In September of 1789, Thomas Jefferson sat down to write a letter to James Madison, not to share personal or political news, but to explore a question he said had not been asked on either side of the Atlantic. The question was whether one generation of men has right to bind another generation- to debt and laws. In short, Jefferson argued that
“the earth belongs…to the living: that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.”
To Jefferson, this meant that when a person dies, their property reverts back to society, unless there are societal laws in place to regulate the inheritance of that property. If the earth belongs to the living, then the living have a right only to what they can fairly use during their own lives. To take more than they could repay during their lives would be to rob future generations of resources.
“Then no man can, by natural right, oblige the lands he occupied, or the persons who succeed him in that occupation, to the paiment of debts contracted by him. For if he could, he might, during his own life, eat up the usufruct of the lands for several generations to come, and then the lands would belong to the dead, and not to the living”
Jefferson used life expectancies at the time to calculate that as a person got older, what they had a right to take from the earth diminished, because the time in which they could repay that debt was getting shorter. He pointed out that many people took it for granted that debts could be passed down to future generations, since that is how societies often set up the laws of individual debts, but argued that this is not a natural law, but a system devised by human governments. He argued that on a national scale,
“by the law of nature, one generation is to another as one independant nation to another.”
Jefferson’s tone in this letter in clearly influenced by John Locke, who wrote about natural social and property rights in his Second Treatise on Government. You can read Jefferson’s entire letter here.