Founding a nation is not cheap. The United States incurred more than $75 million fighting the Revolutionary War. From there, the national debt grew and then ballooned to $127 million as a result of the War of 1812.
But after the war, the debt then started a steady 20-year decline. By January 1, 1833 the national debt stood at $7 million. Two years later, on January 1, 1835, under President Andrew Jackson, the debt, which he called “a national curse,” was just $33,733.
On January 8th of that year, Jackson proclaimed that the last installment of the national debt had just been paid. “The Payment of the Public Debt,” Jackson wrote in a toast at a party that also marked the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans “Let us commemorate it as an event that gives us increased power as a nation, and reflects luster on our federal Union, of whose justice, fidelity, and wisdom it is a glorious illustration.”
Andrew Jackson vetoed bills that appropriated money for infrastructure projects, thus quickening the pace that the country’s debt was retired by up to five years.
The country remained debt free for a short time as politicians argued over what to do with government surpluses, hatching schemes to divide the money up and give it to the states.
Financial panics made those discussions irrelevant. By January 1, 1836, the national debt had grown back to $37,000. A four-year depression starting in 1839 resulted in the debt growing to $20 million.
The debt was more than $2.6 billion by the end of the Civil War; almost $27 billion by the end of World War I, and almost $260 billion by the end of World War II. The debt reached $1 trillion in Ronald Reagan’s first term as president, and $5 trillion near the end of Bill Clinton’s first term.
It stands at over $18 trillion today.