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