Beck's Broke on the infallibly thrifty Founding Fathers

Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

Glenn Beck's new book, Broke, came out today, and it's thus far staying true to the well-worn Beck formula: Founders = wholly good; progressives = wholly evil; limited government = awesome. Add a healthy dollop of factually-challenged revisionist history and some love from conservative book clubs, and you're looking at another Beck bestseller.

The conceptual boogeyman of Broke is "debt" in all its forms, and, in accordance with the above formula, Beck tells us on page 16 that the Founding Fathers were champions of "thrift":

Flash forward to today: When most people hear "thrift," they think about thrift stores or thrift clothes, terms that are associated with concepts like "cheap" and "low quality."

America's Founders saw it differently. They prized thrift -- not just because they saw firsthand what extravagance can lead to, but because they understood that frugality wasn't just about saving money; it was also about saving freedom. If you think about debt as a tie that binds you to others, then it's not a stretch to believe that personal savings yields personal liberty.

At this point, if you're at all versed in the biographies of our Founding Fathers, you might be thinking: "Wait... didn't Thomas Jefferson live an extravagant lifestyle that was well-beyond his means and die deeply in debt at his home in Monticello, the rights to which he maintained simply because creditors respected the fact that he was Thomas Jefferson?"

If so, bully for you. But fear not, Beck has an explanation for that on page 25: "What's fascinating is that even though Thomas Jefferson himself died cashless under loads of personal debt, he still understood that taking other people's money and blowing it on frivolous junk was immoral." Beck's lesson from Jefferson's profligate personal spending is: "Ah... financial stewardship. What a novel and bizarre concept."

But what about debt at the national level? Beck writes on page 33 that the Founders, saddled with huge amounts of debt from the Revolution, "got things back under control, while they also built our reputation in the world." And that's sort-of true -- between 1804 and 1812 the national debt was cut nearly in half to $45.2 million. Four years later, however, the debt had nearly tripled to $127.3 million. What happened in the intervening years? The United States, under the leadership of Founding Fathers James Madison and James Monroe, had declared war on Great Britain and financed the cost of the war almost entirely with borrowed money. Beck makes absolutely no mention of the costs of the War of 1812, probably because it undermines his beatification of the Founders as fiscal saints.

Notably enough, the national public debt, which rose and fell during the Founding Fathers' administrations, was paid off in full for the first and only time in 1835 during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Beck, for his part, has attacked the Jackson presidency as the point "where the country went wrong."

Glenn Beck
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