In 1790, the new United States faced a tremendous debt. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed policies for funding the debt and establishing the nation’s credit. James Madison agreed about the priority of establishing credit, but he opposed Hamilton’s proposals in the House of Representatives. The arguments each man advanced constituted two distinct rhetorics about debt, two ways of conceiving and responding to the new nation’s obligation. This essay analyzes these arguments as well as one strategy common to both men’s work: the use of an analogy insisting that states should behave as individuals do. These arguments were crucial in constructing conditions of stability in the country’s fledgling credit economy. The essay concludes by considering the legacy both of the analogy and of Hamilton’s rhetoric of credit and Madison’s rhetoric of debt in current debates over the United States’ public debt.

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