Does the Earth belong to the Living? On Jefferson’s Letter to Madison, Sept. 6, 1789

Letter of Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, Paris September 6, 1789

I think we can see a more radical Jefferson in this letter, one who may have changed in some ways after holding the Presidency, but I’m not sure. What I am sure about is that this letter has a few strange elements I can’t quite put together, and there are many teachers of mine and teachers of my teachers who know how to navigate this far better. Leo Paul de Alvarez used to cite this letter frequently for the sake of contrast with classical thought.

Outline of the letter:

Paragraph 1. Jefferson doesn’t know “by what occasion” this letter came about, although he spends significant portions of it speaking of France, what changes he might like to see there, and matters of property. What is curious about this letter is that it sounds like political theory, but the word “practical” occurs everywhere. “Practicable” is a word which occurs in this paragraph, and seems to have set a standard which brought this letter forth.

Paragraph 2. Jefferson proclaims “Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another” is a question that has “never…been started either on this or our side of the water.” He does not dwell on why this might be the case, i.e. that using language means using an inheritance from the past that binds us in critical ways (cf. Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking”), or that laws must be thought greater than us to be obeyed. He rather claims he can prove “no such obligation can be so transmitted.” His “self-evident” ground is “that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living,” and he begins making this evident by literally talking about the earth, or more precisely, the distribution of land after an individual has passed away:

“…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 the reverse of our principle.”

Paragraph 3. Jefferson declares “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.” He then starts talking about an ideal generation, one that is born on the same day and dies on the same day, and asserts that when a whole generation dies, a whole society dies.

Paragraph 4.  There is no substantial difference between this “ideal generation” and generations as they occur now. We can use empirical data to track roughly when one generation was born and died, and we arrive at 19 yrs. as the “term beyond which neither the representatives of a nation, nor even the whole nation itself assembled, can validly extend a debt.”

Paragraph 5. It would have been possible for Louis XIV to go into debt so much that the whole of France could have been ceded to creditors in Genoa. Our “self-evident” principle about the earth belonging to the living, along with the expiration of debts every 19 years, allows us to say the French should not be kicked off their land, even with that amount of debt.

Paragraph 6. Our 19 year term makes it clear what one generation is doing to another when they rack up debt – they’re making the future literally pay.

Paragraph 7. “The law of nature” means “one generation is to another as one independent nation to another.” There is no moral obligation to take on the debts of one’s ancestry.

Paragraph 8. France’s national debt has an interest small enough that the payment of the debt is “practicable enough.” But since we’re talking about debts – contracts – wouldn’t the 19 yr. term, if applied, force people to be more rational? Borrowing would be kept within its “natural limits,” and the “spirit of war,” exacerbated by lenders’ inattention “to this law of nature,” would be “bridle[d].”

Paragraph 9. “No society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law.” The earth, which belongs to the living generation, is managed and goods from it are taken “during their usufruct.” The living are “masters… of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please. But persons and property make the sum of the objects of government.” “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.”

Paragraph 10. France, at the time of this writing, “most especially” applies the “principle that the earth belongs to the living.” Land is affected, and that in turn affects the holders of the land, and that in turn affects the efficacy of the values those who hold the land have as well as property claims in the future.

Paragraph 11. Jefferson exhorts Madison to talk about this subject as regards “contracting debts.” It would be assailed by some as “theoretical speculation” [yes, that is redundant. The theoretical is speculative by definition in this blog], but if it accompanies the first law on “appropriating the public revenue,” it could prevent European excess and keep despots away. After all, according to Jefferson, giving the power to declare war to the Legislature keeps the Executive in line, unlike so many other countries.  The 19 year term keeps debt and reasoning that would indebt us indefinitely in line, and is more in accordance with reason, as opposed to relying on “English precedent” [which, of course, is where Montesquieu – not exactly an English name – principally argued from].

Paragraph 12. There is no news in this letter, for there has been no occasion.


When I was at Rutgers, what bothered me most was the criminality hiding underneath “we’re all cool, right?” I remember seeing groups of people who had no business being in school pick on others in any way they could: one of the worst examples in my mind was a group of potheads, all failing out of their classes, who were housemates with a friend and got him, through very serious-sounding house meetings with all sorts of thinly veiled threats, to put bills they racked up in his name. They weren’t above stealing anything they wanted, and the only thing differentiating them from people you’ll meet at bars who’d be happy to stab you for five bucks was that they were stoned or playing video games most of the time to get to the bar. I’ve run into the latter sort of “outright criminal” before [boyfriends of exes find newer depths continually], and I always knock on wood before I travel, because I like to explore, and am very susceptible to running into those sorts and being taken in just long enough.

Libertarians and anarchists always irritate me because they don’t take this sort of awfulness seriously. The former would probably go so far as to argue that what I’m calling criminality is some kind of survival trait, and they’re more fit to reproduce. Karl Maurer used to say this wonderful thing in class about how there were people in life that were like “bubbles in the champagne:” without them, it isn’t clear life means a heck of a lot. Somehow I suspect those “bubbles” would find themselves “popped” if anarchism were taken more seriously.

Right now – even though I haven’t worked through the stranger parts of this letter, and I could be very wrong – no less than Thomas Jefferson is irritating me. He employs the difference between “natural right” and the “law of nature:” the failure of “natural right” to “oblige” means that whatever it has to say about justice is useless. The “law of nature” is all that reigns, and the term “natural right” drops out of the letter entirely in favor of “right” simply, as the “law of nature” drops out for the sake of “force.” He understands enough to reduce the political problem to a merely practical one. We recall, of course, that “natural right” properly speaking is the question of whether anything is just independent of our saying so.

He understands, and he reduces, which leads me to think the man who was implicitly carrying out “give me liberty or give me death” in authoring the Declaration may not entirely understand. He may just know the terms for the test, given by his teachers Bacon, Newton, Locke.  Excellent teachers, to be sure.

And yet he assumes he has a oneness of mind with Madison. This I find most strange: if I were Madison, I would have thrown this letter in the trash. Does Jefferson understand at all that property protections are about letting people keep their heritage, be the caretakers of it? The problem with Bourbon France was that it alienated the people from the things dearest to them: the glitz of nobles and clergy took away from genuine pride in the nation, and worse, genuine piety. The reason why religious freedom matters is so that disgraces like St. Bartholomew’s Day cannot happen here: that was not faith, that was savagery.

But this letter may be far more nuanced than I’m letting on. Take note of Jefferson’s use of the term “usufruct” in paragraph 2 [quoted above] . Usufruct means you can do what you like with the goods produced by a property as long as you don’t damage the property. “Natural right” may oblige in less effective but more important ways. In paragraph 9, “they [the living] may manage it [the earth] then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct.” We could be uncharitable and tie Jefferson’s reduction of thematic numerology into empirical science in previous paragraphs to this; we could say that usufruct has been reduced to the power people actually wield – if the property is damaged, after all, they can’t get what they want. But again, the term could have dropped out altogether.

Still, it remains to track the term “justice” in this letter. There’s only “just,” and it occurs in paragraph 8: a “wise and just” nation declares that they cannot contract more debt than they themselves, within their own lifetime, can pay. Nevermind that some nations have had to save the world, and incur enormous burdens doing so: Jefferson’s notion of justice here seems to be the joking one in the Republic, where, when Glaucon gets his city in Book 4, Socrates identifies the guardians with the courageous and the wise, and everyone else with temperance perhaps, and then goes and looks for a class that is just. Since they can’t find a just class, Socrates declares that justice is “minding your own business.”

It is because of men like Jefferson and Madison and Hamilton I can do philosophy, and will continue to do so. The truth is not simple – it is difficult even to accept when found, and pursuit of it creates enormous debts, ones that make our current national debt and economic crisis look very small.


  1. A very well written synopsis. Interesting as usual, because it brings up points I might not have otherwise considered.
    I have to disagree with you on the point about Libertarians, although I will concede that many of us are annoying. As with all philosophies, the ones who yell loudest are the wack jobs who make the rest of us look bad. All Libertarians are not potheads, as all Republicans are not religious zealots.
    As a Libertarian, I think people should be free to govern themselves, with as little federal intervention as possible, provided noone is harmed or divested of their property. I see the need for government, but like our founding fathers, believe that it should be constrained as much as possible. I believe Socrates put it best by saying: justice is “minding your own business.”
    Keep up the good work. I hope you had a great Christmas.

  2. I remember listening to a lecture on this once that was very similar to this synopsis. Jefferson must have talked about this a lot because the lecture was over a letter he wrote to Sam Kercheval. I sort of agree with machinepolitick’s defense of the Libertarians, though I must admit that every time I think of that group I immediately am reminded of Judge Douglas circa 1850s. This is a very interesting letter, especially considering the utility of original intent, and of higher things like “justice.”

    It would be nice if you could do something on Burke soon – from his Reflections on the Revolution in France – just for the sake of contrast. There are some good little nuggets in there, too.

  3. Aww, I was gonna jump up in my defense over your comment, but somebody’s beaten me to it. Not that I’m actually a Libertarian or that you aren’t right about the many many people who don’t factor the unpleasantness of the world into their, um, ideology, or defend it, or celebrate it.

    I prefer to overlook it, but know very well it’s there.

    And true that some debt has been necessary because of that unpleasantness.

    I hope your trip is going well!!

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