Here’s what Thomas Jefferson had to say about taxes, the size of
government, and the national debt in his second inaugural address on March 4,
1805. For anyone today, that second sentence below is mind-blowing.
At home, fellow citizens, you best know whether we have done well or
ill. The suppression of
unnecessary offices, of useless establishments and expenses, enabled us to
discontinue our internal taxes. These covering our land with
officers, and opening our doors to their intrusions, had already begun that
process of domiciliary vexation which, once entered, is scarcely to be
restrained from reaching successively every article of produce and property.
If among these taxes some minor ones fell which had not been inconvenient, it
was because their amount would not have paid the officers who collected them,
and because, if they had any merit, the state authorities might adopt them,
instead of others less approved.
The remaining revenue on the consumption of foreign articles, is paid
cheerfully by those who can afford to add foreign luxuries to domestic
comforts, being collected on our seaboards and frontiers only, and
incorporated with the transactions of our mercantile citizens, it may be the pleasure and pride of an
American to ask, what farmer, what mechanic, what laborer, ever sees a
tax-gatherer of the United States? These contributions enable
us to support the current expenses of the government, to fulfil
contracts with foreign nations, to extinguish the native right of soil within
our limits, to extend those limits, and to apply such a surplus to our public debts, as places at
a short day their final redemption, and that redemption once
effected, the revenue thereby liberated may, by a just repartition among the
states, and a corresponding amendment of the constitution, be applied, in time of peace, to
rivers, canals, roads, arts, manufactures, education, and other great objects
within each state. In time of
war, if injustice, by ourselves or others, must sometimes produce
war, increased as the same revenue will be increased by population and
consumption, and aided by other resources reserved for that crisis, it may
meet within the year all the expenses of the year, without encroaching on the
rights of future generations, by burdening them with the debts of the past.
War will then be but a suspension of useful works, and a return to a state of
peace, a return to the progress of improvement.
Of course, with the important exception of the Louisiana Purchase,
Jefferson was a lot more frugal with the government’s money than he was with
his own. From everything that I’ve read, he had what we call today a
“compulsive shopping disorder” that left him with massive debt his entire
life, so much so that when he sold his personal library to the Library of
Congress for $24,000 in 1815 (a princely sum at the time), most of that money
was passed on to debt collectors.