To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;

Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath, Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School

Article 1, Section 8, Clause 2

2:  To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;

Article I, Section 8, clause 2, confers on Congress the power to borrow money on the credit of the United States.  Borrowing is simply a means of raising revenue. One can glimpse the importance and ubiquity of this tool of public finance by the fact that the framers placed it as the second power granted to the new Congress.  Right after the powers to tax and spend. Those powers, along with the coining of money and punishing counterfeiting, constitute the federal revenue powers.

Borrowing on the credit of the United States was of vital concern during the Founding Era.  The difficulty that the U.S. had to finance the Revolutionary War impressed men such as Alexander Hamilton and his mentor in financial matters, Robert Morris.  It was the eventual success of John Adams and others in convincing the Dutch bankers to loosen their purse strings that opened access for Americans to international financial markets and contributed much to independence. Hamilton’s experience is reflected in Federalist 30, where he explains the importance of public credit to finance emergencies such as wars, and the connection between taxes (and, more broadly, responsible fiscal policies) and creditworthiness.

After the war, the economic plight of the United States worsened.  The war debts of the states and the United States posed a long-term threat to the country’s economic health. That condition, many feared, would inevitably turn into a political threat to the republican systems in the states and to the Confederation.  The fiscal and monetary policies of the states exacerbated the situation, as, in the words of James Madison’s in Federalist 10, a “rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property [and] for other improper [and] wicked projects” set in.  During the debates on the Constitution, Rhode Island was often (and not always entirely fairly) set up as a paradigm of bad economic policies run amok.  That is what happens when a state declines to show up for the debate, as Rhode Island opted to do.

But the problem was national and systemic, with the country locked in an apparent long-term cycle, or perhaps a spiral, of economic woe.  One problem, in the eyes of many, was the absence of banks.  The British had strongly disabled the formation of banks in the colonies, correctly seeing them as potential threats to British dominance. During the war, the Confederation’s Superintendent of Finance, Robert Morris, at the instigation of Alexander Hamilton, obtained a charter for the Bank of North America, an American prototype private national bank loosely patterned after the Bank of England.  The charter was immediately suspect, since the Articles of Confederation did not allow Congress to charter banks or other corporations.  As a precaution, the Bank eventually also obtained a state charter from Pennsylvania, a step that soon confirmed to Hamilton and other nationalists the folly of state control over public finance. The legislature of Pennsylvania, taking the position that it could, with impunity, take away vested property rights confirmed by a predecessor legislature, revoked the charter in 1785.

Though these constitutional weaknesses and political currents eventually caused the Bank of North America to fail as a national bank, the pattern was set. Indeed, Morris and Hamilton in their arguments to the Confederation Congress developed the constitutional arguments in favor of implied national powers that Hamilton would repeat in his push for the Bank of the United States in 1791, arguments the Supreme Court adopted in its landmark decision in McCulloch v. Maryland in 1819.

In the same vein, the economic and political arguments in favor of (and against) the Bank of North America would resonate in the political debates over the Bank of the United States and its successor until Andrew Jackson’s veto of the re-charter of the Second Bank of the United States in 1832.  Those same arguments would be repeated in the debate over the establishment of the Federal Reserve system and continue today.

While the Federal Reserve remains controversial in many quarters, the original Hamiltonian program probably saved the Republic.  Through the complex system Hamilton advanced as Secretary of the Treasury, the infirmities of the public debts of the United States and the states were eliminated by guaranteeing creditors payment on their previously depreciated securities.  A crucial step to restore confidence was to have the United States assume the war debts of the states.  The debt repayment was financed in part through an excise tax on whiskey that, while unpopular in certain quarters, was generally supported by the public.  The Bank of the United States was the final piece in Hamilton’s mosaic and would serve as a depository for government funds.  The use of those funds as well as the profit from private loans to other (state-chartered) banks and to large commercial borrowers would provide a return on their investment to private investors and to the government.  The latter could use those profits to help repay the war debts and to furnish internal public infrastructure improvements (later reflected in Henry Clay’s “American system”).  More significantly for the stability of public credit and the money supply was that the Bank could control the terms of credit it extended to borrowers. By selecting the interest rates for loans and having the option to demand repayment of loans in specie, it could temper the enthusiasm that state banks otherwise might have to overextend themselves through the issuance of bills of credit (paper bank notes).

As a result, the U.S. almost overnight gained access to the Amsterdam financial markets and, hence, to the world. Foreign capital flowed into the United States to help develop manufactures and commerce and put the United States on the road to a modern economy and prosperity.  Hamilton was not naive.  Despite what some of the agrarian anti-Bank theorists, such as Virginia’s Senator John Taylor of Caroline (a man who considered Jefferson and Madison sell-outs of the republican cause), claimed, neither the Bank nor Hamilton was bent on destroying American liberty.  Hamilton feared a government-controlled bank, but thought that the private control of the bank would keep corrupt political forces at bay.  Similarly, public and private tendencies towards credit bubbles would be constrained by two things.  First, the interests of investors and directors in safety as well as profits would make them sufficiently conservative. Second, he proposed that repayment of long-term public debt be immediately secured through a commitment of designated revenue to pay interest and principal (“sinking fund”).  Hamilton insisted that the Latin root of credit, credere (“to believe”), reflected the true source of credit.  “States, like individuals, who observe their engagements, are respected and trusted: while the reverse is the fate of those, who pursue an opposite conduct.”  While the states and the Confederation had abdicated their responsibilities and the country had suffered accordingly, Hamilton believed that his program lessened those dangers.

In practice, regrettably, Hamilton’s cautious and balanced approach has been cast aside. The only measure today appears to be how much can be borrowed on the increasingly suspect credit of the United States, rated as it is on the perceived ability of Americans to pay and the country’s status as the still safer haven for international funds than are the bonds of other countries.  Debt is rolled over, not retired, as more debt is added.

I happened to come across a book written fewer than forty years ago. The author recounted in horror that the gross national debt (not the annual deficit) topped the stratospheric level of $450 billion.  Even more scandalous to him was the explosion of the national debt from roughly $40 billion in 1940. Those are the kinds of numbers that today sound like unattainable frugality as a measure even of annual deficit, never mind as a measure of gross national debt. Even adjusted for inflation and population growth, the cumulative effect of the borrowing binge reflected in today’s debt is staggering compared to that time not so long ago.

Today’s questionable fiscal and monetary policies are not novel, of course.  The Lincoln administration’s massive borrowing and its manipulation of the currency is one stark early example.  FDR’s unilateral cancellation of gold clauses in public bonds (upheld by the Supreme Court in a stunning exercise of sophistry in Perry v. U.S. in 1935) and his comparatively massive, for that time, expansion of the debt, is another. But even those actions arguably were more defensible than today’s deficit borrowing. There is no massive war; the economic recession is not of the same degree; the borrowing is used to fund entitlements, not infrastructure.  Worse, the deficit is not a matter of a few years, but, by now, of generations.  It is structural. Worst of all, there is a lack of seriousness and urgency on the part of the political branches.  As Hamilton feared, that foundation of sound credit, the “belief” and confidence of creditors, is unlikely to be maintained in the teeth of such profligacy.

An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums.  Read more from Professor Knipprath at: .