That is still true today. The U.S. federal debt is never paid off but just continues to grow, forming the basis of the U.S. money supply.
The Public Banking Alternative
There are other ways to create a banking system, ways that would eliminate its ponzi-scheme elements and make the system sustainable. One solution is to make the loans interest-free; but for Western economies today, that transition could be difficult.
Another alternative is for banks to be publicly-owned. If the people collectively own the bank, the interest and profits go back to the government and the people, who benefit from decreased taxes, increased public services, and cheaper public infrastructure. Cutting out interest has been shown to reduce the cost of public projects by 30-50%.
In the United States, this system of publicly-owned banks goes back to the American colonists. The best of the colonial models was in Benjamin Franklin's colony of Pennsylvania, where the government operated a "land bank." Money was printed and lent into the community. It recycled back to the government and could be lent and relent. The system was mathematically sound because the interest and profits were returned to the government, which then spent the money back into the economy in place of taxes. Private banks, by contrast, generally lend their profits back into the economy, or invest in private money-making ventures in which more is always expected back than was originally invested.
During the period that the Pennsylvania system was in place, the colonists paid no taxes except excise taxes, prices did not inflate, and there was no government debt.
How Private Banknotes Became the National U.S. Currency
The Pennsylvania system was sustainable, but some early American colonial governments just printed and spent, inflating the money supply and devaluing the currency. The British merchants complained, prompting King George II to forbid the colonists to issue their own money. Taxes had to be paid to England in gold. That meant going into debt to the English bankers. The result was a massive depression. The colonists finally rebelled and went back to issuing their own money, precipitating the American Revolution.
In an international first, the colonists funded a war against a major power with mere paper receipts, and won. But the British counterattacked by waging a currency war. They massively counterfeited the colonists' paper money, at a time when this was easy to do. By the end of the war, the paper scrip was virtually worthless. After it lost its value, the colonists were so disillusioned with paper money that they left the power to issue it out of the U.S. Constitution.
Meanwhile, Alexander Hamilton, the first U.S. Treasury Secretary, was faced with huge war debts, and he had no money to pay them. He therefore resorted to the ruse used in England known as fractional reserve banking. In 1791, Hamilton set up the First U.S. Bank, a largely private bank that would print banknotes "backed" by gold and lend them to the government.
The ruse worked: the paper banknotes expanded the money supply, the debts were paid, and the economy thrived. But it was the beginning of a system of government funded by debt to private bankers, who lent banknotes only nominally backed by gold.
During the American Civil War, President Lincoln avoided a crippling war debt by returning to the system of government-issued money of the American colonists. He issued U.S. Notes from the Treasury called "Greenbacks" rather than borrowing at usurious interest rates. But Lincoln was assassinated, and Greenback issuance was halted.
In 1913, the privately-owned Federal Reserve was authorized to issue its own Federal Reserve Notes as the national currency. These notes were then lent to the government, eliminating the government's own power to issue money (except for coins). The Federal Reserve was set up to prevent bank runs, but twenty years later we had the Great Depression, the greatest bank run in history. Robert H. Hemphill, Credit Manager of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, wrote in 1934:
"We are completely dependent on the commercial Banks. Someone has to borrow every dollar we have in circulation, cash or credit. If the Banks create ample synthetic money we are prosperous; if not, we starve."
For the bankers, however, it was a good system. It put them in control.
Setting the Global Debt Trap