The economic showdown in Washington might be news in the sense that Washington has never come this close to not paying bills since the Revolutionary War, when soldiers sometimes received payment more than a year late.  But governments, in general, having payment problems is a centuries-old story. Although not completely analogous to the current debt ceiling debate, history does suggest this is just that latest example of a big country in a serious checkbook predicament.

18th-century France

Wars with Spain, Britain (on multiple occasions) and Austria, along with ambitious building projects came at a cost, but many historians identify an inefficient tax-code as the foremost reason France’s coffers ran dry by the end of the tumultuous 1700s. Too many tax exemptions, poor collection methods and the refusal to repay a part of its debt led to political problems, too; by 1789, the increasingly unpopular monarchy was ousted in dramatic fashion.

14th-century United Kingdom

In an effort to raise revenue to finance war with France, Edward III introduced poll taxes — a tax levied for existing. Every person under the Crown was taxed. Wildly unpopular, the tax was rejected and led to the Peasants’ Revolt, during which tax collectors and the wealthy were attacked. By the end, the chancellor and the treasurer of the country were killed. The king backed down.


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