Thomas Jefferson on whether the American Constitution is binding on those who were not born at the time it was signed and agreed to (1789)

Thomas Jefferson

Found in The Works of Thomas Jefferson, 12 vols.

In a letter written to James Madison from Paris just after the French Revolution had broken out, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) argues that any Constitution expires after 19 years and must be renewed if it is not to become “an act of force and not of right”:

The question Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another, seems never to have been started either on this or our side of the water… (But) 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 independant nation to another… On similar ground it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation… Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19. years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force and not of right.

The year the U.S. Constitution was ratified was also the year the French Revolution broke out and Thomas Jefferson was there to witness it. In this letter to James Madison, Jefferson asks whether or not “one generation of men has a right to bind another,” either in the form of a financial debt or a political obligation to obey a constitution of laws not contracted by that individual. He comes to the surprising conclusion that any constitution (the American included) has to lapse roughly after every generation (actually, based on his calculations, every 19 years) since it was first signed and ratified. Thus, the American Constitution should lapse and become null and void in 1808. Jefferson believed in the principle that “the earth belongs to the living and not to the dead” which meant that previous generations could not bind the current generation to pay their debts, or require them to work in their father’s occupation, or to accept the laws and constitution drawn up by their ancestors. In his mind, “no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law”. The only “umpire” between the generations was the law of nature.”