Intergenerational Justice in the United States Constitution,
The Stewardship Doctrine:

II. The Intergenerational Philosophy of the Founders and Their Contemporaries

D Generational Sovereignty and Economic Right – The Problem of Inherited Debt


When the government of one generation creates financial debts repayable by later generations, it engages in the quintessential act of taxation without representation. f195 Jefferson and many of his contemporaries found the practice to be unacceptable. As a Virginia planter, Jefferson conceived of all wealth as originating from the earth. He therefore viewed long-term debt as a violation of the usufructary limits placed on each generation's use of the land:

"[S]uppose Louis XV, and his contemporary generation had said to the money-lenders of Genoa, give us money that we may eat, drink, and be merry in our day; and on condition you will demand no interest till the end of 19. years . . .. The money is lent on these conditions, is divided among the living, eaten, drank, and squandered. Would the present generation be obliged to apply the produce of the earth and of their labour to replace their dissipations? Not at all." f196

And again:

"[The present generation] have the same rights over the soil on which they were produced, as the preceding generations had. They derive these rights not from their predecessors, but from nature. They then and their soil are by nature clear of the debts of their predecessors." f197

Jefferson also treated long term public debt as an issue of generational sovereignty:

"[T]he received opinion, that the public debts of one generation devolve on the next, has been suggested by our seeing habitually in private life that he who succeeds to lands is required to pay the debts of his ancestor or testator: without considering that this requisition is municipal only, not moral . . .. [B]ut . . . between society and society, or generation and generation, there is no municipal obligation, no umpire but the law of nature. We seem not to have perceived that, by the law of nature, one generation is to another as one independent nation to another." f198

On the basis of both lines of argument, Jefferson concludes that "[N]o generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of it's own existence" and that "19 years is the term beyond which neither the representatives of a nation, nor even the whole nation itself assembled, can validly extend a debt." f199

While Madison may have had reservations as to Jefferson's theory that all laws and constitutions automatically expire in 19 years, he was more receptive to Jefferson's position on debts:

"The idea which the letter evolves is a great one, and suggests many interesting reflections to legislators; particularly when contracting and providing for public debts. . . . [I]t would give me singular pleasure to see it first announced in the proceedings of the U. States, and always kept in their view, as a salutary curb on the living generation from imposing unjust or unnecessary burdens on their successors." f200

In a piece for the National Gazette, dated January 31, 1792, Madison argued that "each generation should be made to bear the burden of its own wars, instead of carrying them on, at the expence of other generations." f201 Later, in his second Inaugural Address, he advocated a luxury tax, observing that, "In time of war, [the tax] may meet within the year all the expenses of the year, without encroaching on the rights of future generations, by burdening them with the debts of the past."f202 President Washington, in his farewell address, similarly reminded the young nation to avoid "accumulation of debt . . not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burthen which we ourselves ought to bear." f203

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