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Principle and Interest

Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Debt
Herbert E. Sloan

BUY Paper · 392 pp. · ISBN 9780813920931 · $25.00 · Nov 2001

In this acclaimed work, available here for the first time in paperback, Herbert E. Sloan examines Thomas Jefferson's complex and obsessive relationship to debt—its roles in his life and political career, and in the formation of republican ideology. As party leader in the 1790s, and later as President of the United States, Jefferson led a crusade against public debt, which he felt robbed the people of a future rightly theirs. Yet as a private person, he was plagued by debt, never free of it throughout his life. In this respect, Sloan argues, Jefferson was representative of his social class—most of the Virginia gentry had similar problems with debt, and similar feelings about it.

Taking as the central exposition of Jefferson's political vision his famous letter to James Madison on the rights of the living generation, Sloan explores in detail the events of 1789–90, when Jefferson acceded to Hamilton's plans for the national debt. The consequences of this decision would haunt Jefferson until the day he died.

Eloquently written and exhaustively researched, Principle and Interest provides a unique perspective on a range of topics—revolutionary ideology, political economy, the mechanics of party organization—central to an understanding of the period.


Principle and Interest is the most impressively original and beguilingly stylish interpretation of Jefferson's ideological obsessions since Winthrop Jordan's White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812. It does for the question of debt what Jordan's pathbreaking book did for the question of race; namely, send a shaft of light into the Jeffersonian abyss that not only illuminates one important region of former darkness, but also sets off lights in a whole series of adjoining areas.

Joseph J. Ellis · Reviews in American History

In six well-conceived, impeccably researched chapters,... Sloan demonstrates that Jefferson was the consummate republican.... Sloan's conclusion, that Jefferson's views about debt were not novel but rather bound him to his age and place, provides perceptive insight for understanding the victory of liberal capitalism over classical republicanism.

Gene A. Smith · Journal of the Early Republic

A masterful account of a key theme—debt—that runs through Jefferson's private life and public career.... Sloan's expansive exploration... stands out from all previous accounts.

Richard B. Latner · American Historical Review

About the Author(s): 

Herbert E. Sloan is Professor of History at Barnard College.

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