History Of The Federal Debt

My post about Presidents That Have Reduced The Federal Debt was limited to data from 1940 to the present. This was because the data I’d found (2009 Budget Historical Tables PDF and the Federal Debt at the End of Year: 1940–2008 XLS) only went back to 1940. A little more digging revealed that TreasuryDirect.gov has a complete list of the history of annual outstanding federal debt from 1791 to today.

The federal debt started at $75,463,476.52, in 1791. It reached it’s lowest point, $33,733.05, in 1835 when Andrew Jackson was President. Other milestones include the first time the debt passed $1 billion in 1863 under Abraham Lincoln and exceeding $1 trillion in 1982 during Ronald Reagan’s Presidency. On the other side of the coin Woodrow Wilson was the first President to reduce the debt by more than $1 billion in a single year (1920). The single largest reduction in the debt in a single year happened in 1947, by more than $11 billion, when Harry S. Truman was President. Since 1791 the year over year debt has only been reduced 80 times under 29 different Presidents.

Here’s a list of all the years that the federal debt went down, including by how much and who the President was at the time:

  • 1794 – $1.9 million – George Washington
  • 1797 – $1.7 million – George Washington / John Adams
  • 1798 – $2.8 million – John Adams
  • 1799 – $0.8 million – John Adams
  • 1802 – $5.9 million – Thomas Jefferson
  • 1803 – $3.6 million – Thomas Jefferson
  • 1805 – $4.1 million – Thomas Jefferson
  • 1806 – $6.5 million – Thomas Jefferson
  • 1807 – $6.5 million – Thomas Jefferson
  • 1808 – $4.0 million – Thomas Jefferson
  • 1809 – $8.1 million – Thomas Jefferson / James Madison
  • 1810 – $3.8 million – James Madison
  • 1811 – $5.1 million – James Madison
  • 1812 – $2.8 million – James Madison
  • 1817 – $3.8 million – James Madison / James Monroe
  • 1818 – $20.0 million – James Monroe
  • 1819 – $7.9 million – James Monroe
  • 1820 – $4.5 million – James Monroe
  • 1821 – $1.0 million – James Monroe
  • 1823 – $2.6 million – James Monroe
  • 1824 – $0.6 million – James Monroe
  • 1825 – $6.4 million – James Monroe / John Quincy Adams
  • 1826 – $2.7 million – John Quincy Adams
  • 1827 – $7.0 million – John Quincy Adams
  • 1828 – $6.5 million – John Quincy Adams
  • 1829 – $9.0 million – John Quincy Adams / Andrew Jackson
  • 1830 – $9.8 million – Andrew Jackson
  • 1831 – $9.4 million – Andrew Jackson
  • 1832 – $14.8 million – Andrew Jackson
  • 1833 – $17.3 million – Andrew Jackson
  • 1834 – $2.2 million – Andrew Jackson
  • 1835 – $4.7 million – Andrew Jackson
  • 1840 – $6.8 million – Martin Van Buren
  • 1844 – $9.2 million – John Tyler
  • 1845 – $7.5 million – John Tyler / James K. Polk
  • 1846 – $0.3 million – James K. Polk
  • 1852 – $2.1 million – Millard Fillmore
  • 1853 – $6.4 million – Millard Fillmore / Franklin Pierce
  • 1854 – $17.5 million – Franklin Pierce
  • 1855 – $6.6 million – Franklin Pierce
  • 1856 – $3.6 million – Franklin Pierce
  • 1857 – $3.2 million – Franklin Pierce / James Buchanan
  • 1867 – $95.1 million – Andrew Johnson
  • 1868 – $66.4 million – Andrew Johnson
  • 1869 – $23.2 million – Andrew Johnson / Ulysses S. Grant
  • 1870 – $107.7 million – Ulysses S. Grant
  • 1871 – $127.4 million – Ulysses S. Grant
  • 1872 – $99.9 million – Ulysses S. Grant
  • 1873 – $18.7 million – Ulysses S. Grant
  • 1875 – $19.4 million – Ulysses S. Grant
  • 1876 – $51.8 million – Ulysses S. Grant
  • 1880 – $229.1 million – Rutherford Birchard Hayes
  • 1881 – $51.4 million – Rutherford Birchard Hayes / James A. Garfield / Chester Alan Arthur
  • 1882 – $150.7 million – Chester Alan Arthur
  • 1883 – $34.1 million – Chester Alan Arthur
  • 1884 – $53.6 million – Chester Alan Arthur
  • 1886 – $88.9 million – Grover Cleveland
  • 1887 – $117.4 million – Grover Cleveland
  • 1889 – $73.8 million – Grover Cleveland / Benjamin Harrison
  • 1890 – $66.9 million – Benjamin Harrison
  • 1891 – $6.1 million – Benjamin Harrison
  • 1893 – $42.4 million – Benjamin Harrison / Grover Cleveland
  • 1898 – $21.1 million – William McKinley
  • 1914 – $3.7 million – Woodrow Wilson
  • 1920 – $1,438.5 million – Woodrow Wilson
  • 1921 – $1,975.0 million – Woodrow Wilson / Warren G. Harding
  • 1922 – $1,014.0 million – Warren G. Harding
  • 1923 – $613.6 million – Warren G. Harding / Calvin Coolidge
  • 1924 – $1,098.9 million – Calvin Coolidge
  • 1925 – $734.6 million – Calvin Coolidge
  • 1926 – $872.9 million – Calvin Coolidge
  • 1927 – $1,131.3 million – Calvin Coolidge
  • 1928 – $907.6 million – Calvin Coolidge
  • 1929 – $673.2 million – Calvin Coolidge / Herbert Hoover
  • 1930 – $745.7 million – Herbert Hoover
  • 1947 – $11,135.7 million – Harry S. Truman
  • 1948 – $5,994.1 million – Harry S. Truman
  • 1951 – $2,135.3 million – Harry S. Truman
  • 1956 – $1,623.4 million – Dwight D. Eisenhower
  • 1957 – $2,223.6 million – Dwight D. Eisenhower

There’s the complete list of every year in this country’s history where the year over year federal debt went down instead of up.

The debt has been reduced 36.6 percent of the time over the previous 218 years covered by this data. Most of those reductions ( 73 percent ) happened during the 1800s.

Another interesting note that I hadn’t thought about until reviewing this list is that up until 1957 we had never gone more than 17 years without paying down some of the debt. That gap was from 1930 to 1947, with a depression and war undoubtedly being major factors there. The next largest gap was 10 years, 1857 to 1867. The gap was normally much smaller though, with the average between 1791 and 1957 being just under 2 years. The distribution of gaps during that time frame was: 17 years (1), 10 years (1), 6 years (3), 5 years (4), 4 years (2), 3 years (3), 2 years (7) and 1 year (57).

If/when we do reduce the federal debt again it will be the single largest gap between reductions in the history of this country, more than 3 times (at least) the length of the previous longest gap of 17 years.

9 thoughts on “History Of The Federal Debt”

  1. I wish the National Debt was reported on more than the yearly budget deficit is. So many people don’t realize there is a difference, but the difference is enormous. It’s a shame we can’t get someone in there to make it go down instead of up for a change. Great post, BTW!

  2. I ended up doing the leg work for this because I hadn’t seen it reported on previously. What’s going in the current year is important, but it would be nice to see folks talking about the long term trends as well.

  3. Joseph,
    After looking at several federal debt charts it appears that the debt took a few dips when Clinton was in office. Shouldn’t those years also appear on this chart?

  4. I linked to the data sources, you are welcome to double check them. I didn’t see any dips in the total federal debt during the Clinton years.

    As I understand, there were some years with a budget surplus. But that surplus was either not big enough, or wasn’t used towards actually reducing the outstanding debt.

  5. Correct, during Clinton’s years in office the Federal debt continued to increase. The “balanced” budget was voodoo economics as they “stole” from SS in an attempt to show a balanced budget.

  6. Don’t you remember when bill Clinton “balanced the budget” by removing 1.4 trillion from the social security trust fund???!!! Jdb

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