On July 4 2022, a viral tweet claimed that Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father of the United States, said that “we should rewrite the constitution every 20 years so that dead people wouldn’t rule over modern society”:
In the tweet, user @GoodPoliticGuy wrote:
Reminder that Thomas Jefferson who helped write the Declaration of Independence also said we should rewrite the constitution every 20 years so that dead people wouldn’t rule over modern society.
The tweet appeared to reference national and global discourse stemming from a Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 24 2022. Incidentally, the tweet claimed Jefferson “helped write the Declaration of Independence,” whereas his official WhiteHouse.gov biography described him as the principal author:
Thomas Jefferson, a spokesman for democracy, was an American Founding Father, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776), and the third President of the United States (1801–1809).
On first glance, the tweet seemed to be (if accurate) a paraphrasing of something Jefferson might have written or said. Jefferson’s writings didn’t conform to the more contemporary phrasing of the tweet — making it a little difficult to match with Jefferson’s known commentary.
On the other hand, the tweet included a specific reference to “20 years,” the timeframe within which Jefferson purportedly believed such revisions ought to be considered. A search turned up a 2007 University of Illinois page (“U. of I. scholars collecting, analyzing constitutions from around world,”) which began:
Thomas Jefferson believed that a country’s constitution should be rewritten every 19 years. Instead, the U.S. Constitution, which Jefferson did not help to write (he was in Paris serving as U.S. minister to France when the Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia), has prevailed since 1789.
“Jefferson thought the dead should not rule the living, thus constitutions should expire frequently, but the fact is that the U.S. Constitution quickly became enshrined by the public and is the oldest constitution in the world,” said Zachary Elkins, a professor of political science at Illinois.
Many other constitutions do not last very long, according to Elkins, who is working with Tom Ginsburg, an Illinois professor of law, on a project to collect and analyze some 760 constitutions used worldwide since the U.S. Constitution took effect.
That analysis pointed to extant writings or commentary in Jefferson’s papers, but it didn’t provide a specific citation. But the specific timeframe of 19 years led to Princeton University’s extensive “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson” project:
The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, established at Princeton University, is preparing the definitive scholarly edition of the correspondence and papers written by America’s author of the Declaration of Independence and third president. Since the publication of Volume 1 by Princeton University Press in 1950, the project has been publishing, in chronological sequence, not only the letters Jefferson wrote but also those he received. As the first modern historical documentary edition, the project initially assembled photocopies of every known extant letter or Jefferson-related paper, approximately 70,000 items gathered from 900 repositories and private collections worldwide. Neither an archive of original manuscript materials nor a collection of digital facsimile images, the Jefferson Papers is a collaborative publishing hub providing in print—and now in electronic format—quality, contextualized Jefferson source material for posterity. With each new document transcribed, annotated, and edited to exacting standards, the Papers has provided an unparalleled, accessible source of the written legacy of Jefferson. The edition is comprehensive in scope, with the Princeton editors bearing the responsibility for the letters and papers during the period from 1760 through the end of Jefferson’s presidency on March 3, 1809. Our colleagues at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello are producing the volumes that cover his retirement from public life until his death in 1826.
In that archive, a page was titled as follows:
Thomas Jefferson to James Madison
Volume 15: 27 March 1789 to 30 November 1789
It began with Jefferson’s allusion to the matter of revising the founding documents of the United States, in a broader context of events then ongoing in France (“our side of the water”):
I sit down to write to you without knowing by what occasion I shall send my letter. I do it because a subject comes into my head which I would wish to develope a little more than is practicable in the hurry of the moment of making up general dispatches.
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. Yet it is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government. The course of reflection in which we are immersed here on the elementary principles of society has presented this question to my mind; and that no such obligation can be so transmitted I think very capable of proof.—I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self evident, ‘that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’: that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by any individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society.
Jefferson then spoke about generational cycles, debt, and related topics, providing an analogy to illustrate his musings about younger generations being constrained by the obligations of their predecessors:
To render this conclusion palpable by example, suppose that Louis XIV. and XV. had contracted debts in the name of the French nation to the amount of 10,000 milliards of livres, and that the whole had been contracted in Genoa. The interest of this sum would be 500. milliards, which is said to be the whole rent roll or nett proceeds of the territory of France. Must the present generation of men have retired from the territory in which nature produced them, and ceded it to the Genoese creditors? No. They 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.
Again suppose Louis XV. and his cotemporary 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 you shall then for ever after receive an annual interest of * 12⅝ per cent. 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.
The interest of the national debt of France being in fact but a two thousandth part of its rent roll, the paiment of it is practicable enough: and so becomes a question merely of honor, or of expediency. But with respect to future debts, would it not be wise and just for that nation to declare, in the constitution they are forming, that neither the legislature, nor the nation itself, can validly contract more debt than they may pay within their own age, or within the term of 19 years? And that all future contracts will be deemed void as to what shall remain unpaid at the end of 19 years from their date? This would put the lenders, and the borrowers also, on their guard. By reducing too the faculty of borrowing within it’s natural limits, it would bridle the spirit of war, to which too free a course has been procured by the inattention of money-lenders to this law of nature, that succeeding generations are not responsible for the preceding.
Immediately thereafter, Jefferson applied his logic to a then-youthful Constitution, ratified just one year previously. Jefferson’s musings as he spoke of the rights of young people to cast off burdens created by preceding generations and the likelihood that democratic institutions would fall prey to corruption were prescient amid the events of June and July 2022:
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. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct [right to live freely]. They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please. But persons and property make the sum of the objects of government. The constitution and the laws of their predecessors extinguished then in their natural course with those who gave them being. This could preserve that being till it ceased to be itself, and no longer. 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.—It may be said that the succeeding generation exercising in fact the power of repeal, this leaves them as free as if the constitution or law had been expressly limited to 19 years only. In the first place, this objection admits the right, in proposing an equivalent. But the power of repeal is not an equivalent. It might be indeed if every form of government were so perfectly contrived that the will of the majority could always be obtained fairly and without impediment. But this is true of no form. The people cannot assemble themselves. Their representation is unequal and vicious. Various checks are opposed to every legislative proposition. Factions get possession of the public councils. Bribery corrupts them. Personal interests lead them astray from the general interests of their constituents: and other impediments arise so as to prove to every practical man that a law of limited duration is much more manageable than one which needs a repeal.
Jefferson then addressed a “principle that the earth belongs to the living, and not to the dead,” bringing his writing back around to then-current events in France:
This principle that the earth belongs to the living, and not to the dead, is of very extensive application and consequences, in every country, and most especially in France. It enters into the resolution of the questions Whether the nation may change the descent of lands holden in tail? Whether they may change the appropriation of lands given antiently to the church, to hospitals, colleges, orders of chivalry, and otherwise in perpetuity? Whether they may abolish the charges and privileges attached on lands, including the whole catalogue ecclesiastical and feudal? It goes to hereditary offices, authorities and jurisdictions; to hereditary orders, distinctions and appellations; to perpetual monopolies in commerce, the arts and sciences; with a long train of et ceteras: and it renders the question of reimbursement a question of generosity and not of right. In all these cases, the legislature of the day could authorize such appropriations and establishments for their own time, but no longer; and the present holders, even where they, or their ancestors, have purchased, are in the case of bona fide purchasers of what the seller had no right to convey.
A viral July 4 2022 tweet claimed that Thomas Jefferson had said that “we should rewrite the constitution every 20 years so that dead people wouldn’t rule over modern society,” an obvious paraphrasing of something Jefferson wrote. In a 1789 letter to James Madison, Jefferson described at length his feelings on governance and freedom. Jefferson repeated a period of 19 years as the timeframe in which laws and governing documents might become stale, and explicitly stated that the “earth belongs to the living, not to the dead.” Although the tweet was not a verbatim quote, it did reference real writings by Jefferson on the United States Constitution as a living document.