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Letter from Thomas Jefferson - "The Earth belongs to the Living"

To James Madison - Paris, September 6, 1789

        _To James Madison_
        _Paris, September 6, 1789_


        DEAR SIR, -- I sit down to write to you without knowing by what
occasion I shall send my letter.  I do it because a subject comes
into my head which I would wish to develope a little more than is
practicable in the hurry of the moment of making up general
despatches.


        The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind
another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side
of the water.  Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only
to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles
of every government.  The course of reflection in which we are
immersed here on the elementary principles of society has presented

this question to my mind; and that no such obligation can be
transmitted I think very capable of proof.  I set out on this ground
which I suppose to be self evident, "_that the earth belongs in
usufruct to the living_;" that the dead have neither powers nor
rights over it.  The portion occupied by an individual ceases to be
his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society.  If the
society has formed no rules for the appropriation of its lands in
severalty, it will be taken by the first occupants.  These will
generally be the wife and children of the decedent.  If they have
formed rules of appropriation, those rules may give it to the wife
and children, or to some one of them, or to the legatee of the
deceased.  So they may give it to his creditor.  But the child, the
legatee or creditor takes it, not by any natural right, but by a law
of the society of which they are members, and to which they are
subject.  Then no man can by _natural right_ oblige the lands he
occupied, or the persons who succeed him in that occupation, to the
paiment of debts contracted by him.  For if he could, he might during
his own life, eat up the usufruct of the lands for several
generations to come, and then the lands would belong to the dead, and
not to the living, which would be reverse of our principle.  What is
true of every member of the society individually, is true of them all
collectively, since the rights of the whole can be no more than the
sum of the rights of individuals.  To keep our ideas clear when
applying them to a multitude, let us suppose a whole generation of
men to be born on the same day, to attain mature age on the same day,
and to die on the same day, leaving a succeeding generation in the
moment of attaining their mature age all together.  Let the ripe age
be supposed of 21. years, and their period of life 34. years more,
that being the average term given by the bills of mortality to
persons who have already attained 21. years of age.  Each successive
generation would, in this way, come on and go off the stage at a
fixed moment, as individuals do now.  Then I say the earth belongs to
each of these generations during it's course, fully, and in their own
right.  The 2d. generation receives it clear of the debts and
incumbrances of the 1st., the 3d. of the 2d. and so on.  For if the
1st. could charge it with a debt, then the earth would belong to the
dead and not the living generation.  Then no generation can contract
debts greater than may be paid during the course of it's own
existence.  At 21. years of age they may bind themselves and their
lands for 34. years to come: at 22. for 33: at 23 for 32. and at 54
for one year only; because these are the terms of life which remain
to them at those respective epochs.  But a material difference must
be noted between the succession of an individual and that of a whole
generation.  Individuals are parts only of a society, subject to the
laws of a whole.  These laws may appropriate the portion of land
occupied by a decedent to his creditor rather than to any other, or
to his child, on condition he satisfies his creditor.  But when a
whole generation, that is, the whole society dies, as in the case we
have supposed, and another generation or society succeeds, this forms
a whole, and there is no superior who can give their territory to a
third society, who may have lent money to their predecessors beyond
their faculty of paying.


        What is true of a generation all arriving to self-government on
the same day, and dying all on the same day, is true of those on a
constant course of decay and renewal, with this only difference.  A
generation coming in and going out entire, as in the first case,
would have a right in the 1st year of their self dominion to contract
a debt for 33. years, in the 10th. for 24. in the 20th.  for 14. in
the 30th. for 4. whereas generations changing daily, by daily deaths
and births, have one constant term beginning at the date of their
contract, and ending when a majority of those of full age at that
date shall be dead.  The length of that term may be estimated from
the tables of mortality, corrected by the circumstances of climate,
occupation &c. peculiar to the country of the contractors.  Take, for
instance, the table of M. de Buffon wherein he states that 23,994
deaths, and the ages at which they happened.  Suppose a society in
which 23,994 persons are born every year and live to the ages stated
in this table.  The conditions of that society will be as follows.
1st. it will consist constantly of 617,703 persons of all ages. 2dly.

of those living at any one instant of time, one half will be dead in
24. years 8. months. 3dly. 10,675 will arrive every year at the age
of 21. years complete. 4thly. it will constantly have 348,417 persons
of all ages above 21. years. 5ly. and the half of those of 21. years
and upwards living at any one instant of time will be dead in 18.
years 8. months, or say 19. years as the nearest integral number.
Then 19. years is the term beyond which neither the representatives
of a nation, nor even the whole nation itself assembled, can validly
extend a debt.


        To render this conclusion palpable by example, suppose that
Louis XIV. and XV. had contracted debts in the name of the French
nation to the amount of 10.000 milliards of livres and that the whole
had been contracted in Genoa.  The interest of this sum would be 500
milliards, which is said to be the whole rent-roll, or nett proceeds
of the territory of France.  Must the present generation of men have
retired from the territory in which nature produced them, and ceded
it to the Genoese creditors?  No.  They have the same rights over the
soil on which they were produced, as the preceding generations had.
They derive these rights not from their predecessors, but from
nature.  They then and their soil are by nature clear of the debts of
their predecessors.  Again suppose Louis XV. and his contemporary
generation had said to the money lenders of Genoa, give us money that
we may eat, drink, and be merry in our day; and on condition you will
demand no interest till the end of 19. years, you shall then forever
after receive an annual interest of (*) 12.'5 per cent.  The money is
lent on these conditions, is divided among the living, eaten, drank,
and squandered.  Would the present generation be obliged to apply the
produce of the earth and of their labour to replace their
dissipations?  Not at all.


        (*) 100 pound at a compound interest of 6 per cent makes at the
end of 19 years an aggregate of principal and interest of pound
252.14 the interest of which is a pound 12 degrees degrees.  12".
7'd. which is nearly 12". p'r. cent on the first capital of pound
100.


        I suppose that the received opinion, that the public debts of
one generation devolve on the next, has been suggested by our seeing
habitually in private life that he who succeeds to lands is required
to pay the debts of his ancestor or testator, without considering
that this requisition is municipal only, not moral, flowing from the
will of the society which has found it convenient to appropriate the
lands become vacant by the death of their occupant on the condition
of a paiment of his debts; but that between society and society, or
generation and generation there is no municipal obligation, no umpire
but the law of nature.  We seem not to have perceived that, by the
law of nature, one generation is to another as one independant nation
to another."


        The interest of the national debt of France being in fact but a
two thousandth part of it's rent-roll, the paiment of it is
practicable enough; and so becomes a question merely of honor or
expediency.  But with respect to future debts; would it not be wise
and just for that nation to declare in the constitution they are
forming that neither the legislature, nor the nation itself can
validly contract more debt, than they may pay within their own age,
or within the term of 19. years?  And that all future contracts shall
be deemed void as to what shall remain unpaid at the end of 19. years
from their date?  This would put the lenders, and the borrowers also,
on their guard.  By reducing too the faculty of borrowing within its
natural limits, it would bridle the spirit of war, to which too free
a course has been procured by the inattention of money lenders to
this law of nature, that succeeding generations are not responsible
for the preceding.


        On similar ground it may be proved that 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.


        It may be said that the succeeding generation exercising in
fact the power of repeal, this leaves them as free as if the
constitution or law had been expressly limited to 19. years only.  In
the first place, this objection admits the right, in proposing an
equivalent.  But the power of repeal is not an equivalent.  It might
be indeed if every form of government were so perfectly contrived
that the will of the majority could always be obtained fairly and
without impediment.  But this is true of no form.  The people cannot
assemble themselves; their representation is unequal and vicious.
Various checks are opposed to every legislative proposition.
Factions get possession of the public councils.  Bribery corrupts
them.  Personal interests lead them astray from the general interests
of their constituents; and other impediments arise so as to prove to
every practical man that a law of limited duration is much more
manageable than one which needs a repeal.


        This principle that the earth belongs to the living and not to
the dead is of very extensive application and consequences in every
country, and most especially in France.  It enters into the
resolution of the questions Whether the nation may change the descent
of lands holden in tail?  Whether they may change the appropriation
of lands given antiently to the church, to hospitals, colleges,
orders of chivalry, and otherwise in perpetuity? whether they may
abolish the charges and privileges attached on lands, including the
whole catalogue ecclesiastical and feudal? it goes to hereditary
offices, authorities and jurisdictions; to hereditary orders,
distinctions and appellations; to perpetual monopolies in commerce,
the arts or sciences; with a long train of _et ceteras_: and it
renders the question of reimbursement a question of generosity and
not of right.  In all these cases the legislature of the day could
authorize such appropriations and establishments for their own time,
but no longer; and the present holders, even where they or their
ancestors have purchased, are in the case of _bona fide_ purchasers
of what the seller had no right to convey.


        Turn this subject in your mind, my Dear Sir, and particularly
as to the power of contracting debts, and develope it with that
perspicuity and cogent logic which is so peculiarly yours.  Your
station in the councils of our country gives you an opportunity of
producing it to public consideration, of forcing it into discussion.
At first blush it may be rallied as a theoretical speculation; but
examination will prove it to be solid and salutary.  It would furnish
matter for a fine preamble to our first law for appropriating the
public revenue; and it will exclude, at the threshold of our new
government the contagious and ruinous errors of this quarter of the
globe, which have armed despots with means not sanctioned by nature
for binding in chains their fellow-men.  We have already given, in
example one effectual check to the Dog of war, by transferring the
power of letting him loose from the executive to the Legislative
body, from those who are to spend to those who are to pay.  I should
be pleased to see this second obstacle held out by us also in the
first instance.  No nation can make a declaration against the
validity of long-contracted debts so disinterestedly as we, since we
do not owe a shilling which may not be paid with ease principal and
interest, within the time of our own lives.  Establish the principle
also in the new law to be passed for protecting copy rights and new
inventions, by securing the exclusive right for 19. instead of 14.
years _[a line entirely faded]_ an instance the more of our taking
reason for our guide instead of English precedents, the habit of
which fetters us, with all the political herecies of a nation,
equally remarkable for it's encitement from some errors, as long
slumbering under others.  I write you no news, because when an
occasion occurs I shall write a separate letter for that.