Debt and Aristocracy

In 1789, Jefferson wrote a letter to James Madison from Paris in which he asserted that “the earth belongs to the living.” Calculating that a single generation could be said to last nineteen years, he proposed that no debts should be incurred that could not be paid off in nineteen years; that all laws should be re-written every nineteen years; and that Americans should re-write even their constitutions every nineteen years. Madison thought the ideas Jefferson outlined in this letter to be wildly impractical, and most commentators since then have come to the same conclusion. In this module, however, we’ll explore what Jefferson was getting at in claiming that “the earth belongs to the living.” In so doing, we’ll discover how this phrase expresses an idea that lies at the very core of Jefferson’s conception of equality, democracy, and the American nation.

University of Virginia
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