$82 Million of Debt

As a member of the Board of the Germantown Historical Society, I was a part of the team that hosted the Spring 2024 Lecture Series featuring our president, Susan Soderberg, in a talk last Saturday about Maryland’s role in the events leading up to the American Revolutionary War.  She exposed a common myth: King George imposed harsh taxes simply because he was a rash and tyrannical monarch.

Well, to be sure, he was no saint, but there were much more practical reasons behind the endless tariffs on imports, reasons stemming back to the French-Indian War, part of the Seven Years War between Britain and France.  By the time the war ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Great Britain had spent no less than $82 million on the war, virtually doubling its national debt.  Their response was to place the burden on the colonies they had fought so hard to keep.  I’m sure it made sense in the eyes of the Brits: let the Americans pay for huge losses incurred in fighting for them.

And so, starting 1764, with the first tariffs placed on commodities like sugar, wine, silk, etc. and leading up to the Boston Massacre in 1770, by which time the sheer cost of importation into the colonies was crippling both their pocketbooks and their sense of self-determination, Britain milked America to pay back their loans.  It was oppressive, it was unfair, the outcry was overwhelming, but what could they do?  They had loans to pay.  Until they discovered that the high price of taxation would lose them all the territory they had bled so hard to keep!

Well, this is the American version at least (not sure how our friends across the pond spin it).  But it reminds me of the power of debt.  A big enough ball and chain around our necks can drive us to madness.  It may take many forms: actual fiscal debt to a bank that will take years to pay off, a sense of indebtedness to parents who worked hard for us with little or no rewards for themselves, a boss who sponsored you or gave you your career, an accident you caused – or you think you caused – that hampered someone else for life, a poor decision you made early in life that has robbed you of so much happiness, or maybe a sense that God gave you way more than you deserved and you could never pay God back.  Debts of this magnitude have led to workaholism, addiction, emotional paralysis, depression, and unfortunately even to suicide.  Unaddressed, it can swallow life whole.

But there are different ways of dealing with debt.  I imagine there were different ways Britian could have dealt with it (not trying to pick on a nationality but rather just human nature).  I imagine there were a variety of ways to relieve debt: austerity, greater fiscal accountability of current outlays, refinancing, etc.  In other words, spreading the burden of the debt around rather than laying it all on the colonies.  Or include the colonies in the decision-making of how to get out of debt.  Or recognize in the first place that the war was fought for the interests of Britain more so than the interest of the American colonies.

When you have an outstanding balance, the worst thing you can do is sit on it and hope it goes away.  In fact, I don’t know any creditor that isn’t happy to work out deals: lessening the monthly payments, working out an installment plan, working with you to find other sources of help; a creditor knows that they have a much better chance of getting their money back with a long-term plan rather than denial.

It’s too bad we don’t have relational creditors, someone who comes around periodically knocking on our door asking how we’re going to make up for the graduation we never attended, the childhood years we didn’t show up for, or the trauma we caused someone simply because they were sitting in our passenger seat.  Maybe they could give us some good options, options that weren’t so emotionally crushing or paralyzing, that actually carved a path out such as counseling, reconciliation, rehab, or asking for and having the humility to receive forgiveness.

The U.S. has its own debts to reconcile: the debt of slavery, of sequestration of native American lands, the lives lost in wars, the debt to teachers, firefighters, police officers, who give themselves for the common good.  They can be overwhelming and bring about national crisis in the same way.  Even war, if we are not careful.

The prophet Isaiah makes a plea for reconciliation:

“Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

What debt are you living under?  Is it crushing you?  Is there a plan to move beyond it?  What would be the first step toward alleviating it? Are you holding someone’s debt to you over them?  Is it crushing them?  What would it look like to forgive it?

Great Britain is now among the U.S. closest political partners.  We are the closest of friends.  But it cost a lot to get here.  Were there other paths to peace and friendship?  Ones that cost much less?

The antidote to debt is freedom.  Getting out of debt, be it fiscal or otherwise, is most worthwhile.


  1. Dennis Askwith says

    On the other hand, avoidance of debt or of feeling indebted to another is sometimes an impediment to getting the help you need and/or forming meaningful relationships based on doing “favors” for one another. Tricky business.

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