The preceding material demonstrates the existence of highly developed systems of intergenerational political theory to which the framers of the United States Constitution had access. However, crucial questions remain to be addressed: To what extent did the founders embrace these philosophic traditions? To what extent did they intend that these traditions and ideas to inform the new government?
The founders occupied a unique period in history, a recognizable cusp between one age and the next. Their exceptional
circumstances required them on at least two occasions to closely examine their relationship with prior and later
generations. First, during the Revolution and the years leading up to it, they were compelled to explain, both
to themselves and to the world as a whole, the circumstances which justified one generation's separation from
the government of its ancestors. f90
Next, subsequent to the revolution, as the founders set out to frame new state constitutions and an even more
ambitious "Novus Ordo Seclorum" f91,
their tasks again demanded that they contemplate the effects of their actions upon posterity. f92
What considerations must they show to later generations? What duties could they reasonably hope to impose upon
those same generations? To what extent might such considerations and duties be dependent upon one another? These
themes are explored endlessly in documents of the period. The founders made it perfectly clear -- in their speeches
and correspondence, and in the language of the Constitution they wrought -- that a legitimate government must
equitably balance the interests of both earlier and later generations.
During the difficult trials of the revolution, the colonists' concern for future generations strengthened their resolve. George Mason wrote to General Washington in April, 1776, "May God . . . be pleased to inspire us with spirit & resolution, to bear our present & future Sufferings, becoming Men determined to transmit to our Posterity, unimpair'd, the Blessings we have received from our Ancestors!" f93 In the revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense, Thomas Paine suggested that, "In order to discover the line of our duty rightly, we should take our children in our hand, and fix our station a few years farther into life; and that eminence will present a prospect which a few present fears and prejudices conceal from our sight." f94
Common Sense also included a cogent, intergenerational challenge to the institution of hereditary monarchy. Because no one generation could rightfully presume to install a leader to rule the citizens of a later generation, Paine said, "monarchy is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, and hereditary succession . . . an insult and an imposition on posterity." f95
During the constitutional convention, intergenerational concerns were reiterated frequently. Roger Sherman noted that, in drafting a constitution, the framers were "providing for our posterity, for our children and our grandchildren . . .." f96 Madison stressed that, "In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce." f97 George Mason, writing to his son at commencement of the convention, reflected:
"[T]o view, thro the calm sedate Medium of Reason, the Influence which the Establishments now proposed may have upon the Happiness or Misery of Millions yet unborn, is an Object of such Magnitude, as absorbs, & in a Manner suspends the Operations of human Understanding." f98
Later, during the ratification debates, similar sentiments would find expression in the arguments of both
federalists f99 and antifederalists.
Such generalized intergenerational concern accorded perfectly with the dominant moral philosophies of the time. David Hume stressed that future ills are "never the less real for being remote," f101 and Immanuel Kant maintained that "human nature is such that it cannot be indifferent even to the most remote epoch which may eventually affect our species, so long as this epoch may be expected with certainty." f102
| Source documents:
Library of Congress, Constitution, Declaration of Independence, Historical Documents
U.S. Constitution, from Cornell Law School
U.S. Constitution - Emory University
U.S. Constitution, National Archives and Records Administration
Federalist Papers, from Yale Law School.