Someone on my Facebook fan page asked about a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison on October 28, 1785. The person said his leftist friends were waving this letter around as evidence that Jefferson was some kind of semi-socialist wealth redistributionist. I contacted my friend Marco Bassani, professor at the University of Milan and author of the excellent book Liberty, State, and Union: The Political Theory of Thomas Jefferson. One of the major points in that book is that Jefferson was in fact a Lockean natural-rights thinker who conceived of property rights as natural, not conventional (i.e., government-granted).
Here’s the letter in question, and what follows is Professor Bassani’s reply.
First of all one has to understand that Thomas Jefferson was not Locke, Hobbes, or Marx: inconsistencies are to be found here and there, especially in private correspondence. His correspondence with Madison in particular is full of these things. The letter is TJ to James Madison, 28 Oct. 1785, Papers 8:681-82.
He is writing from Paris to his friend Madison, whom he believes to be too conservative.
He meets a poor woman and gives her some money for telling him directions. “This little attendrissement, with the solitude of my walk led me into a train of reflections on that unequal division of property which occasions the numberless instances of wretchedness which I had observed in this country and is to be observed all over Europe” [emphasis added]. He is not talking about the U.S., or speaking in general. He just sees the Revolution coming and speculates about wealth. Thus:
The property of this country is absolutely concentered in a very few hands…. But after all these comes the most numerous of all the classes, that is, the poor who cannot find work. I asked myself what could be the reason that so many should be permitted to beg who are willing to work, in a country where there is a very considerable proportion of uncultivated lands? These lands are kept idle mostly for the aske of game. It should seem then that it must be because of the enormous wealth of the proprietors which places them above attention to the increase of their revenues by permitting these lands to be laboured.
Nothing socialist so far.
I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. The descent of property of every kind therefore to all the children, or to all the brothers and sisters, or other relations in equal degree is a politic measure, and a practicable one.
This is the only measure he actually always and consistently favored.
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.
Jefferson is stating a means, not saying he agrees with such an extreme measure. In fact, he always opposed it, having written that the tax system must “be equally and fairly applied to all. To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare [give] to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, ‘the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry, and the fruits acquired by it.’ If the overgrown wealth of an individual be deemed dangerous to the State, the best corrective is the law of equal inheritance to all [of his kin] in equal degree; and the better, as this enforces a law of nature, while extra-taxation violates it.” (Thomas Jefferson, Note in Destutt de Tracy’s Political Economy, 1816.)
To continue with Jefferson’s letter to Madison:
Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on. If, for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be furnished to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not the fundamental right to labour the earth returns to the unemployed. It is too soon yet in our country to say that every man who cannot find employment but who can find uncultivated land, shall be at liberty to cultivate it, paying a moderate rent. But it is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.
All this is a revisit of John Locke, especially the “Lockean proviso” we find in Locke’s Second Treatise. In the state of nature, Locke held, a stringent condition that must be met in order for the acquisition of previously unowned property to be considered just was that following the appropriation, there must be “at least…enough, and as good left in common for others.” Thus Locke:
As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property…. God and his reason commanded him to subdue the earth—i.e., improve it for the benefit of life and therein lay out something upon it that was his own, his labour. He that, in obedience to this command of God, subdued, tilled, and sowed any part of it, thereby annexed to it something that was his property, which another had no title to, nor could without injury take from him.
Taken at face value, the Lockean proviso would result in a complete prohibition of appropriation in the state of nature. As Murray Rothbard has pointed out, “Locke’s proviso may lead to the outlawry of all private ownership of land, since one can always say that the reduction of available land leaves everyone else, who could have appropriated the land, worse off.”
Jefferson’s assertions concerning land and the sovereignty of the present generation is nothing more than an extension of the limits on exploitation set by Locke. Putting property to good use (a prohibition against waste) and the Lockean proviso (appropriation of goods without causing a deterioration in the condition of others) are restrictions that hold in the relations between generations.
Generations stand facing one another, as do whole nations or individuals in the state of nature. Therefore, the law of nature regulates their relations. It is the duty of a generation to leave land “enough and as good” for the following generations. This is evidently an extension of the proviso, because the properties are the same. One’s own successors do not enjoy a generic right to unexplored lands, but to the specific property already owned by their parents. Just as the new generations have the right to get property that is not burdened with debts, so also the “others,” those who do not participate in that specific appropriation, have exactly the same right to enjoy land “enough and as good” in the Lockean state of nature. Similarly, property cannot be exploited and destroyed, jeopardizing the future of the coming generations. Waste is not countenanced by the law of nature.
The sovereignty of the present generation can thus be defined as the right to receive a world in which the present has not been mortgaged by the ancestors. Every nineteen years, according to Jefferson’s calculations (which were based on the mortality tables formulated by Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon), a generation comes into the world. This generation has the right to a fresh start, whereas the one that preceded it had the duty not to destroy the world in which the present generation must live. It is a radical Lockean outlook, not a pseudosocialist one.