In September of 1789, shortly before the first Congress of the several States was convened, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison from Paris. It was the last letter in a years-long correspondence with Madison concerning the Bill of Rights, which was to be proposed at that first Congress. In that final dispatch Jefferson raised an issue that the burgeoning American government had yet to consider:
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.
Jefferson seems baffled. To his knowledge this critical intergenerational issue had not been addressed in the founding documents.
As insightful as this first passage may have been, Jefferson’s letter is more well-known for the next rumination, the one where he prophetically acknowledges, “I set out on this ground which I suppose to be self-evident, that the earth belongs usufruct to the living; that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.” To the modern man, this seems only a casual observation; of course dead people have no powers or rights over the earth… they’re dead. But 18th century wig-wearing men talked funny. It is Jefferson’s careful choice of words that reveals his apparent ability to time travel.
On the surface, Jefferson focuses the attention of his letter on generational debt and land transference. He’s urging Madison to consider how the new States want to deal with moral issues associated with an older generation contracting large debts, and then leaving the settlement of that debt to the next generation. However, his use of the word “usufruct” exposes a much broader sentiment about stewardship and intergenerational justice.
In the historical context, as well as the modern one, “usufruct”, which I had to look up, refers to “the right to make all the use and profit of a thing that can be made without injuring the substance of the thing itself.” It appears that Jefferson and his contemporaries had a well-established philosophy of intergenerational responsibility, the likes of which are completely absent from our national discourse at present. Just to be clear, Jefferson is writing to James Madison—the principle author of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights—to impress upon him the importance of preserving future generations’ opportunities by actively advocating for them. The timing of his letter suggests that Jefferson was urging Mr. Madison to enter such a license into the impending Bill of Rights. Of course, no such Article was explicitly included in the Bill of Rights or any subsequent amendment to the Constitution.
The fundamental question is this: Does the living crop of humans on our one shared Earth have a moral obligation to consider the well being of the next crop? The founders of our great Nation believed that we do and long before Europeans set up shop in the New World, native cultures understood the importance of considering future generations when making current decisions. The now-ubiquitous Great Binding Law of the Iroquois Nation required their people to work for the benefit of the seventh generation into the future. Ask yourself this, what kind of world do you want to leave for your children and grandchildren? I’m a newly married man, so for me this question has shifted from abstraction to reality. I want my children to have the opportunity to leave a better world for their children, my grandchildren. That’s what this website is about.
What if everyone (myself included) considered how their actions affect future generations? I take every element of our industrialized society for granted because it’s all I’ve ever known. I grew up in this world of plenty, where everything I could possibly need or want was readily available and cheap. I’ve been indoctrinated with the paradigm of infinite economic and material growth since the day I was born. But when my children are born they will be coming into a different reality, a reality I will explore through this public forum of self-expression.
I’m just like you. I want my life to keep coasting on the tailwinds of all the modern comforts I’ve enjoyed until now. However I can no longer fully participate in our consumption culture without feeling that I’m contracting a large debt and leaving it to my children to pay down.
Thomas Jefferson sought to officially establish our collective responsibility to leave the Earth, not just habitable, but in prosperous condition for future generations. Can you imagine what kind of world we would be living in had his sentiments been given legislative teeth? Towards the end of his letter to James Madison, Jefferson makes another critical point, “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.” He correctly observes that governing documents and indeed the societies that they govern are subject to the current milieu, not some past version of reality. Our context is changing and we would do well to change with it.