Thomas Jefferson The Writings of
Thomas Jefferson

editor H.A. Washington
New York :  H.W. Derby, 1861
To James Madison
Paris, September 6, 1789.


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 develop 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 any 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 severality, it will be taken by the first occupants, and 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 its creditor.  But the child, the legatee or creditor, takes it, not by natural right, but by a law of the society of which he is a member, and to which he is subject.  Then, no man can, by natural right, oblige the lands he occupied, or the persons who succeed him in that occupation, to the payment 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 is the 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 the 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 twenty-one years, and their period of life thirty-four years more, that being the average term given by the bills of mortality to persons of twenty-one years of age.  Each successive generation would, in this way, come and go of the stage at a fixed moment, as individuals do now.  Then I say, the earth belongs to each of these generations during its course, fully and in its own right.  The second generation receives it clear of the debts and incumbrances of the first, the third of the second, and so on.  For if the first could charge it with a debt, then the earth would belong to the dead and not to the living generation.  Then, no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence.  At twenty-one years of age, they may bind themselves and their lands for thirty-four years to come;  at twenty-two, for thirty-three;  at twenty-three, for thirty-two;  and at fifty-four, for one year only;  because these are the terms of life which remain to them at the 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 the 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 faculties 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 the XIV. and XV. had contracted debts in the name of the French nation, to the amount of ten thousand milliards, and that the whole had been contracted in Genoa.  The interest of this sum would be five hundred milliards, which is the whole rent-roll or net proceeds of the territory of France.  Must the present generation of men have retired from the territory in which nature produces 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 155/8 per cent.  The money is lent on these conditions, is divided among the people, eaten, drunk and squandered.  Would the present generation be obliged to apply the produce of the earth and of their labor, to replace their dissipations ?  Not at all.

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 predecessor;  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 of a decedent on the condition of a payment 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 are extinguished then, 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 thirty-four 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 thirty-four 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 anciently 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;  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.  Besides familiarising us to this term, it will be 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.  I am always, with great and sincere esteem, dear Sir, your affectionate friend and servant.

To Dr. Richard Gem.
Paris, 1789 September 9.

The hurry in which I wrote my letter to Mr. Madison, which is in your hands, occasioned an inattention to the difference between generations succeeding each other at fixed epochs, and generations renewed daily and hourly.  It is true that in the former case, the generation when at twenty-one years of age, may contract a debt for thirty-four years, because a majority of them will live so long.  But a generation consisting of all ages, and which legislates by all its members above the age of twenty-one years, cannot contract for so long a time, because their majority will be dead much sooner.  Buffon gives us a table of twenty-three thousand nine hundred and ninety-four deaths, stating the ages at which they happened.  To draw from these the result I have occasion for, I suppose a society in which twenty-three thousand nine hundred and ninety-four persons are born every year, and live to the age stated in Buffon's table.  Then, the following inferences may be drawn.  Such a society will consist constantly of six hundred and seventeen thousand seven hundred and three persons, of all ages.  Of those living at any one instant of time, one half will be dead in twenty-four years and eight months.  In such a society, ten thousand six hundred and seventy-five will arrive every year at the age of twenty-one years complete.  It will constantly have three hundred and forty-eight thousand four hundred and seventeen persons of all ages above twenty-one years, and the half of those of twenty-one years and upwards living at any one instant of time, will be dead in eighteen years and eight months, or say nineteen years.

Then, the contracts, constitutions and laws of every such society become void in nineteen years from their date.


[August Lindbergh in 1917 on the same subject]

Leviticus 25:8-17
25:8  And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven sabbaths of years shall be unto thee forty and nine years.
25:9  Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubile to sound on the tenth [day] of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the trumpet sound throughout all your land.
25:10  And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout [all] the land unto all the inhabitants thereof :  it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.
25:11  A jubile shall that fiftieth year be unto you :  ye shall not sow, neither reap that which groweth of itself in it, nor gather [the grapes] in it of thy vine undressed.
25:12  For it [is] the jubile; it shall be holy unto you :  ye shall eat the increase thereof out of the field.
25:13  In the year of this jubile ye shall return every man unto his possession.
25:14  And if thou sell ought unto thy neighbour, or buyest [ought] of thy neighbour’s hand, ye shall not oppress one another:
25:15  According to the number of years after the jubile thou shalt buy of thy neighbour, [and] according unto the number of years of the fruits he shall sell unto thee:
25:16  According to the multitude of years thou shalt increase the price thereof, and according to the fewness of years thou shalt diminish the price of it :  for [according] to the number [of the years] of the fruits doth he sell unto thee.
25:17  Ye shall not therefore oppress one another; but thou shalt fear thy God :  for I [am] Yahweh your God.

“ Every fiftieth year,  on the Day of Atonement, let the trumpets blow loud and long throughout the land .  For the fiftieth year shall be holy, a time to proclaim liberty throughout the land to all enslaved debtors, and a time for the canceling of all public and private debts.  It shall be a year when all the family estates sold to others shall be returned to the original owners or their heirs .
“ What a happy year it will be !  In it you shall not sow, nor gather crops nor grapes ;  for it is a holy Year of Jubilee for you .  That year your food shall be the volunteer crops that grow wild in the fields .  Yes, during the Year of Jubilee everyone shall return home to his original family possession ;  if he has sold it, it shall be his again !  Because of this, if the land is sold or bought during the preceding forty-nine years, a fair price shall be arrived at by counting the number of years until the Jubilee .  If the Jubilee is many years away, the price will be high ;  if few years, the price will be low ;  for what you are really doing is selling the number of crops the new owner will get from the land before it is returned to you .
“ You must fear your God and not overcharge !  For I am Yahweh .  Obey my laws if you want to live safely in the land.