“another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise.”

-Thomas Jefferson, 1786

Resources ... The Idea ... Making the Idea a Reality ... Legacy


"But, the consequences of this enormous inequality! It produces so much misery to the bulk of mankind that legislators cannot invent too many devices subdividing property."
-Thomas Jefferson, 1785

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A Closer Look

The Idea

Jefferson understood that for a republic such as the Unites States to work, everyone must share in its rights, responsibilities, and benefits. He believed “artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth” was a threat to the American experiment in representative government. 

If the wealth gap grew too large, Jefferson feared the shared sense of responsibilities and benefits might collapse, threatening the downfall of self-government. Promoting the pursuit of individual wealth while preventing its disproportionate accumulation, particularly when inherited or unearned, proved an elusive goal for Jefferson and his political allies.

Paradoxically, wealth and its disparities were on full display at Monticello.

“As long as Property exists, it will accumulate in Individuals and Families. Accumulations of it will be made, the Snowball will grow as it rolls.”
- John Adams 1814

Making the Idea a Reality

The Path to Eliminate Disparity?
The Path to Eliminate Disparity?


Enslaved Consumers

Enslaved people were able to acquire material goods through small incomes but government systems prevented them from acquiring multi-generational wealth.

The imbalance of power when economic benefits go only to the few is an ongoing challenge to the nation.

Wealth and Its Disparities Timeline

Click image for a timeline illustrating wealth and its disparities at Monticello and the history of the United States.

The Legacy

Jefferson feared that great wealth inequality would threaten to destroy the nation, creating class differences that would overwhelm the shared commitment to the rights, responsibilities, and benefits at the core of the American republic’s design. Although the nature of wealth has changed, wealth and its disparities remain an unresolved challenge to the American experiment in self-government.


Wealth Inequality

This video from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis illustrates the disparities in how wealth is distributed within America.

Thrivers and Strugglers

This video from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis explores the demographics of wealth, with a focus on race and ethnicity.

Moving Forward

“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” -Frederick Douglass, 1886

A Civic Engagement Initiative sponsored by and in collaboration with The New York Community Trust – The Peter G. Peterson FundPeterson Foundation Logo