Checks & Balances

Presidents and American Finance

On view through March 16, 2013

The US federal government was born of a fiscal crisis produced by the inability of the national and state governments to repay the heavy debts incurred winning independence from England. By luck, pluck and a sprinkling of genius, the new nation averted disaster and soon became one of the most creditworthy in history, able to fund global wars, massive territorial acquisitions and scientific and engineering feats of historic importance and unprecedented scale.

Today, however, serious fiscal crisis looms again. The causes and consequences of the current economic crisis are hotly debated, but almost everyone agrees there is no easy fix at hand. Simply put, it has become too difficult to increase taxes or reduce expenditures, and solutions acceptable to both major political parties are in short supply. But the government has faced similar impasses in the past and has managed, with firm leadership, to persevere.

This exhibit brings attention to the budget issues that faced five of our greatest Presidents: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. It details how they handled those issues, sometimes with spectacular success and other times with controversial or mixed results. The exhibit also shows how each President’s life experiences, including personal wealth, may have influenced decisions on important issues like the rate and type of taxation and the acceptable extent of government borrowing. In and of itself, knowledge of the past cannot improve the future, but retracing past glories and disappointments is often the best place to start.

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