Thomas Jefferson, as Garry Wills recently suggested in these pages, is memorable for a vision of human equality that has moved later generations to achieve more than he did or even tried to do.1 Near the center of that vision was a belief embodied in every social revolution and articulated in Jefferson’s dictum that the earth belongs to the living, that “one generation is to another as one independent nation to another.” To fulfill the equality of generations, Jefferson, in letters to his friend Madison, made a declaration of generational independence. Each generation was entitled to wipe the slate clean, to throw off any burdens thrust upon them by their predecessors. No people should be required to pay public debts incurred before they were born. All laws and constitutions should be periodically reconsidered.
It was an impossible dream. No one escapes from the past without bearing some of its burdens. As Jefferson acknowledged in that other Declaration for which he is best known, “mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” But the possibility of escape from inherited social evils is what drives revolution and reform. Reformers may sometimes state their goals as restoration of a distant past, but only where its contours can be imagined to fit a present ideal. Jefferson once proposed that the seal of the United States should contain images of Hengist and Horsa, the legendary Saxon kings who established in Britain the ideal society that the United States would restore. But Jefferson did not think that the government he helped to found, the forms he helped to establish, the evils he was willing to suffer, should inhibit future Americans. He could not, as president of the United States, establish the equality of generations any more than the equality of races. He did not even succeed in getting rid of the national debt (or of his personal debts). But he never ceased believing that future generations would do better. Vincent Crapanzano quotes a letter written forty years after the Declaration of Independence:
Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew this age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present, but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in the laws and constitutions…. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.
Jefferson was what Crapanzano calls an aspirationist, one…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.