U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Jefferson, Paine, and the Question of Generations

For your reading pleasure today, a guest post from Tom Cutterham, a graduate student at St Hugh’s College and the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford (UK). Cutterham works on social, political, and economic thought in the so-called critical period of the 1780s. He is also a senior editor at the Oxonian Review, and tweets as @tomc759.

In September 1789 Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison from Paris that “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.” In making his own answer, Jefferson famously declared that “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living,” that “by the law of nature, one generation is to another as one independant nation to another,” and furthermore that “no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law… 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 concern was with the principle of popular and legislative sovereignty, for that principle seemed to potentially come down on both sides of the issue. If the people were sovereign they could make any laws and contract any debts they liked, without impediment, including those that had effect after the lifetimes of the lawmakers. If there was no sovereignty above the popular representatives, then there was nothing to restrict them. On the other hand, this freedom ought to apply just as well to future sets of representatives. Otherwise, as Jefferson said, the world “belongs to the dead, and not to the living.”

But Jefferson was wrong to say that the question had “never… been started either on this or our side of the water.” More than three years earlier, in 1786, Thomas Paine had addressed this very question in his pamphlet, Dissertations on Government, the Affairs of the Bank, and Paper-Money. The issue that raised the question for Paine was the middle one, the affair of the bank. The Pennsylvania legislature had repealed a charter it had previously granted to Robert Morris’ Bank of North America. Did it have the power to do so? Paine argued that it did not.

“The election of new Assemblies folowing each other makes no difference in the nature of the thing. The State is still the same State. – The public is still the same body. These do not annually expire though the time of an Assembly does. These are not new-created every year, nor can they be displaced from their original standing; but are a perpetual permanent body, always in being and stil the same.” Hence, contracts entered into by the state, i.e. by the public, could not be broken by later representatives. And the charter was not so much a law as a contract.

Paine prefigured Jefferson’s entire train of thought, but from almost the opposite direction. He asked his readers to imagine how it would be “if we adopt the vague inconsistent idea that every new Assembly has a full and complete authority over every Act done by the State in a former Assembly… It will lead us,” he wrote, “into a wilderness of endless confusion and unsurmountable difficulties… Every new election would be a new revolution, or it would suppose the public of the former year dead and a new public risen in its place.”

Yet that last clause opens new space for Jefferson’s attack. The Virginian’s position really does rest on the former public being now dead – at least a majority of it – and a new one arisen in its place. In his pamphlet, Paine leaves the issue at this point, and moves on to a history of the bank charter itself. But a few pages later he picks up the thread:

“As we are not to live forever ourselves, and other generations are to follow us, we have neither the power nor the right to govern them, or to say how they shall govern themselves. It is the summit of human vanity, and shews a covetousness of power beyond the grave, to be dictating to the world to come.”

His prescription? That it “be made an article in the Constitution, that all laws and Acts should cease of themselves in thirty ears, and have no legal force beyond that time.” So from the position of an anti-Jeffersonian defender of stability, Paine has become, in the space of five pages in his pamphlet, the precursor of one of Jefferson’s most famous – and famously original – thoughts.

That a man like Jefferson had an incomplete knowledge of his own milieu (to be fair, he was in France at the time), should give intellectual historians some pause when they consider their own methodological anxieties of influence. As for the question at hand, the last word in this particular exchange went, aptly, to James Madison. “My first thoughts though coinciding with many of yours,” he wrote to Jefferson, “lead me to view the doctrine as not in all respects compatible with the course of human affairs.”

The present veneration of the founders and their constitution is unlikely to disappear within a generation, be it one of nineteen or of thirty years. But like Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson, thinkers and writers of the twenty-first century still struggle with the problem of generations, which may now be more pertinent than ever. If anything, the persistence of the founders reminds us that the question is still open: does the earth belong to the living, or the dead?

12 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. A thoughtful, and thought-provoking, post, Tom!

    It seems to me part of what’s at issue here (and maybe I’m just making more explicit a point that you’ve already made) is how we conceptualize the dead. As you suggest in passing, even the Sage of Monticello was unaware of–or simply forgot–an important pamphlet by a key figure whom we know he valued.

    Yet in some 21st-century constitutional understandings that are taken both intellectually and politically seriously (it’s an interesting question which is worse), the Founders and their Ideas are treated in ways that bear little resemblance to anything human, living or dead.

    (I should add that in many ways the most sophisticated version of this kind of thing is Straussian hermeneutics, that postulate that philosophers cannot make mistakes, so that any apparent mistake in a work of philosophy is an indication of some esoteric meaning. And, as Gordon Wood pointed out way back in the ’80s, this belief in the infallibility of philosophers past is also one of the keys to understanding the role of Straussians on the American right: their ideas about how to read philosophers can provide a theoretical grounding–for those who need it–for otherwise much “thinner” intentionalist readings of the Constitution. But now I’m far off topic and need to get back to my own work…if I haven’t already done so.)

  2. What is the significance of 19 yrs? What is natural about it?
    Jefferson’s world view was always protecting one party from the domination of another. His defense of states rights (he was the first nullifier, I think) vs. a strong central government. Undoubtedly the domination of the English monarchy on the life of the colonists influenced this thinking. Ironically this world view didn’t carry over as much when he served as President. His enforcement of the Embargo on English trade was pretty heavy handed.

  3. @Paul: The accounting of generational change has varied over time. See the “Familial Generation” entry here. It looks to have varied between 16-30 years, depending on who is doing the accounting. My rule of thumb, and I do not know from where I inherited this, is that every generation lasts about 20 years. The perpetual question, of course, is from when does one begin measuring these changes? I think it’s been easy, in 20th-century U.S. history, to use WWII as a market.

    As you continue reading the link above, it appears that Comte is a go-to for the scientific study of generational change (whether that be familial or cultural). Here’s the quote:

    “Auguste Comte was the first philosopher to make a serious attempt to systematically study generations. In Cours de philosophie positive Comte suggested that social change is determined by generational change and in particular conflict between successive generations.[6] As the members of a given generation age, their “instinct of social conservation” becomes stronger, which inevitably and necessarily brings them into conflict with the “normal attribute of youth”— innovation. Other important theorists of the 19th century were John Stuart Mill and Wilhelm Dilthey.”

    I was also very interested to see that Jose Ortega y Gasset is another who has given thought to generational change. – TL

  4. Dilthey and Mannheim, I think, believed that a generation was roughly thirty years.

    I agree with Tim that in everyday US parlance, people tend to speak of twenty years as a generation.

    Of course all of this is a bit artificial. President John Tyler (1790-1862) has two living grandsons.

  5. Thanks Tim.
    I had always heard the “tree of liberty…” quote with 20 yrs signifying a generation but I hadn’t heard 19 yrs. I was thinking that 19, being a prime number, may have something to do with it. Probably too much thinking on my part.

  6. There’s a very good book that discusses this by Adrienne Koch, “Jefferson & Madison, The Great Collaboration”.

  7. The flipside of rejecting the dead hand of past generations might appear to be the rejection of any responsibility to any future generations. If earth truly belongs to the living, there is a kind of present here-and-now-ism that is truly radical in rejecting any larger notion of social continuity and stability. Like many Enlightenment thinkers, Jefferson rejected the legacy of feudal inheritance laws (primogeniture and entail) which allowed the past to control the present by maintaining inherited privilege. His vision of the future was of continuing revolution and of a society of free men unmoored from tradition so as to be completely mobile (although he said contradictory things about this vision). But the question that is raised today–what the present owes to future generations–seems in Jefferson to be limited to the idea of a revolutionary legacy, which is itself a contradiction in terms. To honor the legacy of the founders is to reject their legacy by engaging in constant generational revolution against it. But I don’t know much about what Jefferson actually wrote about future generations, rather than this famous passage about present and past generations. Does anybody here know how his view played out in thinking about the future?

  8. Dan: This may not be speaking to the intent of your question but Adrienne Koch felt that the following quote from Madison reflected the theme of Jefferson’s observation “the earth belongs to the living”.
    “…each generation should be made to bear the burden of its own wars, instead of carrying them on, at the expense of other generations. And…each generation should not only bear its own burdens, but…the taxes composing them, should include a due proportion of such as by their direct operation keep the people awake, along with those, which being wrapped up in other payments, may leave them asleep to misapplications of their money.”

    According to Koch’s interpretation of Jefferson’s view: “The people are better off with government policies that confine the living generation to the payment of its own debts.”

  9. @Paul: So, for Jefferson we should not burden the future with our own expenses, but, presumably, we should not provide for the future either, since it needs to take care of itself. This position would seem to undercut a doctrine of progress built on the notion that each generation builds on what has been provided for it by the past–as in evolutionary notions of civilization. Rather, Jeffersonian universalism (all men created equal with universal rights and all that) dissolves any notion of history or continuity by simultaneously appealing to a world outside of time _and_ to the here-and-now.

  10. Dan: As you said Jefferson could be contradictory on many issues but I don’t think his position regarding the burdens of one generation falling on another should be taken to mean that we should not provide for the future. Protecting the future from debt was seen as a universal good and forward looking. Let’s not forget that he helped to finance Lewis and Clark in their expedition, negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, and founded the University of Virginia all with the thought of the benefits these pursuits would bring in the future.
    I’m not an expert on Jeffersonian philosophy so I’m not sure that he wrote anything specifically on this subject but I think we have to assume here that he voted with his feet.

  11. Thanks to everyone who has been engaging with this so far, and thanks to Andrew for inviting me to publish this post here!

    The debate over calculating the exact length of a generation – nineteen years, thirty, or whatever – only really served to sideline the fact that it’s impossible to actually separate out one generation from another, on a social or political level. That problem makes Jefferson’s and Paine’s mechanistic responses to the intergenerational question pretty superficial and (as Madison pointed out) impractical. A complete solution would have to entail a radicalism that was far beyond either man: the abolition of debt, property, contract, and law. Of course, it’s precisely these things that define liberal modernity, and have come to do so in no small part through their embodiment in the USA since the revolution.

    Ben, thanks for your kind response. I suppose it hardly needs saying here of all places that the founders no less than anyone need to be humanised and historicised. On the other hand, a lot of their value and importance exists in their symbolic power. That’s where a lot of the political potential of founding historiography comes from, and not just on the Tea Party right.

    Dan, the problem of responsibility to future generations was the main substance of Madison’s response to Jefferson. That includes contracting debt now for projects which will benefit future people: project like the Revolutionary War itself. Since Jefferson never explicitly responded to Madison’s thoughts (and never really followed up his own ideas in the “earth belongs to the living” letter) I think we can assume that he was impressed by Madison’s position.

  12. Tom, thanks for this post. It is a timely read for me.

    I am currently reading David Hackett Fischer’s _Growing Old in America_, and just came across his discussion of Jefferson’s idea that “the land belongs in usufruct to the living.” Fischer suggests that Jefferson was “taught” the idea by the English radical Richard Gem. Writes Fischer: “Jefferson took up Dr. Gem’s idea with an evangelical enthusiasm, and set himself to converting others. The result was one of the most extraordinary and powerful cycles in his epistolary writing…” (81).

    Fischer situates this whole discussion in a larger moment that he calls “the revolution in age relations” in America in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, when everything from seating arrangements in meetings to sartorial fashions to conventions of portraiture to the language of ridicule to mandatory retirement laws all point towards a deep shift in how Americans understood intergenerational relations. Fischer writes:

    “The authority of age began to be undermined, and at the same time the direction of old age bias began to be reversed. Cultural institutions which had rested upon a hierarchical conception of age relations began to disintegrate, and an ideal of age equality appeared. That ideal did not last long, however, for it masked a different sort of inequality. The revolution came to an end by 1820, and a new pattern of change emerged–a process of continuous, stable, evolutionary change in which gerontophobia became progressively more intense. The development of a new system of age relations was not comleted in the revolutionary period, but it was everywhere begun. And from that beginning it steadily unfolded over the next hundred years. Thus, the history of age relationships in America first ran through a period of involutionary change in which the exaltation of age became more elaborately developed; then through a period of revolutionary change, which occurred during the French Revolution; and then through a period of evolutionary change in which status of old age steadily declined” (101).

    It’s an interesting argument. I would like to know who has picked it up, and what they’ve done with it. If anyone can suggest a title off the top of your head, that would be great.

    In any case, I suppose one way to “humanize” the founders is to consider how their political discourse was very much “of their age” in terms of capturing a moment of change and disruption in the most broad, basic cultural sensibilities. And of course part of what disrupts those sensibilities are ideas of liberty and equality arising from radical political discourse.

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