I have heard that it would be an unprecedented occurrence, and that it has never happened.

If Congress refuses to raise what’s called the debt ceiling, America would not be able to meet all of our financial obligations for the first time in 225 years.

How many times (and when, if any) has the US defaulted on its debt?

  • 1
    Depends on how you define default. Was the gold standard end in 1933 a default? Some at the time thought so.
    – C. Ross
    Commented Oct 17, 2013 at 23:05

1 Answer 1


There are 2 times that I know of where the US may have defaulted on it's debt.

There was a time during the war of 1812 where soldiers were not getting paid

Once, the young nation had a dramatic excuse: The Treasury was empty, the White House and Capitol were charred ruins, even the troops fighting the War of 1812 weren't getting paid.

at least not immediately

the Treasury was unable to move enough precious metal to service its debt, and missed interest payments on bonds. Boston bondholders, according to Wayne State College history professor Don Hickey, were paid off in short-term interest-bearing treasury notes or more bonds.

There was another time in 1979 where technical difficulties presumably resulted in some bills not getting paid on time.

A second time, in 1979, was a back-office glitch that ended up costing taxpayers billions of dollars. The Treasury Department blamed the mishap on a crush of paperwork partly caused by lawmakers who — this will sound familiar — bickered too long before raising the nation's debt limit.

which, also was payed off

This default was temporary. Treasury did pay these T-bills after a short delay. But it balked at paying additional interest to cover the period of delay. According to Zivney and Marcus, it required both legal arm twisting and new legislation before Treasury made all investors whole for that additional interest.


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