Quotation: "The web of mutual obligations between generations is essential for a civilized society."

Sources consulted:

  • Founders Online
  • Thomas Jefferson Retirement Papers

Earliest known appearance in print: 1997 (see comments below)

Comments: This passage cannot be found in Thomas Jefferson's writings. It is most likely a paraphrase of historian Joseph Ellis's summary of a letter that James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson. Madison was writing in response to Jefferson's "The Earth Belongs to the Living" tract.[1] Ellis summarized Madison's critique of Jefferson's paper, in part, as follows: "... There is instead a seamless web of obligatory connections between past and present generations. These connections are not only unavoidable but absolutely essential for the continuation of civilized society."[2]  Ellis was likely summarizing the following passage from Madison's letter: "There seems then to be some foundation in the nature of things; in the relation which one generation bears to another, for the descent of obligations from one to another. Equity may require it. Mutual good may be promoted by it."[3]

- Anna Berkes, 10/8/09


  1. ^ Jefferson to Madison, September 6, 1789, in PTJ, 15:392-98. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  2. ^ Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 111.
  3. ^ Madison to Jefferson, February 4, 1790 [text as revised by Madison late in life], in PTJ, 16:152. Transcription available at Founders Online.