Albert Gallatin, Thomas Jefferson's Treasury secretary, vowed to extinguish the public debt, then in the sum of $83 million. It would be gone in 16 years, he vowed. But 16 years later, it had grown to $127 million.
President Bill Clinton, too, produced a plan to pay down the debt in 16 years. This was in 1999, when the nation owed $3.6 trillion. Though the clock's still ticking, it looks as if 2015 will find the debt weighing in not at zero but at something like $12.9 trillion (not counting the IOUs held by the government itself), a margin of miss about 100,000 times greater than Gallatin's.
"The U.S. economy" is the name we confer on the collective efforts of 143 million working Americans. Nobody invented it, but Gallatin and Hamilton—and the Philadelphia merchant Robert Morris, among others—gave it an early constructive push. Other pioneers followed, many laboring in obscurity, including Elizur Wright, a hotblooded Massachusetts actuary who developed the American science of life insurance. Confronted today by the fiscal cliff, mounting dependency on federal entitlements and the virtual nationalization of Citigroup C -4.77% following the panic of 2008, a voter might well pause to study the words and deeds of America's economic visionaries. Surely, they didn't envision this.
In "The Founders and Finance," Thomas K. McCraw, an emeritus professor of business history at the Harvard Business School, celebrates the contributions of men who chose to become Americans, as distinct from those whose parents gave them no choice in the matter. Gallatin made his way to America from Geneva, Switzerland, Hamilton from the Caribbean island of St. Croix and Robert Morris from the English city of Liverpool. Each brought with him an approach to financial organization somehow lacking in the native population.