Debt and Moral Responsibility

Birch View of Second Street

The New York Public Library.

Debt and Moral Responsibility

"On Saturday last, the decorations of Christ Church steeple were completed and fixed on …It is remarkable that on…the 25th of August, 1777, the Crown, placed on the extreme end of the spire, was almost demolished by lightning. The representation of a Bishop's Mitre [in honor of the ordination of Bishop William White earlier in the year], is now substituted in its stead, which is deemed a great addition to the other public ornaments of the city."

-The Pennsylvania Herald, September 1, 1787

The clause requiring the new government to pay the old government's debt was reconsidered. In the end, when and how to pay the war debt was left to the Congress. The decision to pay any and all holders at face value occasioned a stiff argument in Congress during Washington's presidency.

On this day, Elbridge Gerry, holder of more government debt than any other delegate, argued for payment of the face value of the debt, even though much of it could be bought at ten cents on the dollar or less. To what degree were the delegates motivated by personal economic considerations? And to what degree did their work reflect such considerations? These questions have intrigued historians since the appearance of Charles A. Beard's pioneering An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States in 1913.

The slave trade provision was again taken up. General Pinckney (SC) and Gorham (MA) moved to change "1800" to 1808; Madison said that 20 years would do all the mischief to be expected, and such a term was dishonorable. The motion carried. Federal regulation of commerce was now assured.

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Sunday, August 26, 1787
Rest and Recuperation

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Last updated: February 26, 2015

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