This paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association in Quebec, June 4, 1952. Published in The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, Vol. XVIII, no. 3, Aug., 1952



United College

There is a famous admonition in Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France: "Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little, shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour."1 Thomas Spence, William Ogilvie, and Thomas Paine, whom I have chosen to call the English agrarians and with whose ideas this paper is concerned, were among those whom Burke dismissed in this manner. I believe he did them less than justice. It is true that while Paine has achieved a stature considerably greater than that of "an insect of the hour," Spence and Ogilvie remain names -- unknown names at that -- on a crowded roster of minor political thinkers; and in presuming to advance their status, I bear in mind the comment of a reviewer who has referred to the interest "shown in the words and speeches of millenarian pamphleteers, who are often bloated into veritable Platos or premature Marxes."2 I hope to avoid the pitfall of exaggeration. Yet I am convinced they merit more attention than they have hitherto received if only because they, alone among their contemporaries, recognized the outstanding social and economic problem of their time and made it the starting-point of their speculation.


I must first attempt a brief sketch of the setting of their ideas. The problem with which Spence, Ogilvie, and to a lesser extent Paine, were concerned was the changing structure of rural society during the period 1775-1815, for which the enclosure movement had been largely responsible. Enclosure had been going on since the early sixteenth century; what was new in this period was not the fact of enclosure but the extent to which it was carried out. This in turn was the result of several new factors. One was that government policy, hitherto hostile to enclosure (as under the Tudors) or indifferent (as under the Stuarts), was now (under the Hanovers) actively in favour of it, the landowners using the machinery of Parliament to enclose land by Private Bills. Another was the growing profitability of large-scale farming, due to the development of new agricultural techniques. A third and less tangible factor was what the Hammonds have called the "special lustre" of "signorial position,"3 the estate becoming not merely a livelihood but a symbol of power and prestige; and the larger the estate, the more effective the symbol. By this time, too, there had appeared a new type of landowner: one new to the countryside and more often than not ignorant of traditional concepts of stewardship and duty; one who regarded farming as subject to the same rules as any other commercial enterprise.4 As a result of all these factors, English rural society underwent a sudden and far-reaching transformation. Most of those who had owned or rented land in the form of small holdings were forced by rising costs and rents to give them up to the practitioners of the new agriculture; while those who depended on customary rights -- cottagers and squatters -- found themselves deprived of their livelihood as their commons were enclosed and their rights set aside.

The prevailing climate of opinion was highly favourable to those who profited by these developments. The political philosophy of John Locke, with its justification of a practically unlimited right to private property over which the state stood guard; the economic and metaphysical doctrines of Adam Smith, in which the economy was a divinely regulated mechanism incapable of error; the less tangible impact of a new ethic, which made entrepreneurial success the mark of godliness, and poverty God's retribution for individual turpitude; and, somewhat later, the demonstration by Malthus that social reform could only sharpen the predicament of the poor -- these were the facets of an ideology which provided the landowners with ample justification for any antisocial results of their activities.

The force of these doctrines may be traced in scores of tracts and pamphlets dealing with enclosure and related agrarian problems. Perhaps the most explicit statement of the creed of the new landowners is in Edmund Burke's Thoughts and Details on Scarcity (1795). To the squire of Beaconsfield, "a greater and more ruinous mistake cannot be fallen into, than that the trades of agriculture and grazing can be conducted upon any other than the common principles of commerce; namely, that the producer should be permitted, and even expected, to look to all possible profit, which, without fraud or violence, he can make; to turn plenty or scarcity to the best advantage he can; to keep back or to bring forward his commodities at his pleasure; to account to no one for his stock or for his gain."5 This could hardly be more opposed to the traditional view of the responsibilities of landownership, as expressed in the words of an anonymous pamphleteer of the time: "The farmer, more than those who follow other occupations in life, is the servant of the public, because his business is to cultivate and bring forward the fruit of the earth . . . in which we all have an inherent and inalienable right, a right superior to all human institutions, for it comes from God who . . . has so formed the human frame that it cannot subsist without a constant supply of the earth's produce."6

To assert the landowners' right to apply commercial principles to farming was one way of serving their interests; to deny that the exercise of this right caused distress was another. Thus Arthur Young, that celebrated chronicler of the English country-side, affirmed of the rural poor: "Unconscious, because ignorant, of their comparative happiness, they listen but too readily to the insidious tale, which, turning their eye from every pleasing object of their situation, directs it to blemishes alone, and often points out as resulting from political institutions, evils which flow but too naturally from the depravity of man."7 "It is the undoubted and genuine interest of all the lower classes to keep things as they are, because every change is for the worse."8 This may well have been a sincere opinion; the same cannot be said of Hannah More's Village Politics (1792), a piece of frank propaganda designed as a sedative for rural discontent. Addressed to "all the Mechanics, Journeymen, and Day Labourers in Great Britain," its object was to instruct them in the blessings of their condition and the benevolence of their employers. A short quotation may impart some of its flavour: "Now, in this Village," (asks the landowners' protagonist of his wayward companion who has imbibed "levelling" doctrines), "what should we do without the Castle? Tho' my Lady is too rantipolish, and flies about all summer to hot water and cold water, and fresh water and salt water, when she ought to stay home with Sir John; yet, when she does come down, she brings such a deal of gentry that I have more horses than I can shoe, and my wife more linen than she can wash. . . ."9

As it became increasingly difficult to convince the poor that all was well, the existence of social distress was grudgingly admitted; but it was denied that the new agriculture was in any way to blame. The work of Septimus Hodson, one of many clergymen turned pamphleteers on behalf of their squires, illustrates a common explanation: suffering is attributed to the inscrutable ways of the Deity and is thus beyond man's power to remedy. "Let me not be understood to insinuate in the most distant fashion," he proclaimed on one occasion, "that the present distress originates with, or is kept up by, the crimes of monopoly. . . . The radical cause of the calamity is to be traced in the visitations of Providence."10 "Individual property, envious as we sometimes are of its magnitude, is of great public advantage, as it secures the best possible supply of the comforts and necessities of life to the community at large."11 To use the facilities of the state to help the poor by taxing landowners he considered "an unavailing and impolitic infringement of the great natural right of all men to reap the utmost fruits of their own property."12 Another popular explanation blamed the poor themselves for their plight. The members of An Association for Preserving Liberty and Property Against Republicans and Levellers recorded in their Proceedings: "It appears from History and Observation that the Inequality of rank and fortune in this happy Country, is more the result of every man's own exertions, than of any controlling institutions of the State";13 while William Sabatier, a successful farmer of the new era, maintained in his Treatise on Poverty (1797) that "if the poor continue in this [critical] situation, it is no fault of the constitution of the country; but in general their want of saving and industry."14

There were, of course, those who protested against the more flagrant abuses of the new agriculture; but the remedies they proposed show that they had little understanding of the changes taking place. They urged a return to traditional conceptions of landownership; they did not see how thoroughly unrealistic such a demand had become. It was in vain that writers like William Donaldson asked landowners "to remember that every man blessed with an estate is a fiduciary to God, that he holds his fortune in trust for the benefit of his fellow creatures. . . .";15 or that Thomas Gisborne described a good landlord as one "who regulates his life by principles of duty," and who does not "depopulate the country, and turn multitudes of industrious poor adrift, by converting half a parish into an immense sheep-walk . . . nor by combining many small farms into a few of great size."16 By the end of the century, such a landlord no longer existed. A contemporary thus described the type that took his place: "I have now in view," he wrote, "a fatal instance of the baneful effects of this species of monopoly [in land]. I know a village whose lands, some few years ago, were occupied by eight or ten farmers, each possessing his little allotment. . . . Today, all these farms are in the hands of one man; and these very men who so long had cultivated these lands on their own accounts . . . are now slaves to the man in power." "Surely that is hard! . . . but when I add, that this avaricious monopolizer already rented lands to the amount of one thousand pounds per annum, when he solicited and obtained these additional farms, the impolicy and barbarity of such despicable conduct, must strike everyone who considers the subject."17 Such incidents occurred in thousands and could not properly be dismissed as of no consequence; nor as beyond human control; nor as the fault of the victims; nor, for that matter, as the personal responsibility of the landowners. One of the merits of the three thinkers whose ideas I now propose to examine was to have arrived, in various ways, at this conclusion.


The curious career of Thomas Spence (1750-1814) began when, as a young man in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, he happened to witness an enclosure with a decidedly unusual outcome. Civic officials had enclosed a portion of the Town Common, dividing its rent among themselves; but those whose customary rights were threatened took the matter to court, where their rights and the land were restored to them together with the rents already collected, with which they proceeded to construct a number of charitable projects. This event, according to a friend, "struck Mr. Spence very forcibly, and was in fact the origin of his system."18 Soon after, in 1775, Spence read a paper to the Newcastle Philosophical Society expounding the principles which he subsequently elaborated but never changed, for "printing of which," as he wrote later, "the Society did the Author the honour to expel him."19 Finding few converts and somewhat less than a living wage, he left Newcastle for London in 1792, hoping to win the city's radicals to his cause. To that end, he joined the London Corresponding Society; he set up a bookstall where he sold copies of his pamphlets; and he founded and edited for three years a penny weekly called Pig's Meat, or, Lessons for the Swinish Multitude. (Burke's indiscreet phrase was a boon to not a few of his opponents.) He conceived and executed the idea of striking coins and tokens with designs and mottoes illustrating his thought -- a medium hardly suitable for the exposition of political philosophy, yet effective enough that a journal of the time complained, "On Spence's coins may be traced the republican politics of enemies of the present government."20 These activities brought down upon him the heavy hand of the Pitt Administration. In 1794 he was imprisoned for seven months without a trial. A shorter confinement followed in 1798. In 1801 he was again arrested and given his first and only trial, which he exploited to the full. During his three-hour defence, conducted by himself, he read his squirming jury long extracts from his own works and others, including Harrington's Oceana; he was promptly pronounced guilty and sentenced to a year in jail despite the comment of a newspaper that "the Bethlehem Hospital would have been a better place."21 His final years were spent, like the rest of his life, in ceaseless and unrewarded labour to get his ideas accepted. The Luddite disturbances of 1811-12 encouraged him to reorganize a study and fraternal society under the name of the Spencean Philanthropists, which achieved sufficient notoriety to preoccupy both Houses of Parliament for many hours in 1816-17.22 His last project was to found a new weekly, The Giant-Killer, or Anti-Landlord, three issues of which appeared before his death in 1814.

The essence of Spence's thought is contained in the short paper read in Newcastle in 1775, to which he gave the title "On the Mode of Administering the Landed Estate of the Nation as a Joint Stock Property in Parochial Partnership by Dividing the Rent." Its opening paragraphs inquire "whether mankind in society reap all the advantages from their natural and equal rights of property in land and liberty, which in that state they may and ought to expect."23 Spence assumes "that property in land and liberty among men in a state of nature ought to be equal" and that the law of nature prescribed that men should retain these rights in civil society as well (p. 5); this easy assumption indicates both the flexibility and the weakness of natural law theory. Land and its produce, then, are essential to human survival; to deny men their use is "in effect denying them a right to live" (p. 6). "Hence," he concludes, "it is plain that the land or earth, in any country or neighbourhood, . . . belongs at all times to the living inhabitants of the said country or neighbourhood in an equal manner" (pp. 6-7). This is the initial premise of Spence's thought. Private property originated, Spence believes, in antiquity, when the seizure of communal property by a few unscrupulous individuals deprived their fellows of their rightful share. Their descendants came to look upon these acquisitions as their legitimate property to dispose of as they wished without regard to the needs of the community. So it came about that "no man, more than any other creature, could claim a right to so much as a blade of grass, or a nut or an acorn, a fish or a fowl, or any natural production whatsoever, though to save his life, without the permission of the intended proprietor" (p. 8). The last and most degrading step was when men themselves came to be regarded as the property of their employers, indistinguishable from the animals who grazed on their land. The landowners, "by granting the means of life . . . granted the life itself; and of course, they thought they had a right to all the services and advantages that the life or death of the creatures they gave life to could yield" (p. 8). They maintained their hold by controlling the essentials of life; they extended it by shaping political and social institutions to their own needs (p. 9). Thus was liberty stifled, and man's humanity ignored.

Spence next considers "a system whereby they [mankind] may reap more advantages consistent with the nature of society" (p. 10). First, all men must be convinced of their natural right to equal property in land; only then can the new society be born. That condition fulfilled, the people are to meet in each parish and form themselves into a corporation which owns the land. Each parish corporation thus assumes the functions previously performed by landowners. It is not to sell its property, however, nor redistribute it in any way; instead, it retains possession of the land, renting out its property "according to the quantity, quality, and conveniences" thereof (p. 15). Spence insists on public ownership (instead of embracing the more obvious solution of an enforced division of property among small holders) because he feels that no man, however well-intentioned, can properly fulfil the obligations of land-ownership in an age of commerce. If peasant and landlord could change places, the former would soon exhibit the hated characteristics of the latter. Any redistribution of land among private owners would be self-defeating, as the strongest and most crafty would wrest their weaker fellows' shares from them; or else "in prolific families the estates would be divided and subdivided, till they were frittered away to nothing, while other families by decreasing in number, would grow rich by concentrated estates, creating thereby inequality in landed fortunes, and of consequence in rights and privileges."24 For these reasons, the parish is to be the landlord of everyone, rich and poor alike. Those able to pay the highest rent can lease the best and greatest amount of property; the new society is not strictly equalitarian. Yet Spence firmly believes that the old disparities between rich and poor will none the less disappear. For one thing, the greater the rent collected by the parish, the better it will be able to provide relief for the poor, the sick, and the aged; indeed, Spence later has the happy thought that after the expenses of administration have been deducted from incoming revenues, there will be a surplus which he proposes to distribute among the people as a quarterly dividend. For another, he expressly stipulates that parish policy ought to prevent individual tenants from renting excessively large holdings if this is detrimental to the public interest. Finally, he is convinced that once the land has been brought under public control the acquisitive instincts of mankind will disappear, and "people will desire no more than they can . . . make use of."25

The remainder of the work is devoted to details of organization on which Spence lavishes the care and attention characteristic of all Utopian thinkers. The constitution of the new society is to be completely democratic, based upon full adult suffrage and the secret ballot. To encourage local responsibility and initiative, each parish is to be sovereign over its own territory, subject to one important qualification: "The power of alienating the least morsel, in any manner, from the parish either at this or any time hereafter is denied. . . . A Parish that shall either sell or give away any part of its landed property, shall be looked upon with as much horror and detestation . . . as if they had sold all their children to be slaves, or massacred them with their own hands" (p. 11). There is a national congress composed of elected representatives of the parishes, whose function it is to deal with violators of this fundamental law and to iron out interparochial disputes. Spence is astute enough to see that in a society based on the public ownership of the principal form of wealth, bureaucracy will be an ever-present danger; hence there are to be "no more persons employed . . . either about the government or parishes, than are absolutely necessary; and their salaries . . . just sufficient to maintain them suitably to their offices" (p. 15). In conclusion he expresses the hope that "other nations, struck with wonder and admiration . . . shall follow the example; and thus the whole earth shall at last be happy and live like brethren" (p. 16).

It is easy to dismiss Spence and his views as hopelessly impractical, and I shall not discuss the many reasons why Spence's commonwealth, if it could ever be established, would quickly collapse. Here I wish only to comment briefly upon his fundamental belief, namely, that "the landed interest and the government are always one and the same."26 This proposition is by no means original with Spence; it receives its fullest elaboration in James Harrington's Oceana to which he was greatly indebted. Spenee's achievement was to resurrect Harrington's principle and to apply it to the political situation of his own time. He was profoundly disturbed by the failure of other radicals to perceive what he regarded to be the vital interconnection between agrarian and political reform. "It is amazing," he wrote, "that Paine and the other democrats should level all their Artillery at Kings, without striking like Spence at the very root of every abuse and of every grievance."27 To rely on universal suffrage as a remedy was to overlook the immense advantage which the landowners had in any political contest; monopoly in land conferred a monopoly of leisure, and leisure was a prerequisite of an effective political party. "The perpetual influx of wealth by their rents without toil or study," he wrote, "leaves them at full liberty and leisure to plot, and supplies them also with the means of fighting successfully against the interests of the working part of the community, and turning their labours to their own advantage"; but "must not all the rest of the world do something for their bread?"28 Spence was thus sceptical that political reform alone could remedy the plight of the rural poor; and at that time his scepticism was not wholly misplaced. But like Harrington before him, Spence over-estimated the importance of landed property. "When wealth cannot be rooted and fixed in land," he wrote, "it is of a fluctuating and evaporating nature"; the private ownership of other forms of capital did not disturb him, provided that "the public alone in all generations . . . be landlord."29 To say that property in land at all times and in all places confers political power upon its owners is obviously historically unsound; yet in England at the end of the eighteenth century, the relation between landownership and political power was intimate indeed.30 This much, at least, Spence perceived; that he was led into a shallow determinism it would be useless to deny. He was wrong, too, in thinking that the abolition of private property in land would achieve democracy and social justice as a matter of course; but he lacked the experience of later times to show him that public ownership of land or anything else is no panacea for troubled humanity.


Whereas Spence was a poverty-stricken, unschooled agitator, William Ogilvie (1736-1819) was a well-to-do scholar, one of the narrow circle of Scottish landowners, and an accomplished agriculturalist. His life's work was not that of a farmer, however, but that of a professor at King's College, Aberdeen, where he made a reputation as a man of great integrity and erudition. The land problem in Scotland, which Ogilvie approached with the detachment of a scholar rather than the fervour of an agitator, differed in some respects from the situation in England;31 but the social repercussions of monopoly, high rents, a growing population, and the vagaries of climate were if anything more severe than in the south, the problem being solved only by mass emigration of as many as 80,000 persons a year. Ogilvie's analysis of this problem is set down in a lengthy treatise called An Essay on the Right of Property in Land,82 which had an indifferent reception. Godwin quoted a portion of it in his Political Justice, remarking that "the reasonings of this author have sometimes considerable merit, though he has by no means gone to the source of the evil";33 Sir James Mackintosh found it "full of benevolence and ingenuity, but not the work of a man experienced in the difficult art of realizing projects for the good of mankind";34 while the economist J. R. McCulloch dismissed it as "not impracticable only, but mischievous . . . false, shallow, and sophistical."35

Ogilvie's experience as a scientific farmer convinced him that misery and poverty were unnecessary. "There is no natural obstacle," he declared, "to prevent the most barren ground from being brought by culture to the same degree of fertility with the kitchen garden of a villa or the suburbs of a great town."36 Why was this not done? "The chief obstacle," wrote Ogilvie, "is plainly that monopoly of land which resides in the proprietors, and which the commercial system of the age has taught them to exercise with artful strictness almost everywhere" (p. 54). Once, the interests of the peasant were looked after by the "affectionate sympathy of the chief of his clan"; now, "in the commercial state . . . his lord has hardly any obvious interest but to squeeze his industry as much as he can" (p. 80). Private property as such was not to blame; the cause was monopoly, the abuse of private property. The remedy, therefore, was not public ownership but some form of redistribution. There is little venom in Ogilvie's work; what there is is reserved not for the landowners as a group but for the "grasping monopolists" among them who had abdicated their function as the potential liberators of humanity from the degradation of hunger and unemployment. To monopoly in land Ogilvie attributes all the evils of rural society: absentee landlords, dispossession, indiscriminate enclosure, inefficiency, and an impoverished and undernourished labour force. "All these untoward circumstances, which take place in most countries in Europe . . . may be traced to a few men, never in any country exceeding one-hundredth part of the community" (p. 59). Monopoly not only causes these evils; it also prevents their cure. The economic power of the landowners enables them to work their will in courts and legislatures, opposing demands for land reform, and attempting to block emigration in order to retain the supply of cheap labour (p. 75).

The next stage in Ogilvie's argument was to show that monopoly in land is contrary both to the principles of natural justice and to public utility. To support the former contention, he turned to John Locke, from whom he derived the revolutionary implication, doubtless unintended, that "the earth having been given to mankind in common occupancy, each individual seems to have by nature a right to possess and cultivate an equal share" (p. 36). He cited the proposition (laid down by "Mr. Locke on Government, p. 167 of Mr. Hollis's edition") that "God gave the earth in common to all men, but since he gave it for their benefit, and the greatest conveniences of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot be supposed that He meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it for the use of the industrious and rational; and labour was to be his title to it" (p. 37). Ogilvie stressed, however, that this did not justify the acquisition of land to the point where "millions willing to employ themselves in rendering the earth more fertile" were excluded from ownership. This would be wastage, which Locke's formulation (he believed) expressly forbade and which would have been contrary to the "birthright which every citizen still retains" to an equal share in the original value of landed property. It followed that every state and community "ought in justice to reserve for all its citizens the opportunities of entering upon, or returning to, and resuming this their birthright and natural employment, whenever they are inclined to do so" (p. 38).

If the principles of natural justice forbade monopoly in land, so did "public utility." Ogilvie stated the utilitarian theory of the state with precision: "The increase of public happiness is the true primary object which ought to claim the attention of every state" (p. 48). Because those who own their own land "are known to excel in strength, comeliness, and good health, every other class of men in civilized nations" it follows that public happiness can best be augmented by "increasing the number of independent cultivators" (p. 51). And the number of independent cultivators will be the greatest in that country in which "each individual of mature age shall be possessed of an equal share of the soil" (p. 52).

Ogilvie thus appears to have set the stage for "levelling" proposals of the most thoroughgoing variety. But this was far from his intention; he sharply qualified this radical analysis by introducing another right to property in land, the right of the present owners (as distinct from the right of all men) to the improvements they have made in their estates. There are thus two rights to property in land, both sanctioned by natural law: the right which all men possess to an equal share in the earth in its original, uncultivated condition, and the right of the present owners to the increased value (or "improved value," as Ogilvie called it) which their labour, enterprise, and skill have created. Since in every advanced agricultural economy the value of land is the sum of the original and improved values, the problem arises of how these may be distinguished so that both rights may be satisfied. As a matter of principle, Ogilvie believed that the right of all men to an equal share in the original value of the land is more fundamental than the right of the present owners to the improved value, and ought to be satisfied first. Yet a sound agrarian policy will neglect neither the one nor the other, since "on the first . . . depends the freedom and prosperity of the lower ranks, [and] on the second, the perfection of the art of agriculture and the improvement of the common stock and wealth of the community" (p. 41). Addressing himself to the problem of reconciling these interests, Ogilvie defined yet another value of land, its improvable value: "that further value which it may still receive from future cultivation and improvement" (p. 43). Since this is purely a potential value and not the creation of the present owners, it is to be returned, together with the original value, to all men in fulfilment of their birthright. But before this can be done the amounts of the original, improved, and improvable values must be calculated. Ogilvie's attempts to do this are arbitrary in the extreme and it would be tedious to discuss them; but it is only fair to point out that he fully recognized the difficulties involved. Assuming, however, that it is possible to decide how much land (or its equivalent value) is to be returned to the people and how much may be retained by the present owners, by what method can this be done? One way is to make a clean sweep of the existing system of land tenure. This could occur, Ogilvie thought, when new colonies are founded or when "conquering princes, and great revolutions effected by the force of arms" appear; at such times a leader "has it in his power . . . to re-establish . . . the inherent rights of mankind, and the system of natural justice, with regard to the property of the soil" (p. 82). For this reason he regarded the French Revolution "with a mixed sentiment of joy and dread," and cherished "the hope of some favorable result . . . of the transcendental talents of Buonaparte";37 and he saw in Frederick the Great a man "to whose magnanimity and talents a complete and total reformation of the system of landed property might be thought no unequal task" (p. 87).38 Ogilvie does not discuss the nature of such a total reformation, but he appears to have thought of an equal distribution of property among all the people where a new colony was founded, and of a distribution of part of the landed estates where an established system was reformed.

Ogilvie did not pin all his hopes on a clean sweep of existing institutions by some enlightened despot. In contrast to the doctrinaire attitude of Spence, Ogilvie was willing to compromise his principles at any time if a measure of reform could thereby be achieved. He was most inventive in outlining ad hoc, piecemeal reforms ranging from a tax on land to the abolition of primogeniture. The proposal by which he set most store was a law, "not unfitly denominated a progressive Agrarian," under which any man who does not already own land is "entitled to claim from the public a certain portion, not exceeding forty acres, to be assigned to him in perpetuity" (p. 92). If public land was insufficient for this purpose, private owners would be compelled to lease out to claimants portions of their holdings at rents determined by an impartial tribunal, the difference between such rents and those charged by landlords in the normal course of events to approximate the tenant's right to an equal share in the original and improvable value of the land. Such a plan, Ogilvie thought, had the merit of flexibility and moderation, and could be introduced as an evolutionary reform rather than in the special circumstances of revolution or conquest. Ogilvie's preferred remedy is thus little more than a system of peasant proprietorship based on state rent control, moderate enough considering the radical analysis of property on which he rested his argument. It is futile to speculate whether it would have been effective. Much would depend upon the size of the rent determined by the state. Only a select few could have afforded to pay even a nominal sum;39 effective measures, therefore, would have amounted to a confiscation of property from wealthier landowners. Ogilvie felt that they would yield gracefully. "Honour alone," he wrote, "and the consequent satisfaction of having made a public-spirited and laudable attempt, would more than compensate . . . the loss that may be supposed to arise from some diminution of the rent-rolls" (p. 134). Ogilvie himself had pointed out that monopolists in land prevented agrarian reform through their control of political institutions; but this insight was not fundamental in his thought, as it was in that of Spence. Ogilvie's reliance on the charitable instincts of the landowners was almost as unrealistic as Spence's Utopian commonwealth. Still, Ogilvie did not rely wholly upon them. Like most reformers of the Enlightenment, he felt that all problems, however stubborn, would eventually yield to study and education. The agrarian problem was no exception. If disinterested reformers, he wrote, "will take some pains to inquire into the nature and extent of that oppression, under which the industrious peasants groan in secret, and the force of that exorbitant monopoly, from whence their grievances proceed; and if such men will employ the talents which nature hath given them, in explaining these grievances, and the rigour of that monopoly, to the whole world -- Europe, enlightened Europe, will not be able to endure it much longer" (pp. 76-7).


Although the pamphlet Agrarian Justice (1795-6) is Tom Paine's major contribution to the problems of rural society, he also makes some pertinent observations in the second part of The Rights of Man, in which he criticizes Burke for defending the House of Lords as "the great ground and pillar of security to the landed interest."40 As Paine sees it, the only function of the Upper House is that of opposing taxes on land while seeking to impose them on the common people. The beer-tax alone, he points out, "is nearly equal to the whole of the land-tax. . . . a fact not to be paralleled in the history of revenues" (p. 411). This and like inequities are the work of landowners, who wield political power commensurate with their great wealth. Contrary to Burke's view, the Lords are not the mainstays of agriculture, "but are the mere consumers of the rent; and when compared with the active world, are the drones, a seraglio of males, who neither collect the honey nor form the hive, but exist only for lazy enjoyment" (p. 412). After some strictures on primogeniture -- which he criticizes as being unproductive, an expense to the public which has to maintain the nobility's younger sons in sinecures, and undemocratic since it endangers free elections "by the overbearing influence which this unjust monopoly of family property produces" (p. 439) -- Paine arrives at his principal grievance: unjust and unnecessary taxation. He proposes to reform the tax structure by placing a progressive tax on the incomes yielded by landed estates culminating in confiscation of all income over 20,000 a year. Such a scheme, he feels, would reduce the property of the landed aristocrats, diminishing their political power and bringing about that more equitable distribution of property in which Paine, like Ogilvie, sees the solution of the whole agrarian problem. Paine does not, however, elaborate how these reforms are to be achieved.

Paine was moved to publish his Agrarian Justice, he tells us, by a sermon "entitled: 'The Wisdom and Goodness of God, in having made both Rich and Poor. . . ' It is wrong to say God made rich and poor; He made only male and female; and He gave them the earth for their inheritance. . ." (p. 609). He begins by claiming that he does not know "whether that state that is proudly, perhaps erroneously, called civilization, has most promoted or most injured the general happiness of man" (p. 609). Whatever benefits it may have brought the few, civilization has brought misery to many. Poverty, he thinks, is unknown in the natural state of mankind. This natural state is not ideal, however; it lacks "those advantages which flow from agriculture, arts, science and manufactures" (p. 610). On the balance, "the condition of millions, in every country in Europe, is far worse than if they had been born before civilization began" (p. 610). How and why did this come about?

"It is a position not to be controverted," he believed, "that the earth, in its natural, uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. . . . Man did not make the earth, and, though he had a natural right to occupy it, he had no right to locate as his property in perpetuity any part of it; neither did the Creator of the earth open a land-office, from whence the first title-deeds should issue" (p. 611). Communal ownership continued as long as the population remained small and the economy pastoral; cultivation to meet the needs of a growing population led to the institution of private property in land. But -- and Paine follows Ogilvie on this point -- "it is nevertheless true, that it is the value of the improvement, only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property" (p. 611). Because this is so, every landowner owes his fellowmen some compensation for the original value of the land he has cultivated. But whereas Ogilvie had insisted that the right of all men to their share was more fundamental than the right of present owners to theirs, Paine refused to assign any such priority. "While, therefore," he wrote, "I advocate the right, and interest myself in the hard case of all those who have been thrown out of their natural inheritance by the introduction of the system of landed property, I equally defend the right of the possessor to the part which is his" (p. 612). He did not, however, extend this defence to monopoly which, as he immediately affirmed, "has dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss, and has thereby created a species of poverty and wretchedness that did not exist before" (p. 612). An equitable solution will protect the rights of both the present owners and the dispossessed.

The rest of the pamphlet discusses how this is to be done. Paine wasted no time trying to calculate the value of land before cultivation but declared it to be one-tenth of its present value. The present owners of land were to contribute one-tenth of its value to a national fund, out of which restitution was to be made not just to the poor but to all the people, thus avoiding "invidious distinctions" (p. 613). Unlike Ogilvie, Paine did not expect that the landowners would pay up willingly; therefore he suggested that the exaction occur "at the moment that property is passing by the death of one person to the possession of another" (p. 614). The suggestion that only one-tenth of the present value of the land was to be restored to the poor in the form of private property provoked Spence into a furious refutation soon after Agrarian Justice appeared. Spence felt that the distinction between original and improved value should not be used as an argument for denying the latter to the poor since it had been their labour, and not that of the present owners, which had been responsible for any improvement in the earth. "Did the proprietors alone work and toil at this improvement?" he demanded rhetorically. "Did we labourers and our forefathers stand . . . idle spectators of so much public-spirited industry?"41 Paine's most serious error, in Spence's view, was leaving the land in the hands of private owners. "Take care," he warned, "that you leave not any roots of these lordly plants in the earth; for though cut down to the stump . . . if any . . . fibre of the accursed roots, though ever so small, be concealed in the soil, they would sprout again, and soon rediscover their positive vigour, to the overshadowing and destruction of all the undergrowth."42

In his concluding remarks, Paine made it clear that he was not opposed to private property as such, or even to the accumulation of large amounts of private property in the form of land or anything else. "I am," he declared, "a friend to riches because they are capable of good. I care not how affluent some may be, provided that none be miserable in consequence of it" (p. 617). This remark and others like it have produced at least one interpretation of Agrarian Justice as a work designed to aid the landowners by preventing more radical solutions winning the day.43 Yet Paine's acceptance of wealth on the condition that it harms no member of society opens the door to any amount of state intervention and could be invoked to justify the most far-reaching agrarian reform up to and including expropriation of private holdings. To assume that Paine's qualified profession of friendship for the rich meant that he was also an enemy of the poor is to mistake the character of the man and the motive of his work.


It appears to be a commonly held view that any concern for social justice was at this time a prerogative of political thinkers on the other side of the Channel. Leslie Stephen, for example, observes that in England men "rather played with political theories than seriously discussed them";44 while Harold Laski insists that there was an "absence of any sense . . . of what the social problem implied. . . . nothing like the extraordinary discussion which took place in France . . . no English Linguet, no English Meslier, no English Mably or Morelly"; and that "until the French Revolution the problem of the power of property in the state did not enter into English political speculation."45 This view, I hope, will now appear mistaken. The English Agrarians were concerned with precisely these issues; and, in the case of Spence and Ogilvie, well before the Revolution. They provided the rural poor with a rational explanation of their plight; they saw that the application of commercial principles to agriculture made any return to paternalistic conceptions of land-ownership out of the question; they focused attention on the interrelation of economic and political power at a time when contemporary radicalism almost entirely ignored it; they challenged the current belief that state action on behalf of the dispossessed was as immoral as it was impractical. Whatever their deficiencies as political theorists, their perception of these issues was every bit as acute as that of their counterparts in France.

It would not do, however, to gloss over those deficiencies. In addition to their preoccupation with the agrarian problem, Spence, Ogilvie, and Paine had this in common: they employed, with varying degrees of subtlety, the critical apparatus of natural law theory. They assumed a Golden Age in which land was communally owned, individual greed unknown, and social conflict impossible. They believed that the evils of civil society could be attributed to an initial usurpation of communal rights out of which emerged the institution ot private property in land. They expected that by introducing some institutional arrangement -- be it the public ownership of land or merely a partial reform of the system of land-tenure -- the natural order would be automatically restored together with the happy characteristics of the Golden Age. This is a remarkably naive conception, no less so because it was common to most eighteenth-century political reformers in one form or another; yet if it were no more than naive there would be nothing further to say. Unfortunately, as a recent study of eighteenth-century political theory has shown, it is dangerous as well.46 The eighteenth-century assumption of a natural order run on some fixed and exclusive pattern of social existence contained within it the seeds of what has been termed totalitarian democracy. In one of Spenee's pamphlets there occurs a passage in which he justifies the expropriation of land from its present owners by pointing out that they will "by cheerful acquiescence be much more happy than . . . under the existing scheme of things." But, he warns them, "if by foolish and wicked opposition, you should compel us, in our own defence, to confiscate even your moveables, and perhaps also to cut you off, then let your own blood be upon your heads, for we shall be guiltless."47 Conformity to the rules of the new society is true freedom; disobedience must be ruthlessly dealt with. This is the familiar pattern of totalitarianism of the left; and it is implicit in the work of Spence, Ogilvie, and Paine, as in that of many of their contemporaries.

Strangely enough, it has been the practical proposals of the English Agrarians which have attracted such attention as posterity has paid to them. Latter-day advocates of land nationalization and the single tax have heaped exaggerated tribute upon them as forerunners of Henry George and pioneers of British socialism.48 Yet the fact is that of the three, only Spence could be described as a socialist; and his socialism was sharply qualified by his intention to leave all forms of wealth other than land in private hands. Ogilvie, despite his radical critique of the evils of monopoly in land, was the soul of moderation when it came to advocating a remedy, falling back on what was little more than a system of state rent control. Paine, the most conservative in his economic philosophy, moved from a position of undisguised hostility to landowners in The Rights of Man to one of tolerance and compromise in Agrarian Justice in which his professed remedy foreshadows twentieth-century fiscal policy as a means of redistributing property more equitably among the people. Yet it would, I think, be a mistake to suppose that their preoccupation with the problems of landownership means that they have nothing to offer save as representatives of that "lunatic fringe" of political speculation which is only of marginal interest to students of political thought. Each saw clearly that neither democracy nor human happiness can flourish in any society founded upon an enormous discrepancy in the living standards of its people. Although hampered by their limited frame of reference, they helped make this realization a part of our own political tradition. Their "importunate chink" has acquired a more enduring quality than Burke, for one, was disposed to believe it would.


1 Burke, Works (London, 1911), II, 357.

2 Maurice Ashley, in the Manchester Guardian Weekly, Nov. 29, 1951.

3 J. L. and Barbara Hammond, The Village Labourer (Guild Book ed., 1948), I, 29.

4 While R. H. Tawney, in The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (London, 1912), 350, correctly points out that "the mediaeval theory of land tenure . . . parts company from modern conceptions of ownership . . . between 1500 and . . . 1660," it is also true that the medieval conception, though on the wane, persisted well into the eighteenth century when the developments here referred to administered the coup de grace.

5 Edmund Burke, Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, Originally Presented to the Right Hon. William Pitt, in the Month of November, 1795 (London, 1800), 20.

6 Reflections on the Justice, Advantage, and Necessity of Limiting, within a Certain Compass, the Price of Wheat, by Legislative Authority, Addressed to Both Houses of Parliament (Oxford, 1803), 18.

7 Arthur Young, An Enquiry into the State of the Public Mind Amongst the Lower Classes: And on the Means of Turning it to the Welfare of the State (London, 1798), 5.

8 Ibid., 17.

9 "Will Chip, A Country Carpenter" [Hannah More], Village Politics: Addressed to all the Mechanics, Journeymen, and Day Labourers in Great Britain (London, 1792), 15-16.

10 Rev. Septimus Hodson, The Great Sin of Withholding Corn: And the Duties of All Men in Times of Scarcity (London, 1795), 7.

11 Ibid., 4.

12 Rev. Septimus Hodson, Dearness Occasioned by Scarcity, Not Monopoly: and the Duties of Men Arising out of the Circumstances of Providential Visitation (London, 1800), 9.

13 Proceedings of the Association for Preserving Liberty and Property Against Republicans and Levellers (London, 1792), 1.

14 William Sabatier, A Treatise on Poverty, Its Consequences, and the Remedy (London, 1797), 69.

15 William Donaldson, Agriculture Considered as a Moral and Political Duty: in a Series of Letters inscribed to His Majesty and Recommended to the Perusal and Attention of Every Gentleman of Landed Property in the Three Kingdoms, as they are Calculated for the Entertainment, Instruction, and Benefit of Mankind (London, 1775), 108.

16 Thomas Gisborne, An Inquiry into the Duties of Men in the Higher and Middle Classes of Society in Great Britain, resulting from their respective Stations, Professions and Employments (London, 1794), 573.

17 "A Physician," One Cause of the Present Scarcity of Corn, Pointed Out. . . . (London, 1795), 27-8.

18 Thomas Evans, A Brief Sketch of the Life of Mr. Thomas Spence, Author of the Spencean System of Agrarian Fellowship or Partnership in Land: With an Illustration of his Plan in the Example of the Village of Little Dalby, Leicestershire . . . (Manchester, 1821), 1.

19 Thomas Spence, The Meridian Sun of Liberty: or, The Whole Rights of Man displayed and Most Accurately Defined . . . (London, 1796), title-page.

20 Gentleman's Magazine, Jan., 1798.

21 Quoted in Olive D. Rudkin, Thomas Spence and His Connections (London, 1927), 115. This is by far the most complete account of Spence's life and work.

22 See the Proceedings of the House of Lords for Feb. 18, 19, and 24, 1817; also Hansard, XXXV, 1817, sees. 591-634, 793-801, 1007-1109, etc.

23 Max Beer, ed., The Pioneers of Land Reform (London, 1920), 5. This is the most readily available reprint of Spence's lecture. Page references are to this edition.

24 Thomas Spence, The Reign of Felicity, Being a Plan for Civilizing the Indians of North America, without Infringing on their National or Individual Independence: In a Coffee-House Dialogue between a Courtier, An Esquire, A Clergyman and a Farmer (London, 1796), 10.

25. Ibid., 9.

26 Ibid., 6.

27 Thomas Spence, The End of Oppression: Being a Dialogue between an Old Mechanic and a Young One, Concerning the Establishment of the Rights of Man (London, 1795), 5.

28 Ibid., 6.

29 Spence, The Reign of Felicity, 10.

30 See L. B. Namier, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (London, 1929), I, 82-93; the Hammonds, The Village Labourer, I, 12-18.

31 On the Scottish land problem during 1775-1815, see L. J. Saunders, Scottish Democracy, 1815-1840: The Social and Intellectual Background (Edinburgh, 1950), 1-36.

32 An Essay on the Right of Property in Land; With Respect to its Foundation in the Law of Nature, Its Present Establishment by the Municipal Laws of Europe, and the Regulations by which it might be rendered more Beneficial to the Lower Ranks of Mankind (London, 1782). Ogilvie published his work anonymously.

33 William Godwin, Political Justice: A Reprint of the Essay on Property (London, 1890), 53.

34 Sir James Mackintosh, Memoirs (1835), 27.

35 J. R. McCulloch, The Literature of Political Economy (London, 1845), 310.

36 Beer, Pioneers of Land Reform, 54. All page references are to Beer's edition of Ogilvie's Essay.

37 Mackintosh, Memoirs, 27.

38 D. C. Macdonald's Birthright in Land (London, 1891), states that Ogilvie sent a copy of his Essay to Frederick the Great and speculates that that monarch's perusal of its contents may have led to the Prussian land reforms carried out by Stein and Hardenburg at the beginning of the nineteenth century (p. 234). However, this work, described by Professor Laski, in Political Thought in England from Locke to Bentham (London, 1920), 157, as "one of the most amazing curiosities in English political literature," eulogizes Ogilvie and his ideas to the point where fact and fiction are indistinguishable.

39 See David Davies, The Case of Labourers in Husbandry Stated and Considered (London, 1795), and Sir F. M. Eden, The State of the Poor (London, 1797), for a contemporary account of the wages of agricultural labourers and what these could buy.

40 Philip S. Foner, ed., The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, 2 vols. (New York, 1945), I, 410. All page references are to Vol. I of this edition.

41 Thomas Spence, The Rights of Infants, or, the Imprescriptable Right of Mothers to such a share of the Elements as is sufficient to enable them to Suckle and bring up their Young, in a Dialogue between the Aristocracy and a Mother of Children: To which are added, by way of Preface and Appendix, Strictures on Paine's Agrarian Justice (London, 1797), 15.

42 Ibid., 4.

43 Joseph Dorfman, "The Economic Philosophy of Thomas Paine," Political Science Quarterly, LIII, Sept., 1938, 372-886.

44 Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1876), II, 131.

45 H. J. Laski, The Rise of European Liberalism (London, 1936), 206-7.

46 J. L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (London, 1952), 17-27.

47 The Rights of Infants, 9.

48 H. M. Hyndman, Nationalization of the Land in 1775 (London, 1882) and The Historical Basis of Socialism in England (London, 1883); J. M. Davidson, Spence and Spence's Plan: With "Neo-Spencean Appendix" by Frederick Verinder (London, 1896); Precursors of Henry George (London, 1899).