University of Virginia Library

Search this document 
The Jeffersonian cyclopedia;

a comprehensive collection of the views of Thomas Jefferson classified and arranged in alphabetical order under nine thousand titles relating to government, politics, law, education, political economy, finance, science, art, literature, religious freedom, morals, etc.;
3 occurrences of jefferson cyclopedia
[Clear Hits]

expand sectionA. 
expand sectionB. 
expand sectionC. 
collapse sectionD. 
2012. DEBT, Perpetual.—
expand sectionE. 
expand sectionF. 
expand sectionG. 
expand sectionH. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionJ. 
expand sectionK. 
expand sectionL. 
expand sectionM. 
expand sectionN. 
expand sectionO. 
expand sectionP. 
expand sectionQ. 
expand sectionR. 
expand sectionS. 
expand sectionT. 
expand sectionU. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionW. 
expand sectionX. 
expand sectionY. 
expand sectionZ. 

expand section 
expand section 
3 occurrences of jefferson cyclopedia
[Clear Hits]

2012. DEBT, Perpetual.—

What is to hinder
[the government] from creating a perpetual
debt? The laws of nature, I answer.
The earth belongs to the living not to the dead.
The will and the power of man expire with his
life, by nature's law. Some societies give it
an artificial continuance, for the encouragement
of industry; some refuse it, as our aboriginal
neighbors, whom we call barbarians.
The generations of men may be considered
as bodies or corporations. Each generation
has the usufruct of the earth during the period
of its continuance. When it ceases to exist
the usufruct passes on to the succeeding generation,
free and unincumbered, and so on,
successively, from one generation to another
forever. We may consider each generation
as a distinct nation, with a right, by the will
of its majority, to bind themselves, but none
to bind the succeeding generation, more than
the inhabitants of another country. Or the
case may be likened to the ordinary one of a
tenant for life, who may hypothecate the land
for his debts, during the continuance of his
usufruct; but at his death, the reversioner
(who is also for life only) receives it exonerated
from all burden. The period of a
generation, or the term of its life, is determined
by the laws of mortality, which, varying
a little only in different climates, offer
a general average to be found by observation.
I turn, for instance, to Buffon's tables, of
twenty-three thousand nine hundred and
ninety-four deaths, and the ages at which
they happened, and I find that of the numbers
of all ages living at one moment, half will be
dead in twenty-four years and eight months.
But (leaving out minors, who have not the
power of self-government) of the adults (of
twenty-one years of age) living at one moment,
a majority of whom act for the society,
one-half will be dead in eighteen years
and eight months. At nineteen years, then,
from the date of a contract, the majority of
the contractors are dead, and their contract
with them. Let this general theory be applied
to a particular case. Suppose the annual
births of the State of New York to be
twenty-three thousand nine hundred and
ninety-four the whole number of its inhabitants,
according to Buffon, will be six hundred
and seventeen thousand, seven hundred
and three of all ages. Of these there would
constantly be two hundred and sixty-nine
thousand two hundred and eighty-six minors,
and three hundred and forty-eight thousand
four hundred and seventeen adults, of which
last, one hundred and seventy-four thousand
two hundred and nine will be a majority. Suppose
that majority, on the first day of the year
1794, had borrowed a sum of money equal
to the fee-simple value of the State, and to
have consumed it in eating, drinking and


Page 229
making merry in their day; or, if you please,
in quarrelling and fighting with their unoffending
neighbors. Within eighteen years
and eight months, one-half of the adult citizens
were dead. Till then, being the majority,
they might rightfully levy the interest
of their debt annually on themselves and
their fellow-revellers, or fellow-champions.
But at that period, say at this moment, a
new majority have come into place, in their
own right, and not under the rights, the conditions,
or laws of their predecessors. Are
they bound to acknowledge the debt, to consider
the preceding generation as having had
a right to eat up the whole soil of their country,
in the course of a life, to alienate it from
them (for it would be an alienation to the
creditors), and would they think themselves
either legally or morally bound to give up
their country and emigrate to another for
subsistence? Every one will say no; that the
soil is the gift of Cod to the living, as much
as it had been to the deceased generation;
and that the laws of nature impose no obligation
on them to pay this debt. And although,
like some other natural rights, this has not
yet entered into any declaration of rights,
it is no less a law, and ought to be acted on
by honest governments. It is, at the same
time, a salutary curb on the spirit of war
and indebtment, which, since the modern
theory of the perpetuation of debt, has
drenched the earth with blood, and crushed
its inhabitants under burthens ever accumulating.
Had this principle been declared
in the British bill of rights, England would
have been placed under the happy disability
of waging eternal war, and of contracting her
thousand millions of public debt. In seeking
then, for an ultimate term for the redemption
of our debts, let us rally to this principle, and
provide for their payment within the term of
nineteen years at the farthest.—
To John Wayles Eppes. Washington ed. vi, 136. Ford ed., ix, 389.
(M. June. 1813)

See Generations.