The Importance of the Next Generation: Thomas Jefferson Grokked It

Stranger in a Strange Land, the science fiction novel in which Robert Heinlein coined the word “grok.” I use “grokked” here to mean “understood intuitively, to the core of his being.”

In my Christmas column, “That baby born in Bethlehem should inspire society to keep redeeming itself,” I point out how central the fact of generational replacement is to any attempt to influence the long-run future:

For those of us already in the second halves of our lives, the fact that the young will soon replace us gives rise to an important strategic principle: however hard it may seem to change misguided institutions and policies, all it takes to succeed in such an effort is to durably convince the young that there is a better way.

Thomas Jefferson understood this principle. Jack Rakove, writes in his book Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America (pp. 318-319):

Taken as a whole, Notes on the State of Virginia could profitably be read by any enlightened member of the international republic of letters that counted Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams among its citizens. But on the sensitive topics of constitutions and especially the nexus of slavery and race, Jefferson really did intend his thoughts for a generation younger than his own or even the cohort to which Madison, Monsroe, and the martyred John Laurens (children of the 1750s) belonged. In “the interesting spectacle of justice in conflict with avarice and oppression,” he wrote to the English radical Richard Price, he took heart “from the influx into office of young men grown and growing up. These have sucked in the principles of liberty with their mother’s milk, and it is to them I look with anxiety to turn the fate of this question.” Here again was an expression of Jefferson’s deep, even pioneering interest in the concept of a generation, the motif that recurs in his ideas of entail, inheritance, the use of public land, education, religion, and now emancipation. In effect he imagined the future of Virginia as a tale of two rising generations: one to be taught to let their bondsmen go, the other reared for freedom in some unknown Canaan.

Jack Rakove takes up the same theme a few pages earlier as well (pp. 307-308):

Here was another twist on Jefferson’s recurring concern with issues of inheritance, whether from parent to child or from one generation to the next. For Jefferson the concept of posterity was more than a vague reference to those who would come later. His schemes of education and religious freedom, like the abolition of primogeniture and entail and his plans for using public lands to sustain newly married couples, all rested on a concern with the legacy one generation bequeathed to another. That he would think of this in wartime, when the liberty his contemporaries were seeking remained at risk, was again a tribute to a view of the American future that was either wholly optimistic or terribly naive.

More on the Abolition of Entail: Here is more background on Thomas Jefferson’s view on entail (pp. 302,305):

The first [bill Jefferson proposed] on October 14, [1776,] was to abolish entail, a medieaval mode of inheritance that kept estates intact by prohibiting successive eldest heirs from subdividing the entailed property among their descendants. … 

… he was actively pondering the consequences of allowing a relatively small number of families to monopolize so much of the new state’s land.

One fruit of this concern was the act abolishing entail, which Jefferson ushered through the assembly in the fall of 1776. Its passage was uncontroversial because it enabled the gentry to dispose of their property as they wished.

Note that In the case of abolishing entail, moving in a libertarian direction could help move wealth distribution toward greater equality. However, the additional freedom of landholders to subdivide their land came at the cost of the freedom of their ancestors to prevent them from doing so.