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US Never Defaulted On Its Debt? Not So Fast

By CONNIE CASS

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ You hear a perfect record cited over and over in the debt limit debate: The United States has never defaulted. Better put an asterisk by that.

America has briefly stiffed some of its creditors on at least two occasions.

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.

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 â¿¿ this will sound familiar â¿¿ bickered too long before raising the nation's debt limit.

As Congress again tests the limit, Washington could learn some things from its past. But those periods of missed payments, little noted outside financial circles in their day, are nearly forgotten now.

Indeed, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew frequently declares that the United States has always met all of its obligations; a Treasury spokeswoman declined to discuss any possible exceptions. President Barack Obama, reminding Congress of the urgency of raising the debt limit before a Thursday deadline, warned there could be chaos "if, for the first time in our history, we don't pay our bills on time."

"He doesn't know his history," says historian Don Hickey. "It's that simple."

That kind of omission doesn't surprise Hickey, who called one of his books, "The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict."

Even Americans who study that war won't find the failure to pay some bondholders on time in many history texts, said Hickey, a professor at Wayne State College in Nebraska. Naval heroics and the rockets' red glare tend to get the ink.

The narrow lapses of the past don't compare with the kind of turmoil Lew predicts would occur these days if Treasury couldn't borrow enough money to pay what it owes to all sorts of people, from overseas bondholders to retirees on Social Security. If that's a financial hurricane, the 1979 Treasury bill glitch was more like a draft of chilly air.

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