Maxims on Debt and Credit

Maxims represent the accumulated wisdom of the human race and should always be consulted as a potential corrective to current infatuations. They are often a lot more valuable, as expressing the essence of a situation, than ponderous theory building enterprises. Herewith, therefore, a collection of voices rising from the grave to illuminate these deep questions of debt and credit. Except for the last entry from Benjamin Franklin, to which I am very partial, all are drawn from H. L. Mencken, A New Dictionary of Quotations On Historical Principles From Ancient and Modern Sources (Knopf, 2001).

"Debt is the slavery of the free." Publilius Syrus: Sententiae, c. 50 B.C.

"Debt is better than death," James Howell, Proverbs, 1659.

"Pride does not like to owe, and self-love does not like to pay." La Rochefoucauld, Maxims, 1665.

"Better go to bed supperless than rise in debt." John Ray, English Proverbs, 1670.

"Out of debt, out of danger." Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732.

"Living upon trust is the way to pay double." Ibid.

"Sins and debts are always more than we think them to be." Ibid

"Debt is a preceptor whose lessons are needed most by those who suffer from it most." R.W. Emerson, Nature, 1836.

"There are but two ways of paying debt--increase of industry in raising income, increase of thrift in laying out." Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present, 1843

"A national debt, if it is not excessive, will be to us a national blessing." Alexander Hamilton, Letter to Robert Morris, April 30, 1781

"I place economy among the first and most important of republican virtues, and public debt as the greatest of the dangers to be feared."
Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Governor Plumer, 1816.

"The principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale." Jefferson, Letter to John Taylor, 1816.

"It is incumbent on every generation to pay its own debts as it goes--a principle which, if acted on, would save one-half the wars of the world." Jefferson, Letter to Destutt Tracy, 1820.

"Public credit means the contracting of debts which a nation never can pay." William Cobbett, Advice to Young Men, II, 1829.

"We are opposed to the issuing of interest-bearing bonds of the United States in time of peace." Democratic National Platform, 1896.

"He that hath lost his credit is dead to the world." George Herbert, Outlandish Proverbs, 1639.

"Credit lost is like a Venice-glass broken." John Ray, English Proverbs, 1670

"In this institution of credit, which is as universal as honesty and promise in the human countenance, always some neighbor stands ready to be bread and land and tools and stock to the young adventurer." R.W. Emerson, The Conservative, 1841.

"No man's credit is as good as his money." E.W. Howe, Sinner Sermons, 1926.

"Credit, like a looking-glass
Broken once, is gone, alas!"
Author unidentified.

"As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible." George Washington, Farewell Address, September 17, 1796.

"In those circumstances we cannot be too careful to preserve the friendships we have acquired abroad, and the Union we have established at home, to secure our Credit by a punctual discharge of our obligations of every kind, and our Reputation by the wisdom of our councils: since we know not how soon we may have a fresh occasion for friends, for credit, and for reputation." Benjamin Franklin to President of Congress, October 22, 1783.