“The earth belongs always to the living generation.” These are not Thomas Jefferson’s most famous words, but they are quite famous among students of politics. They have been used for generations to justify radical political change. And, like the soaring rhetoric of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, these Jeffersonian words have gained him great renown as a friend to political progress and enemy to “the dead hand of the past.”
Jefferson, of course, was the President who praised the French Revolution, even apologizing for its murderous Reign of Terror. He was the public opponent of slavery, whose abstract condemnations were counterbalanced by his actions as a master who often sold his charges literally “down the river.” (It was George Washington who quietly freed his slaves through an iron-clad last will and testament.) Jefferson was the one who stated that “in every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty” and sought to institute a “wall of separation between church and state” to be found nowhere in our Constitutional documents or the mainstream tradition of practice in the colonies or young republic.
Still, Jefferson has his fans, including among conservatives. Conservative Jeffersonians can point out that he constantly argued for small, limited government, especially at the federal level. And he both praised and sought to defend the prerogatives of state and local government.
What, then, should we make of Jefferson, and of his grand pronouncements regarding politics and public life?
One possibility is that he was wont to let his pen run away with him; he may simply have written things that sounded good, but did not really fit with life’s practical realities, or with his deeper understanding of human nature and the social order. This might excuse his sometimes bloodthirsty comments, such as that the tree of liberty must be “refreshed” with the blood of patriots and tyrants. As to the hypocrisy regarding slavery, that can only be explained by pointing to the human failings of a man who loved books, wine, and other luxuries and was under no social pressure to put his anti-slavery principles into action.
But what should we make of a statement, like that regarding each generation “owning” the earth, that seems purely political, that has public meaning and purpose seemingly unconnected with apologies for specific acts or events? Do we “own” the earth while we are here, then pass it on to the next generation to do with as it pleases? Why, and how so?
First, it is helpful to note the circumstances in which the letter in which Jefferson made this statement was written. It was a letter to James Madison, written while Jefferson was in Paris, during 1789—in the midst of the French Revolution. While Jefferson stated that his purpose in writing was merely to develop an idea that had come into his head, he makes clear the context in which he was thinking by referencing the debts owed by the French monarchy to foreign lenders. The French Revolutionary regime had repudiated its debts, telling its creditors that the revolutionary regime could not be bound to pay off loans made to support the monarchy it was abolishing.
So, as was often the case, Jefferson was writing as an apologist for the French Revolution, that murderous conflagration that claimed to be making society anew, which ended by consuming its own children, along with tens of thousands of “enemies of liberty” before embarking on a mad campaign to subjugate all of Europe. Nonetheless, where finances are concerned, we should not be too harsh in condemning Jefferson’s claim. Lenders who feed into the profligacy of a regime should not be surprised if a new regime is less than forthcoming in paying debts from which the nation got no benefit, and which the lender should have been more cautious (and honorable) than to advance. The French monarchy was deeply corrupt, and sensible lenders should have known better than to fund the staggering debts it incurred. Moreover, the United States itself took a long time, and went through much trouble, before paying off debts incurred even during its own struggle with Britain.
In his letter, however, Jefferson makes grand, abstract statements about the debts of a previous generation being by “natural right” nugatory after nineteen years. That is, he is making a broad statement leaving no room for legitimate differences and prudential accommodations in taking specific circumstances into account. Still, as a policy and moral stricture on the government incurring debt, Jefferson might be conceded to have something of a moral point; the perpetual debts established by the British monarchy, which Alexander Hamilton would seek to establish in the new United States might be seen as empowering a monied aristocracy at the expense of the common folk who bear the burden of public debts.
But Jefferson does not address debts only. He also is writing in a time of constitutional revolution, seeking to justify repudiation of the laws and governmental forms of the previous generation. Not only debts, but constitutions and laws are, for him, violations of natural right if continued past nineteen years. Here is the central paragraph:
no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please. But persons and property make the sum of the objects of government. The constitution and the laws of their predecessors extinguished them, in their natural course, with those whose will gave them being. This could preserve that being till it ceased to be itself, and no longer. Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19. years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force and not of right.
Jefferson’s use of the lawyerly term “usufruct” is, frankly, a mess, here. It is a term from the (continental) civil law, not the Anglo-American common law. But its closest meaning, in our context, would be to a life estate. Someone with a “usufruct” has a right to use the property assigned to him, including for profit, including by farming or raising livestock. But he may not lay waste to the property or, unless specifically allowed, use up non-renewable resources (such as by mining). Edmund Burke, the great philosopher and statesman on the other end of the political spectrum from Jefferson, referred to each generation as holding its property—indeed, all of society—in trust, as with a life estate holding no right to lay waste what it owed to succeeding generations. But, for Burke, the emphasis was on the duty to maintain continuity with the past such that succeeding generations could take their inheritance secure in the knowledge that they could hold it as an inheritance, as part of a tradition of thought and practice that settled reasonable expectations and provided guidance on how to live in peace.
For Jefferson, meanwhile, the “usufruct” is seen as license for each generation to do as it pleases, limited only by the duty not to lay waste—a duty, of course, flagrantly ignored by the French Revolutionaries, who sought to make the world anew and ended up leaving to their followers a nation, and a continent, in flames.
Moreover, for Jefferson, the usufruct of each generation was not merely a limit on the authority of preceding generations, but a repudiation of it. No law or constitution, to his mind, could rightfully be even intended to last longer than nineteen years. The right of a succeeding generation to amend such constitution or law was insufficient, in his view, because flaws in representation and various forms of corruption make repeal too difficult. Better, on Jefferson’s view, to recognize the right of each “generation” (in truth, as he recognizes, generations do not begin and end at any given point in time, but flow one into another) to simply ignore precedent and change fundamental laws as it wills.
What Jefferson demands, in this letter as in all too much else, is ignorance, even contempt for the past. The desire for a “fresh start” was appealing to many in our own founding generation because so much was assumed to be part of what one naturally would make use of in that “fresh start.” Long-held institutions, beliefs, and practices regarding public morals, limitations on political power, and procedural due process, to go no further, provided a way of life that allowed for revision of political forms (e.g. the transition from a putative monarchy to fully republican government) without danger of true revolution. Sadly, events from the French Revolution on through the horrors of Marxist revolutions in the twentieth century have shown that fresh starts, when taken seriously, entail clean sweeps of institutions, and people, who are deemed corrupt holdovers from the past. The result is all too much blood; blood that does not refresh, but rather drowns the tree of liberty.
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