The Rise of Private Property in America, Part 2
By Paul Cleveland
Read all of Part 1 here.
The development of the idea that the individual has natural rights coincided with the rise of the natural law philosophy. As the scientific method was being employed to discover all sorts of new principles that ordered nature, the idea spread that there is a fundamental nature to all things. Moreover, it was argued that the laws of nature were implanted by God and cannot be altered by human action. Based on this idea, writers looked for the fundamental nature of mankind, government, and economics. It was within this viewpoint that the concept of a social contract was advanced. The contract is not something that is written and signed onto. Rather, political philosophers argued that it is something that all people should recognize if they are to live in a peaceful community with one another. Put simply, it would be the recognition that one should not employ violence to achieve his personal ends. It is a view that God has so structured creation that all people ought to respect the lives of all other people, should not trespass on their property, leave them free to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and should keep their word and honor all their voluntary contracts. The growth in this philosophy in the 18th century set the stage for the American revolution and the rise of private property and free enterprise.
Despite the aims of the British government to maintain and extend control, appeals for freedom began to spread throughout the empire during this century. The Americans, especially, were captured by these thoughts. By necessity they had developed an independent spirit that was fundamental to their survival and advancement. In addition, a religious revival known as the Great Awakening took place in the early part of that century. It was led by men such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. It was a Protestant movement that stressed that God was supreme over all the affairs of mankind and no one was above Him. When this religious conviction was coupled with the concept of the natural rights of the individual person, Americans made a decisive change in how they viewed the world. It was a widely accepted doctrine that people have by nature certain rights as a gift of God. Most commonly these are stated as the right to life, liberty, and property. John Adams described the position this way:
This is not to say that all the American Founders cut themselves entirely loose from the older Mercantilist mindset. Alexander Hamilton, for one, remained a bit of a Mercantilist. In addition, there remained the problem of chattel slavery. In fact, as Frederic Bastiat would recognize in his classic book, The Law, the problems of slavery and protectionism always threatened the public peace in the United States. Moreover, anyone looking at American history during the 19th century will certainly find failures to apply the rule of private property law consistently. Nevertheless, it is to say that nowhere in human history had a nation been founded more securely in protecting the individual rights of life, liberty, and property. It was this commitment that set the stage for the rapid economic expansion of the nation. People had been largely set free to produce property and accumulate wealth in a fashion that had never before been possible. This is a message that desperately needs to be articulated in the nation today as so many people express a willingness to give up freedom for material security. Of course, if the nation does this, it will lose both freedom and security.
[i] George A. Peek, Jr., ed., The Political Writings of John Adams (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1954), p. 96.
Paul A. Cleveland is a Professor of Economics and Finance at Birmingham-Southern College.