Thomas Skidmore, The Rights of Man to Property, 1829.


&c. &c.


I am undertaking a work, which, as Rousseau said of his "Confessions," has no example, and whose execution perhaps, will find no approval. But, be this as it may; the consciousness I feel, that my motives are purer and that the work which engages me, will tend to fix on an imperishable basis, the happiness of my fellow beings, is all the encouragement and support I require to bring it to a consummation. When they shall have read it, they will judge for themselves, how far my means of assuring that happiness, will be likely to coincide with my intentions and expectations.

The same author, on another occasion, has said, that inasmuch as he was not a Legislator, therefore, he offered his sentiments to those who were. Had he been such, he observed, he would not have troubled the world with his opinions; but would have proceeded, forthwith, to put them into execution. How very proper, then, may it [8] not be in an age and in a country, where every man is a Legislator, for any and every citizen to exercise his functions as such, whenever he shall believe he may be able to do so, with advantage to his fellow citizens.

But if, in this country, we are all Legislators, we are not exclusively so. No one of us has power in this capacity, of making a law over his fellow citizens, in opposition to his consent. A majority of our aggregate number is, alone, capable of fully consummating a Legislative act. As it regards each individual of our community of Legislators, he stands in relation to the whole, as a member of one of our State Assemblies does, to all the members of which it is composed. He has the same right, of making his motion, of submitting his propositions, and of offering all the arguments and reasons he thinks proper, in their support. Such is the relation, in which I perceive myself to be placed, with my fellow citizens of the State of New-York; and it is in the full exercise of the rights, in the possession of which, this relation leaves me, that I shall offer to their consideration, through the medium of this work, a proposition, to entirely re-model the political structure of our State, and make it essentially different from any thing of the kind heretofore known.

As it is, however, a proposition, which before it can be carried into execution, must be thoroughly and deeply investigated, if not by every [9] individual, at least by a majority so great, as to leave a minority of very little importance in point of numbers; so it is of the greatest moment, to the reception or rejection of this proposition, whichever it may meet with, at the hands of this community, that the art of printing, has arrived at such perfection, that the price, at which a copy of this work will be afforded, will not be, beyond the means of any man who feels an interest in the subject which it discusses. That every man in the State, from the highest to the lowest, has such an interest, and that of the greatest magnitude, will be evident enough, in the further progress of the work.

It would, however, be of little use, -- that books were afforded at a moderate price, if readers were few in number. Happily, with us, such is not the fact. While, in France, which has the best instructed population on the continent of Europe, there are, as we are told, seventeen millions out of thirty, who are unable to read; in the State of New-York, as well as most of our sister-States, scarcely one-twentieth, I believe, are incapable of reading, with a full understanding of what they read. Whoever, therefore, comes before an American community, with a printed proposition, presented in clear and plain language, built on and supported by, principles, which to such community shall appear to be adapted to give them their rights, when full investigation shall have [10] been had of it, cannot fail to be well received; -- and his proposition carried into full effect; though to do so, it should cause a greater change, in our civil code, than has ever yet happened, in any country even in this age of revolutions.

As yet no condition of things has ever existed, in which abuses have not sprung up and flourished. There have been those, who have profitted by them; and they have always opposed the extirpation of the evil upon which they fattened. One of their modes, of resisting any change which would go to deprive them of their dishonest nutriment, has ever been to represent that the evil was inevitable; that it was impossible to eradicate it; and that therefore it was best to submit to it, without complaint or repining. And too often has it been attended with success. The friends of pure and virtuous principles, in all ages, have, too often, been alarmed into an opinion, that they could not concentrate the co-operation of men of their own description sufficient to resist the torrent of corruption, and have yielded to despair; while those who flourished in the destruction of those principles, which alone can promote the public welfare, have triumphed over them.

But this state of things is doomed, soon to terminate its existence. The printing-press, together, with the population of a whole State or Empire, being instructed, and rendered capable of reading; -- together, also, with the possession, [11] by every individual of such population, of the right of suffrage; put it out of the power of a few, to defeat, frustrate, or delay, for any considerable time, the wishes of the many. Henceforward, let a writer advance views, that will benefit the great mass of the community; and there will be found no power adequate to stay their adoption. Neither minority, nor majority, will be able to persuade themselves, or others, that the interests of the greater party, should not be consulted by those who have the power (and who know too, that they have it,) to do so. The utmost, that interested opposers of reformation or revolution, can hope to accomplish, is, to retard inquiry; so that those who have an interest in the suppression of the abuses, or the false principles, of government, shall not so soon arrive at a full and general understanding of any change which may be proposed, and the reasons that go to support it, as they otherwise would. But in the present state of knowledge among the citizens of the American Confederacy, and particularly that portion of it, where we find the free white man, forming as it were, the entire population, such delay will necessarily be extremely transient.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men arc created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Who would not [12] think that principles, such as these, would not only be acknowledged, but be acted upon, by all mankind? That they would not require to be presented to the consideration of our species, but would meet with a spontaneous recognition, in every human breast? And yet how small a portion of mankind are prepared to acknowledge them? Where, unless it be in the two Americas, shall we find it even admitted, "that all men are created equal?" If amidst all that has happened, and all that has been written in favor of liberty, within the last seventy or eighty years, liberty is no where to be found, except on this continent, it would seem to argue but little in favor of the efficiency of the Press, or the omnipotence of our reasoning faculties, towards bringing about revolutions in the physical, moral, and civil condition of man. Thomas Paine, who supported the rights of the people of all nations, with an energy, and an ability, perhaps never excelled, and who judged, as to the future, with as much correctness as most men, predicted [Rights of Man, Second Part, p. 4] (in 1792,) that before the year 1800 should arrive, there would not exist a single crowned head, in Europe; and yet how lamentably wide of the prediction, is the fact! So much so, that we all know there is not a single republican government in Europe, where, as he thought, in 7 or 8 years afterwards, there would have been no other! [13]

It may not be altogether useless, to discuss a little, the causes that have had an influence in falsifying a prediction, which, as events have proved, could have had no just foundation. That those principles which were supposed to be capable of supplanting the monarchical governments of Europe, are such as are congenial to the nature of man, consistent with his rights, and promotive of his happiness, I presume few men in this country, will be disposed to deny. They are principles, such as are incorporated into that Declaration of Independence, which separated us from our allegiance to a Foreign Sovereign; and transferred to the people of these States, the right of governing themselves. The causes however which produced such separation, were no doubt of the most oppressive kind, and capable of stimulating no common degree of energy, in their resistance. Yet, it may well be doubted, whether most of the acts of tyranny, which the Declaration of Independence, charges to the account of George the Third, might not have been perpetrated with impunity, by a native monarch, over the American States, if the fact had been that such a monarch had reigned over them. And even admitting that resistance had followed, it is far from being certain, that such resistance would have been succeeded by the establishment of government on principles fundamentally different from those in previous existence. The monarch himself might [14] have been dethroned, but the throne itself, would in all probability, have remained, and been occupied by another. Besides we should recollect that the people of the United States, the first to set the example of self government, had no monarchical neighbors, to interfere by arms, or otherwise, with their internal arrangements. Had such been the fact, as was the case with France, the first which attempted republican government in Europe, there is little doubt, that liberty would have been driven, perhaps for two centuries, from the American Continent, as it has been from the European.

But the chief cause of the failure of the prediction, a prediction in accordance with the expectations of many of the most distinguished men of the time, as well those who dreaded, as those who wished its consummation, is to be found in the general, nay, almost universal want of readers.

So much are mankind the creatures of habit, that wherever they happen to have their existence, they seem to be disposed to rest content in continuing to suffer from those evils, with which they have been familiar, from their earliest infancy, rather than to take the necessary measures to eradicate them. Nay, it is not uncommon, that evil is not considered as such; and it frequently happens, that they do not discover its true character, till some aggravated act of tyranny, perpetrated by some capricious, or remorseless [15] despot, makes it known to them through the medium of greater sufferings, than those to which they had heretofore been accustomed. Perhaps, in all human history, there is not more than a single instance or two, if there be even these, where revolutions have been produced, by any other cause than by rendering the condition of the people of those nations, in which they have happened, more oppressive and burdensome, than they were before. And even this aggravation of the miseries of nations, is capable of being accomplished, without the intervention of revolutions, where tyrants have sufficient discretion to make its introduction gradual, and as it were, almost imperceptible.

It results from these observations, what is apparent to every reflecting man; that the mass of mankind are afflicted with evils of which they have no just conception; that they have rights, of which they have no clear and definite understanding; and that, in the slavery, poverty, and ignorance, with which they are surrounded, there is no possibility of exhibiting to them, the evils under which they labor, nor of acquainting them with their rights, the possession of which would remove their sufferings; till they can be, or have been, taught to read, and understand what they have read. These remarks apply to every country, but our own, and even to this, in every thing, though in a qualified degree, except it be that of public education. [16]

It is possible, I have dwelt longer than is agreeable to the reader, on the subject of the very general instruction of the American people in the art of reading, and of understanding what they read. In the further progress of this work, I trust however, that he will become convinced, that I do not over-rate the importance of the fact, that a portion so very great of our population, have acquired this species of education. The innovations I am about to propose to my fellow-citizens, in our State-Government, and to the people of other States and Nations, if they shall think proper to inquire how far they may be calculated to promote their welfare, are of such a nature, that they require to be not only very, closely, and deeply, but if it were possible, universally investigated, before they can be adopted, so as to be as useful to the community generally, as their own intrinsic importance is calculated to make them. The reader will perceive that it would be of little consequence, how estimable and valuable, after fully understanding them, he should consider them to be, if, at the same time, he should suppose, perhaps contrary to the fact, that there were not a sufficient number of his fellow-citizens, capable of reading, and of course of understanding them, and the reasons that go to support them, to enforce their adoption.

In such a case, the most that could be said, would be, that the proposed innovation was a [17] valuable speculation, adapted to be useful at a future day, when education should have extended its benign influence over a greater portion of our population, But if, on the contrary, the reader should be satisfied that there are, now, a sufficient proportion of our citizens qualified with instruction, to be made acquainted with the design and probable operation of the changes in question, he would then feel a strong inclination to give it a support of surpassing energy, corresponding with his estimate of its importance to his own welfare, and that of his fellow-citizens. Besides, it is to be considered, that all propositions meet with opposition from somebody. Now, if that which I have to offer, should be considered as injuring the rich -- while it was of the utmost benefit to the poor, and middling classes of the community, who form ninety-nine parts in every hundred of the whole population of every country; the knowledge of the fact, that the great mass of the people are capable of understanding it, because they have the ability to read, and the means of purchase, would convince the rich, that it would be perfectly idle to oppose what so very large a majority should determine to adopt and enforce.

The population of this State, from calculations made from official data, at the beginning of the present year (1829,) cannot vary much from 1,825,000. Of these it is ascertainable from the same data, about, 750,000, are under the age of [18] fifteen. The period in which instruction is most generally given, is between the ages of five and fifteen, and therefore, if we deduct, from this number, one third for children under the age of five years, which will be sufficiently accurate for my purpose; there will remain half a million of children requiring instruction, in reading, writing, &c. &c. Now, it appears from the Report, of the Superintendent of common schools, made to the Legislature of this State, the present year, that there were taught in those schools, in 1828, 449,113 children, between the ages mentioned; and over and above these, 19,092, whose ages are not mentioned. There are 445 school districts, from which no returns were received. If we allow that there may be half as many children instructed in each of these districts, as were taught in each of the other districts, it would add upwards of 12,000 more to the number. To these are to be added, the number of children taught in private schools, of which, of course, no returns are required, or allowed to be made to the Superintendent. Those, also, taught in private families,: and, there are many such, are not included; so that when a full and fair estimate is made, I think it will be found, that not more than one twentieth, or a twenty-fifth part of the rising generation, in this State, are suffered to grow up, untaught.

Most of the Northern and Western States of [19] this Confederacy, I believe, will be found to exhibit similar results as regards public instruction; and with respect to the Eastern States, it is well known, that they have long surpassed all the other States of the Union, in their institutions of education.

It cannot, therefore, be otherwise than propitious, in every relation in which the matter can be viewed, that a proposition is about to be submitted, to the consideration of a people, calculated, as the author of it believes, eminently to promote their welfare, by shewing how to eradicate the evils which afflict them, even under the best system of government, which the art of man has yet been able to devise; and that people so circumstanced, that such proposition can and will come home to their closest investigation. It adds to the felicity of this condition of things, that after such investigation has been had, and a general conviction results, if it should result, that it is worthy of their approbation and adoption, that they hold in their hands, through the silent, peaceful, and irresistible operation of the ballot-boxes, the power to establish it, as the basis of their social compact.

Heretofore, such has not been the fortunate condition of the human race. If, in different ages, and in different countries, there have been found as is undoubtedly true, men of clear heads, and honest hearts, struggling to increase the happiness of the great mass of nations, they have been [20] resisted, by extraordinary and almost invincible difficulties. If the States, in which they lived, were small, and surrounded by powerful and dangerous enemies, as was the case with Rome, in the early-stages of her history; then wars, sometimes unavoidable, but often brought about by treacherous and aristocratic rulers at home for the very purpose, interfered to prevent the people from maturing great public measures for their benefit.

Such was particularly the case, with regard to what was called the Agrarian Law. This law forbid any man to own more than five hundred acres of land; any excess over that quantity, was taken away and reserved to the public, or given to the poor. This law also gave to the soldiers, and to the common people, who had none, lands conquered from their enemies. Anterior to the introduction of this law, the Patricians, or in other words, the Aristocracy, turned all these lands to their own benefit. They were, therefore, extremely unwilling to give them up; and such was the structure of their political fabric, at the time, that they alone had the power of originating all laws, the Agrarian, as well as every other. They were therefore disposed, as often as they dared, to render it nugatory, or of little effect. For four hundred years, it was the source of much civil commotion and bloodshed in Rome, and often came near being the cause of subjecting them to conquest by their enemies. At last, the [21] Aristocracy obtained the entire ascendency over the people, and from that day began the decline of the Roman Empire.

But formidable as this vicinity to Rome, of powerful and warlike neighbours, was, to the welfare of the great majority of the Roman people, it was not the only obstacle they had to contend with. Constituted as their government was, as already stated, they had not the power of original legislation. This was invested in the Aristocracy; all that the people had power to do, was through the tribunes, appointed by themselves, to forbid the enactment of any law, which they deemed injurious to their welfare. They could not originate any new measures, however beneficial they might deem them to be to their condition. And the only method by which they could accomplish any thing of the kind, was by treaty with the governing power. Thus, when the State was attacked, or in danger of it, by enemies from abroad, they could refuse to enlist, or to defend it; or, as the price of so doing, demand, as they often did. the enactment, or the strict fulfilment of the Agrarian Law.

The Roman people seem not to have learnt: indeed it is a lesson learnt only within the last half century by any nation; that the legislative power of all nations, particularly, in the sense in which such power is now ordinarily understood, resides in the majority of those over whom it is exercised. It is [22] no subject of wonder, then, even in the absence of foreign and hostile nations, that the Roman people could not succeed in permanently establishing the Agrarian Law. To have done this, required that they should have ascended to first principles: that they should have explored, philosophically, the primitive condition of man, and there have made themselves acquainted with the origin and fountain of all right, and of course, of all power. We, who live at the present day, know that such a search after first principles, has not been prosecuted, and attended with success, until three or four hundred years have expired since the invention of the Printing-Press. This important invention, of which the Romans knew nothing, was that, of which they, as well as all other nations, stood in need, as the means of creating, if I may be allowed the expression, an uniform public opinion. Although, as history informs us, they seemed very generally to wish for the Agrarian Law, yet, as they had no means of creating a common sentiment among its friends, as it regards the only effectual method of bringing it into permanent legislative existence; this circumstance may be reckoned as another of the obstacles that interposed themselves between the Roman people, and the possession of the object of their most anxious wishes. It is perhaps, not susceptible of rigid demonstration, that the people of no nation, could ever have arrived at the [23] discovery and general adoption of the principles of self-government, without the assistance of the Printing-Press: but this, no doubt, will be conceded, that the period of such discovery and adoption, must have been greatly more protracted than it otherwise has been.

There may be those, among my readers, who may think it extraordinary, that there could have been found among the Roman people, such a number of partizans or advocates, in favor of the Agrarian Law, as, on its operation being denied or obstructed, to lead to the most violent political convulsions. But these should recollect the peculiar nature of their condition. Having no commerce worth mentioning, nor arts or manufactures of any kind, save those carried on, in a domestic or family way, and that in the rudest manner known to all nations, as they emerge from barbarity into a state of civil government, if so it may be called, they had no means to sustain themselves, but by the labors of agriculture. To deny them land, then, was to deny them life; or to compel them, to purchase its support, of the rich, at a price, or on conditions which rendered it scarcely worth preserving.

That we may fully understand the relation in which the Roman people stood to their government, we have only to imagine that, here, in the State of New-York, the same state of things exists; agriculture only supporting life; [24] commerce, arts, manufactures, affording no resources. Now, if we allow our land-holders, to own no more than five hundred acres of land, and suppose them to possess that quantity, each; then, sixty thousand land-holders would possess the whole surface of the State, consisting of about thirty million of acres; whereas, taking five for a family, there are now, nearly four hundred thousand families, three hundred and forty thousand of whom, would not have a spade full of earth, or a thimble full of water, that they could call their own; nor any other resources for subsistence!

It will be said, indeed, that the fact is not so; and that their resources would consist in their labor on the soil, whatever might be the number of those who should possess it. I answer, that if the owners of the soil are owners at all, they are absolute and unconditional owners; they have the right, as the term is now understood, and the power, if they please, to say, they will employ no one. It would therefore, be an abuse of terms, it would be the veriest nonsense, to say, of a mass of people, that they have resources, which are wholly in the possession of others. If resources they deserve to be called, they are those, only, of the beggar, or the slave. They come in the shape, only, of charity or bondage; and either of these, are wholly incompatible with the high minded feelings of freemen. It may then, truly be said, as far as government, or social institution is concerned, that [25] three hundred and forty thousand families, in the case we have supposed are without political existence; while sixty thousand other families possess the whole property of the State. If these latter shall choose, even at the price of slavery, to give to the former, the means of physical existence, it is well; and they may live. But, if not, for any thing which their government has done, they must perish!

I allow, that some abatement is to be made, of this great number of the poor, from the fact that all the land-holders, cannot be expected to have as much as 500 acres, at the same time that they are restrained from having more; and that, therefore, a greater portion of the population will be owners of the soil, than I have chosen to suppose. This, however, is a matter of no consequence; for where principle is concerned, injustice and impolicy are not to be estimated by numbers. Besides, if, under the mildest and happiest operation of the Agrarian Law, such an amount of misery, as this abatement would leave, was sure to arise what ought not to be expected, when there is no restriction whatever to the accumulation of estates? When instead of 500, a man might own 5000, or even 500,000 acres, according to his means, of obtaining, or acquiring them?

I do not stop now to inquire, why it is, that these sixty thousand families should be considered as having, under any possible circumstances, a [26] just fee-simple title, to the soil of the State, to the entire exclusion of nearly six times their number of families, as good as themselves; or even to any portion of such lands, beyond that of equality. This is not the place; it shall be done, however, in due time, in the course of this work. But I have drawn this strong, yet I trust, true picture of the operation of the Agrarian Law, because I have felt, ever since I read it, that the opinion of Mr. Raymond respecting it, deserves to be controverted, and because I feel that such a controversion, falls within the province of this work. In vol. 2nd, page 12. and second edition of his Political Economy, published in Baltimore, in 1823, after declaring that, "an equal division of property is not to be desired, in any country, because it is not a dictate of nature," a very excellent reason, indeed, if it be true; he proceeds to say that " an agrarian law, ************* is as unnatural, as it would be, to reduce all men to the same stature, by stretching them on the bed of Procrustes."

I have myself objections to agrarian laws, especially in any form, in which they have yet been presented to the world -- but the reason I shall offer in support of those objections, will be very different from those of Mr. Raymond. As it regards man, wherever he is found on the habitable globe, there is so little difference in the stature of his various species, that there would be little use [27] for this same bed of Procrustes, even if it were known to have an actual, instead of a fabulous existence. If property was as nearly equal, as we know stature to be, among mankind, there would indeed be folly enough in complaining. But does Mr. Raymond, does any one, after reflecting for a moment, consider it to be as unnatural for every citizen of Rome to be restrained from possessing more than five hundred acres of land, as it would be, for example, to make five hundred thousand families, entirely destitute of every kind of possession and physically & politically dependent on a fiftieth part of that number? Are not greater evils, is not more misery, likely to be generated, by suffering the rich to go on, and engross the State, than there would be, by leaving them a moderate quantity, and giving the balance to their neighbors? For myself, I think it admits of no question; and more particularly so, when there was no restriction on the amount of personal property, which one might acquire, (though indeed, as said before,there was little of this;) and where, for the great mass of the nation, there was no support but labor in the fields, and the produce they afforded.

As to the objection urged against "an equal division of property, as not to be desired, in any country, because it is not a dictate of nature," it strikes me, that it is not founded in truth. Undoubtedly the domain of a State or Nation, [28] previous to any subdivision of it among the individuals who compose it, is property : -- not private property it is true, unless it be spoken of with reference to other nations -- but property, nevertheless, belonging to the whole community. If no wit were proposed to divide it equally among them, could it be said, with any regard to truth -- that such "an equal division is not ******** a dictate of nature." Would not the very contrary be true? It would be a very singular phenomenon, indeed, if we should see them contending for an unequal distribution, in preference to that which was equal. If then, it is a dictate of nature, that men in the original allotment of the, soil, the only kind of property then known, should desire an equal division of the same; how does it happen, that their posterity, may not as naturally desire an equal division for their benefit, in some shape or other? Has the institution of government changed the course of nature? Undoubtedly we must come to this conclusion, or reject the reason as unsound which Mr. Raymond gives, for opposing the equal division of property in question.

The object of the Agrarian Law, was no doubt, to prevent the enormous accumulation of property in a few hands, on the one side, and the most oppressive and demoralizing destitution, amongst much the greatest portion of the community, on the other. Let writers say what they will, of the good effects of stimulating industry, by holding [29] forth to those who may acquire property, the idea of perpetual and exclusive possession, and without limitation as to amount; still, there is no truth so generally received among mankind as this, that great wealth in few hands, is always injurious to the well-being of a State : and there is scarcely a nation on record which has not felt the injury, and at some period or other, of its existence, made legislative provision to abate or remedy it. Often without doubt the remedy has had its evils; and as I believe always. Yet I can hardly credit the opinion, that the remedy was ever as much to be dreaded as the disease. I apprehend, that it is quite possible to show, that when ever nations have ceased to exist, or have lingered on a wretched existence -- it has been because there has prevailed in them no system, or theory of government, whereby property should be as nearly equal among the people, comparatively speaking, as their stature; and yet so constructed, as that each individual should labor, as it were, exclusively for himself, except in so far as regards contributions to the public service. It remains to be seen whether such a system can be devised, and can be made in an easy and natural manner, to transfer its operation from generation to generation : -- but, if it can be done, I think I run no risk of mistake in predicting that the happiness of nations, will be complete, and their existence perpetual.