That one time when U.S. debt was zero

The statue of Andrew Jackson is seen in Lafayette Park across from the White House is seen September 20, 2012 in Washington, DC.

Tomorrow marks a peculiar milestone in the history of the American economy. One that most of us can't even begin to fathom. On January 8, 1835, Andrew Jackson, the 7th president of the United States, triumphantly announced that he had paid off the national debt. It had started at $58 million when he took office, but six years later the U.S. government was operating in the black for the first and only time in history. Not just no annual deficits, which we've had since, but an actual positive bank balance.

But paying off the debt had some very strange consequences.

Economic historian John Steele Gordon says Jackson hated debt, and was a famous tight-wad.

"The government's tax revenues were growing because of prosperity, but he also refused to spend that money on 'internal improvements,' as they were called then. Today we call them 'pork.' He kept vetoing internal improvement bills saying as soon as we pay off the debt, then we can talk about roads and bridges. And that's what he did."

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, the most widely heard program on business and the economy in the country.


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