Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Picketty

In the earlier times of the colony, when lands were to be obtained for little or nothing, some provident individuals procured large grants; and, desirous of founding great families for themselves, settled them on their descendants in fee tail. The transmission of this property from generation to generation, in the same name, raised up a distinct set of families, who, being privileged by law in the perpetuation of their wealth, were thus formed into a Patrician order, distinguished by the splendor and luxury of their establishments. From this order, too, the king habitually selected his counsellors of State; the hope of which distinction devoted the whole corps to the interests and will of the crown. To annul this privilege, and instead of an aristocracy of wealth, of more harm and danger, than benefit, to society, to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent, which nature has wisely provided for the direction of the interests of society, and scattered with equal hand through all its conditions, was deemed essential to a well-ordered republic.

Thomas Jefferson, recalling his own Bill for the Abolition of Entails, August 11, 1776

Thomas Picketty has become the world’s best-selling economist with a simple argument. Normally, he says, the people who own capital not only become richer (which would helpfully encourage investment), but their wealth grows consistently faster than the economy. Thus, even if they lounge around–even if they fall into comas–their share of GDP will grow, giving them disproportionate political as well as economic influence. That pattern was suspended for most of the 20th century but is now returning.

Picketty has been called Marxist and anti-American, but Thomas Jefferson shared his concerns. In colonial Virginia, capital took the form of land and slaves. Some of the earlier settlers had put their families on course to dominate the colony by writing wills that passed their estates to their first-born sons and prevented their land from being sold or divided. Since the British were blocking westward expansion, holding together a large estate meant gaining a growing share of the colony’s wealth as the population expanded. Jefferson thought this was a recipe for an “aristocracy of wealth” that was incompatible with republican government. He passed bills to abolish the “entails” that kept family estates from splitting.

Scholars seem to disagree about the economic and social consequences of his legislation. But he saw his own bills as radical efforts and as components of a multi-pronged strategy:

I considered 4 of these bills, passed or reported, as forming a system by which every fibre would be eradicated of antient or future aristocracy; and a foundation laid for a government truly republican. The repeal of the laws of entail would prevent the accumulation and perpetuation of wealth in select families, and preserve the soil of the country from being daily more & more absorbed in Mortmain. The abolition of primogeniture, and equal partition of inheritances removed the feudal and unnatural distinctions which made one member of every family rich, and all the rest poor, substituting equal partition, the best of all Agrarian laws. The restoration of the rights of conscience relieved the people from taxation for the support of a religion not theirs; for the establishment was truly of the religion of the rich, the dissenting sects being entirely composed of the less wealthy people; and these, by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government: and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen. To these too might be added, as a further security, the introduction of the trial by jury, into the Chancery courts, which have already ingulfed and continue to ingulf, so great a proportion of the jurisdiction over our property.

Jefferson certainly should have favored (instead of opposed) the abolition of slavery. But note his explicit class theory; his concern with “future” as well as “antient” aristocracy; and his willingness to use a combination of economic, cultural, legal/governmental, and educational strategies to produce the “foundation … for a government truly republican.” I think the nation’s third president would view today’s proposals for combatting oligarchy as but weak and tentative.

See also: why is oligarchy everywhere? and why is oligarchy everywhere? (part 2).

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.