Thomas Jefferson is famous for having written memorable words for commonplace ideas. One of these ideas is: “the earth belongs to the living, the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.” This quotation comes from a letter he wrote to his friend James Madison on 6 September 1789. The context for his remarks is the new U.S. Constitution. Jefferson was registering his concern that a piece of paper composed by one generation might bind the next generation.
Put our quasi-sacred Constitution out of your mind for a moment and consider how you feel about this idea: that the laws of one generation should not bind the next generation, that each generation should make up its own rules for living. I’ll wait while you consider your own position on this question.
Some historians believe that Jefferson had personal motivations for this idea: his father in law’s death left him with a legacy of land and slaves – and debt. And he resented the debt being left for him to pay off. Consider now how you would feel if your father left behind debts for you – his only son – to pay off. Should a single son be responsible for his own father’s debts on his father’s death? This time I will quit the essay and wait while you consider this question. Please do not read the next part of this essay until you have thought this out.