Most of us will recognize that phrase from the Gospel of Luke 2:14, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. This of course is a proclamation of the birth of the Messiah and what his appearance on earth will mean to mankind.
As I sit this Christmas Eve, surrounded by family cooking, making candy and enjoying each other, I reflect on another time this phrase was used.
Some 30 years after our revolution, Thomas Jefferson was reflecting on the situation in Europe – specifically the British Empire after the war with Napoleon. England was in a serious economic recession and the national debt was hanging around the national neck like a large stone on a man drowning in the sea. The constant wars and expansion of the empire had driven the debt to an unsustainable level and Jefferson believed the situation to be ripe for an English revolution similar to America’s.
“I turn, however, with some confidence to a different auxiliary, a revolution in England, now, I believe unavoidable. The crisis so long expected, inevitable as death, altho’ uncertain like that in it’s date, is at length arrived. Their government has acted over again the fable of the frog and the ox; and their bloated system has burst. They have spent the fee simple of the island in their inflated enterprises on the peace and happiness of the rest of mankind. Their debts have consequently accumulated by their follies & frauds, until the interest is equal to the aggregate rents of all the farms in their country. All these rents must go to pay interest, and nothing remains to carry on the government….
Our wish for the good of the people of England, as well as for our own peace, should be that they may be able to form for themselves such a constitution & government as may permit them to enjoy the fruits of their own labors in peace, instead of squandering them in fomenting and paying the wars of the world. But during these struggles, their artists are to become soldiers. Their manufactures to cease, their commerce sink and our intercourse with them be suspended. This interval of suspension may revive and fix our manufactures, wean us from British aperies, and give us a national & independent character of our own. I cannot say that all this will be, but that it may be; and it ought to be supplicated from heaven by the prayers of the whole world that at length there may be “on earth peace, and good will towards men.” No country, more than your native one, ought to pray & be prepared for this. I wish them success, and to yourself health and prosperity.”
Jefferson believed that once the forces driving the quest for power were removed and the people were free to pursue their interests, there could be “Peace on earth and good will towards men.” He thought the anger and frustration of the people would surely encourage them to rise up. He compared the situation to Aesop’s fable of the frog and the ox. In an effort to become as large as the ox, the arrogant frog blew himself up till he burst.
Jefferson fantasized over the exile of the monarchy after a revolution, no doubt he had no love lost for the crown. Is there a lesson for us here as well?
The cause of the national debt is not as important as the debt itself. With $20.6 trillion in debt and growing at nearly half a trillion a year, we are not much different from the English of the early 19th century of which Jefferson spoke. When you factor in the unfunded liabilities of the US government at $109.3 trillion, there is little hope we or our posterity will escape disaster.
We as a people live in great debt as well. Our economy is based on spending and borrowing rather than saving and producing. The borrower is a slave to the lender (Proverbs 22:7), whether that is an individual or a nation.
Recently, we were told we should celebrate a “bold” tax reform, there was zero reduction in spending. As long as the albatross of debt is hanging around our collective necks, can there ever truly be “Peace on earth and goodwill towards men”?
The letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Sampson from which this quote is taken can be found here: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-11-02-0018