Intergenerational Justice in the United States Constitution,
The Stewardship Doctrine:
I. Historic Overview

D. Algernon Sidney and John Locke

In the late16th and the 17th Centuries, English rights theorists such as Algernon Sidney and John Locke would elaborate and refine the tradition of intergenerational rights and justice. These theorists (especially Sidney) would focus closely on the political relations between generations, and emphasize the potentially radical implications of intergenerational ethics. After their deaths, their theories would exert a profound influence upon the America's revolutionary founders. f51


Prior to Sidney, writers such as Robert Filmer had justified the sovereignty of monarchs (the "divine right of kings") as having been derived from the God-given paternal authority of Adam or Noah. f52 Sidney, writing in 1698, forcefully rejected this notion. f53 In repudiation of the paternal theory, Sidney championed a diametrically opposed theory: that no later generation can be bound by an earlier generation to a specific government or form of government. Sidney reasoned that any power which exists in one generation to create a government must logically reside in all generations. f54 He rested this political doctrine upon grounds of practical expedience, as well as natural right. f55

Sidney's sentiments would later be echoed in the Declaration's announcement that, "Whenever a government becomes destructive of [certain] ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it," as well as in countless other declarations, speeches and bills of rights in the colonies and the young republic. His emphasis on the need for frequent renewal of constitutions f56 foreshadowed Jefferson's later contention that "every constitution . . . naturally expires at the end of 19 years." f57

Closely linked to Sidney's theory of generational sovereignty was a theory of limited property rights. He adhered to the biblical notion that the Earth was granted in common to all people by God; as a consequence, the king had no right to permanently alienate public land to favored subjects. "The king was never master of the soil. . . .[N]o man can give what he has not. Whoever therefore will pretend, that the king has bestowed this propriety, must prove, that he had it in himself." f58

This notion -- that the government's ownership interest in land is purely usufructary - was not unique to Sidney; it seems to have been the common wisdom of the time. f59 One of Sidney's contemporaries, employing the language of religion to express the same truth, proclaimed, "God is indeed the only proprietor; Men are but usufructuaries." f60

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