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Science and Business Reading Room mural with quotation from Thomas Jefferson about the living generation. Mural by Ezra Winter. John Adams Building, Library of Congress.
Science and Business Reading Room mural with quotation from Thomas Jefferson about the living generation. Mural by Ezra Winter. John Adams Building, Library of Congress.

A Lesson from a Founding Father

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The Earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. They are masters too of their own persons and consequently may govern them as they please.

When researchers walk into the Science and Business Reading Room, not only are they inspired by the collections of the Library, but they can also receive a lesson from one of our founding fathers by gazing upward at the art and words that surround them.

Photograph of the reading room
Science and Business Reading Room (South Reading Room), in Adams Building, Library of Congress. Photograph by Theodor Horydczak, ca1950.

The quote I am highlighting in this blog post is extracted from a letter written on September 6, 1789 by Thomas Jefferson, while in Paris, to James Madison. It can be seen at the top of the back wall of the Science and Business Reading Room (South Reading Room) and is accompanied by a mural painted by the artist Ezra Winter. You can read the transcript of the letter from NARA’s Founders Online website and view a digital copy of the original letter from the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606-1827 .

When you visit the Science and Business Reading Room, you will notice that this space is dedicated to Thomas Jefferson and a selection of his words encircles the reading room walls, while a vignette of Jefferson watches over us.

For as long as I have worked in the Science and Business Reading Room, this Living Generation quote has always made me pause. I started my career here in 2001, so I have had a lot of time to contemplate its meaning.

In all honesty, I did not like this quote at first.  It could be my 21st century mentality, progressive California upbringing, or my studies of Ingenious communities of the Americas, but I grew up thinking that the Earth doesn’t belong to us, we belong to it. I also didn’t like the idea that we are to manage as we please.  I wondered if Jefferson was giving society the green light to take advantage of our Earth without thought to future generations.

Science and Business Reading Room mural with quotation from Thomas Jefferson about the living generation. Mural by Ezra Winter. John Adams Building, Library of Congress.
Science and Business Reading Room mural with quotation from Thomas Jefferson about the living generation. Mural by Ezra Winter. John Adams Building, Library of Congress.

Since the quote really bothered me, I thought I should examine it further. The first thing I did was look up the word usufruct- this is not a word you see everyday and I had no idea what it meant. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word usufruct relates to law. It can be defined as “the right of temporary possession, use, or enjoyment of the advantages of property belonging to another, so far as may be had without causing damage or prejudice to this.”

I then read the transcript of the original letter so I could understand the context from which the quote is taken. What I discovered was I had it all wrong. After reading the letter in full a few times, I believe that Jefferson was attempting to define the responsibility of a generation of people and at the same time define what a generation is, which he calculated to be 19 years (be sure to read in the transcript how he arrived at this number!)

In the letter he repeatedly drives home the idea that the Earth belongs to the living generation; he uses this phrase a few times in the letter, and that the “dead have neither powers nor right over it.”

He goes on to say

On similar ground it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law…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.

These are some powerful and radical ideas, but what else would one expect from Jefferson?

So that got me thinking…perhaps Jefferson is telling us that our living generation must be active in taking care of the Earth and all it encompasses. The living generation is responsible for managing it based on its present needs and that generation should do no harm while it’s in their possession. More importantly, laws should be changed from one generation to the next to fit those needs. Jefferson even mentions in this letter that copyright and patents should be protected for 19 years.

Now that Jefferson and I are on the same page, I want to extend my wishes for a Happy Birthday on April 13.

If you want another lesson from Jefferson, my co-blogger Ellen has written about another one of his quotes found in the Science and Business Reading Room. Check out her post Educate and Inform the Masses of the People.


Comments (2)

  1. Hi

    I think if you analyze all quotes said by great men in their own context, we would have better success if only we were to base the appointment itself. Excellent work.

    Congratulations to Jennifer Harbster.


    (Cita original en español para su cotejo con la frase en inglés)


    Me parece que si se analizaran todas las frases dichas por los grandes hombres dentro de su respectivo contexto, tendríamos mejores logros que si solo nos basáramos en la cita misma. Excelente trabajo.

    Felicitaciones para Jennifer Harbster.


  2. If you read the whole letter, that Jefferson wrote to James Madison, you will realize your commentary on what he was saying is taken out of context. This quote is very poignant for today, as we sink deeper and deeper into debt – thus creating a world where the dead are landholders (creditors) and the living are relegated to shoulder the debt of past generations and left to be serfs (debtors) upon the land. As the present living generation it is up to us to be stewards and leave a world that is better than we found it, for future generations. This does not necessarily mean environmentally, but instead overall in all senses. Usufruct is the use of fruits, a Roman term, which boils down to only using what is needed and allowing those who tend to the land the remainder. Waste and abuse of the system, known as society, is one of the reasons these founders found it necessary to escape the systems of Europe that did not live by the system which Jefferson and his cohorts were trying to establish.

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