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Uncle Sam Gets Off Hook On a 210-Year-Old Debt

IF you've waited 210 years for someone to repay a loan, you'd better give up on ever seeing the money. Especially if the someone is Uncle Sam.The United States Court of Appeals in Washington has just concluded that the statute of limitations has expired on a case in which the descendants of one Jacob De Haven to get the US government to repay the $450,000 worth of supplies that he lent the fledgling nation in the winter of 1777-78, the nadir of the Revolutionary War. The money helped sustain George Washington's tattered army at Valley Forge. Had that army collapsed, the colonials almost surely would have lost the war. Were they grateful enough to repay De Haven? Not a chance. Of course, the revolutionists did have other problems when the loan came due in 1780: The war for independence was still going on, and no strong central government existed. Repayment of the De Haven loan was a low priority. Even after peace arrived it was hard for the government to scratch up the cash. Under the short-lived Articles of Confederation, put in place the year the war ground to a halt, the national government faced troubled economic times, had no money, and couldn't raise any. (Sound familiar?) De Haven wasn't the only bankroller of the Revolution who sought repayment, and the struggling government finally decided to string out the payments for decades. Somehow De Haven never got his money; he and his heirs unsuccessfully tried for years to make Uncle Sam reach into his multibillion-dollar wallet. The most recent suit by De Haven heirs was turned down by the US Court of Claims, and that decision has just been affirmed by the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. After a learned discussion of law and precedent, it spoke with classic understatement: "We conclude that the statutory period for this claim has expired...." Nowadays, of course, people who lend money to the US government have no such need to worry. The American government's promise to repay is as sound as a dollar - oops! Well, anyway, the government always repays what is lent it. No doubt that's because since the time of De Haven's loan the national government has moved from York, Pa., to Washington, and as everybody knows nothing ever gets mixed up in Washington....

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