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


The Proposition.

If I have seemed, to the reader, to understand myself; if I have taken the world as it is; and placed man, as it regards his rights to dominion over it, where he ought to be; it must be conceded that I have done much; but it is also to be conceded, that much more remains to be done, to put the rightful owners in possession. Whoever looks at the world as it now is, will see it divided into two distinct classes; proprietors, and non-proprietors; those who own the world, and those who own no part of it. If we take a closer view of these two classes, we shall find that a very great proportion even of the proprietors, are only nominally so; they possess so little, that in strict regard to truth, they ought to be classed among the non-proprietors. They may be compared, in fact, to the small prizes in a lottery, which, when they we paid, leave the holder a loser.

If such a phenomenon in the history of man, for such is the situation in which we find him in all countries and in all ages, could have possibly found an existence, under a system that should have [126] given each individual as he arrived at the age of maturity, as much of the property of the world, as any contemporary of his, was allowed to possess at a similar age; I say, if under such a system, such an unhappy result should have arisen, as we now see, aflicting the human race; there would be nothing to hope. We might despair of seeing things better than they now are, and set ourselves down in quiet content, that there was no remedy. But when we see that the system which has prevailed hitherto, and prevails to this moment, is not of this description; that it acts on principles in direct opposition to it; that it gives to some single descendant of some holder of property under William Penn, possessions of the value perhaps of a million of dollars; while, it may be, an hundred thousand other inhabitants of Pennsylvania, collectively, have not half that sum; and all this, merely because of a few beads having been given to some Indians, some two hundred years ago; how is it possible to have had a different result? The system is one, that begins, by making whole nations paupers; and why should it not be expected that they would continue so? Indeed it would be a miracle, exceeding every thing of the kind that has ever been supposed to have happened, if we had seen, from such an organization of things, any thing but what we now see.

The truth is, all governments in the world, have begun wrong; in the first appropriation they have made, or suffered to be made, of the domain; [127] over which they have exercised their power, and in the transmission of this domain to their posterity. Here are the two great and radical evils, that have caused all the misfortunes of man. These and these alone, have done the whole of it. I do not class among these misfortunes, the sufferings with which sickness afflicts him, because these have a natural origin; capable, however, of being nearly annihilated by good governments, but greatly aggravated by those that are bad.

If these remarks be true, there would seem, then, to be no remedy but by commencing anew. And is there any reason why we should not? That which is commenced in error and injustice, may surely be set right, when we know how to do it. There is power enough in the hands of the people of the State of New-York, or of any other State, to rectify any and every thing which requires it, when they shall see wherein the evil exists, and wherein lies the remedy. These two things it is necessary they should see, before they can possess the moral power and motive to act. I have succeeded, I think, in shewing, for that is self-evident, that man's natural right to an equal portion of property, is indisputable. His artificial right, or right in society, is not less so. For it is riot to be said that any power has any right to make our artificial rights unequal, any more than it has to make our natural rights unequal. And inasmuch as a man, in a state of nature, would have a right to resist, even to the extremity of death, his fellow, or [128] his fellows, whatever might be their number, who should undertake to give him less of the property, common to all, than they take each to themselves; so also has man now, in society, the same right to resist a similar wrong done him. Thus, to day if property had been made equal among all present, right would have taken place among them; but if to-morrow a new member appear, and provision be not made to give him a quantity substantially equal with all his fellows, injustice is done him, and if he had the power, he would have the perfect right, to dispossess all those who have monopolized to themselves not only their own shares, but his also. For it is not to be allowed, even to a majority, to contravene equality, nor, of course, the right, even though it be of a single individual. And if, alone, he has not power sufficient to obtain his rights, and there be others, also, in like condition with him, they may unite their efforts, and thus accomplish it, if within their power. And, if this may be lawfully done, upon the supposition that yesterday, only, a government was made, and an equal enjoyment of property guaranteed to all, how much more proper is it when, unjust government existing, it has never been done at all When the whole mass of people, as it were, ninety-nine out of every hundred, have never had this equal enjoyment, in any manner or shape, whatever? If still there be those who shall say that these unjust and unequal governments ought no to be destroyed, although they may not give to [129] man, in society, the same equality of property as he would enjoy in a state of nature; then I say, that those are the persons who, in society, if any body, should be deprived of all their possessions, inasmuch as it is manifestly as proper for them to be destitute of property, as it is for any one else. If slavery and degradation are to be the result, they are the proper victims. After an equal division has been once made, there seems nothing wanting but to secure an equal transmission of property to posterity. And to this, there is no irremoveable objection. For, I think I have succeeded in shewing, that the right of a testator to give, and of an heir to receive, is a mere creature of the imagination; and that these rights, as they are called, ought to be abolished, as interfering with the real rights of the succeeding generation. Had it not been for these, we should not have seen a Van Ransellaer possessing that which would make hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of families as happy as they could wish to be, and to which they have as good a natural right, and ought to have as good an artificial title as himself. It would be of no consequence for him to say that he derived his right from some old Dutch charter, obtained some twenty years after Hudson's first discovery of the river which now bears his name. The rights of nature, which can never be alienated; which can never pass out of our hands but through ignorance or force; and which may be claimed again whenever ignorance and force disappear; are superior [130] to any and to all chartered rights, as they are called, let them be of what government they may, even of our own government; and much more so, to those of any that is or was foreign.

I venture to say, that the ancestors of this gentleman, and those who were associated with him, would never have had leave to claim as their own, or at any rate, to hold as their own, that which was chartered to them by the foreign government in question, or by any other foreign government that succeeded them, if they had asked permission of all their fellow beings, who were present with them at the time, when they came to occupy it. And yet there is no truth more indisputable than this; that the soil of any and every country, belongs wholly and equally to all who are found upon it; more especially so, if a majority of the people of other nations do not object to it. It will serve little purpose to say that the Indians were, of right, the owners of the soil, exclusively, and that any transfer they should make to him who should negotiate with them, what is called a purchase is valid. The Indians themselves, (separate from the consent of other nations,) do not, and did not, own this whole country, unless it can be shown, that being divided equally among them, there was no more than their just and equal share, of the whole property of the globe. How this is, every one knows. Yet, still, if it be contended, that the Indians were nevertheless, the true owners of the soil; it must certainly, be, for some [131] good reason. Let us inquire, (nor let it be said, that on so important and interesting a subject as this we can enquire too much) what that good reason may he. Is it because of their nativity? Is it in virtue of their being born upon it? This is a reason, which, if it is to have any force at all, can have it only when it is applicable to an individual. For nations, cannot be born. The individuals of whom a nation is composed, may be, and are. But nations do not exist, until individuals have been born, and until such individuals, for any purpose, no matter what, unite, or agree to unite, in accomplishing a common object. It is, then, and not till then, that nations begin. And they would die, too, in self-dissolution, if they could prevail upon themselves, to consent to annihilate every vestige of compact subsisting between the individual members. But it is the nation only, in such an event, that would die. The individuals would still exist, notwithstanding. Besides, if place of birth, gives right to soil, let us enquire into the extent of it. The question occurs, how much? Is it one hundred square feet? Is it an acre? Is it a square mile? Is it in the shape of a circle, of which perhaps the mother, who is in labor with her offspring, is the centre? Is it a square? Is it a parallelogram? Is it a triangle? And if the event in question, happened in a canoe, in the middle of Lake Erie, or Ontario, of what use would this kind of birth-right be, to the new being? Moreover, as history informs us, children [132] were born here too, of Europeans, and that I believe without the Indians feeling that there was any necessity to ask their permission. The Indians themselves, never dreamed, that the country was so exclusively theirs, when the first discoverers came among them, that beings so much like themselves, might not partake of nature's bounties in the same equal manner with themselves; and only a mistaken avarice and superstition made them enemies. If then children were born of European parents here, had they also not title? If these questions are not answered to the satisfaction of those to whom they are addressed, whose fault is it? Is it not correct, for those who claim title, to show evidence of title, when it is disputed? Is there any exemption? May one be called upon to show his right, and another not? Why then, is not title shown? If it be conceded, as I think it must be, that place of birth, cannot give title to the Indians, to the exclusive possession of this whole country, what other title is there? Do they hold it by deed from the Great Spirit? Where is the parchment that contains it? Where is the table of wax? Where is the record in marble? Is title engraved on the surface of the earth? Is it written on the face of the sun? In what other material, if there be any such, is his pleasure made known? Surely, if the right exist at all, there must be some means of ascertaining it, some memorial of its existence. If it is not so; it is unfortunate enough; for, even in law of the [133] present day, that which cannot be shown to exist, does not exist at all. De non apparentibus, et non existentibus, eadem est ratio. How much better would it not be, to have said at once,

"man has his equal right to the property of the globe, (not of any particular country) because he is born, rather than because of any circumstance attending his birth, such as the place, the parties present, at his entrance into life, particular parents, rather than other parents, or any other ridiculous reason whatever."

But admitting, notwithstanding all that has here been urged to the contrary, that the Indians had the right to sell, to whom it is said they did sell; yet, they could only sell as much as belonged to them; they could sell no more. It has been shown, that the race of Indians then living, had no right to sell, or convey away, that which belonged to those of their kindred, as a nation, who should come after them. For it evidently belonged as much to these latter as to the former. Having, then, no such power to convey, they did not convey; although they might have said they did convey; yet it is a false declaration, such as is every day embodied into deeds, but nevertheless as false as it is common. And inasmuch as they did not convey; the pretended purchasers did not, and could not purchase; and of course, could not have owned; and not owning, could have nothing to devise by way of will, to any successor, even if it were not manifestly as impossible for them to will [134] away aught, which they might really and truly own, as it is for all other men.

Instead, therefore, of this gentleman, or another person in similar circumstances, having any right to complain of any dispossession of vast estates, thus coming to him, by what is called descent, one would naturally think, that he ought to congratulate himself that he has enjoyed the sweets they have afforded him, so long; and that gratitude to, as well as a proper consideration for the rights of, each individual, around him, should make him acquiesce, in the decree of this community, if they should think proper so to order, to surrender it up, preparatory to its being divided equally among the whole, himself, of course, being one of the number.

So, also, if there be any individual, who has had any connection with the gentleman, whose name I have taken the liberty of using, in the way of the common transactions of business; and who has thereby, been able to appropriate to himself more than his natural and equal share of the property of the globe; such person, if he does justice to the forbearance of the community, is also under the necessity, of feeling the same sentiment of gratitude, that they have permitted him to enjoy, so long, a greater proportion of the blessings of the earth, than they have themselves tested; and he ought equally also, to be prepared to acquiesce, in the same decree, which shall forbid him to riot in these superior enjoyments any longer. [135]

It is of no avail, in the struggles of conscious self-interest, for such an one to attempt to persuade himself, that he would have a right to disobey such mandate of the community. In justification of himself, if he should say,

"I was more industrious than others, more temperate, more frugal, more ingenious, more skilful, had greater bodily strength which I did not fail to exercise, and therefore, for all these reasons, I ought to be allowed to retain what I have;"
could we not say, it is not true? And admitting it to be true, that he was equally as industrious &c. &c., as many thousands of his fellow-citizens, would it not be the most fatal argument that could be urged against him? For if all these qualities, are to be considered as giving him a title to his property, as he calls it, why should it not give a title also to them, to an equal possession with him? And yet they have labored all their lives, possessed all the qualities, that he lays claim to, and yet, have nothing! Such is, at least, the case with the great mass of mankind. And all the rich, we certainly know, cannot pretend to be proportionally more virtuous than they. The mere accidental circumstance, of having acquaintance with him from whom he has drawn his wealth, of having his confidence; of knowing how to take advantage of the situation of all the particulars in any way concerned in the operation of extracting such wealth from its former proprietor: is not of such importance as to give a right paramount over all other men, even if we [136] were to admit such former proprietor to be a just and genuine owner. But such he evidently is not; and as such; wealth derived from him, whoever may have it, must be delivered up to the community who are the rightful owners. A poisoned fountain cannot send forth sweet waters; nor he who holds a vicious title, give a virtuous one to another.

But, in some respects, the reasoning in which I have allowed myself to indulge, in the course of the present chapter, is of a kind calculated to compel me to blend two things together, which ought to be kept separate; that is the injustice and enormity of unequal first-possession, and the effects growing out of it. The reader will know what I call first-possession; it is, that which the governments of every country order to be given to him who is so fortunate as to have what is called a legator, whatever he shall have requested, out of any thing which he possessed at the termination of his life. The effects, of which I spoke, as growing put of it, are, the additions made to it, by acquisition, thro' the operation of that state of things, where a few have all, and the many nothing. I use the word legator; but the word donor is equally applicable; since the latter gives the property, it may be, a few years sooner; the difference being only in time. It will be better, therefore, to defer combatting any further objections, which will naturally arise, to that which is yet to be proposed, until a full view can be had by all, of the features it will exhibit. [137]

So much has been said as to what really is not, and should not be, that the reader is, no doubt, prepared to anticipate, in part, what should be; to foresee the modification, which it is necessary our State Government should undergo, before the rights of property, which belong to man in his natural state, can be secured to him, in the artificial state in which society finds him; and before the rights of posterity can be preserved to them, as they should have been to us, for their own exclusive use and benefit.

This modification will be accomplished by pursuing the following


1. Let a new State-Convention be assembled. Let it prepare a new Constitution, and let that Constitution, after having been adopted by the people, decree an abolition of all debts; both at home and abroad, between citizen and citizen; and between citizen and foreigner. Let it renounce all property belonging to our citizens, without the State. Let it claim all property within the State, both real and personal, of whatever kind it may be, with the exception of that belonging to resident aliens, and with the further exception of so much personal property, as may be in the possession of transient owners, not being citizens. Let it order an equal division of all this property among the citizens, of and over the age [138] of maturity, in manner yet to be directed. Let it order all transfers or removals of property, except so much as may belong to transient owners, to cease, until the division is accomplished.

2. Let a census be taken, of the people; ascertaining and recording in books made for the purpose, the name, time when born, as near as may be and annexing the age, the place of nativity, parent-age, sex, color, occupation, domicil or residence and time of residence since last resident in the State distinguishing aliens from citizens, and ordering, with the exception of the Agents of Foreign Governments, -- such as Ambassadors, &c. that all such aliens shall be considered as citizens, if they have been resident for the five years next previous to the time when the before mentioned division of property, shall have been ordered.

3. Let each citizen, association, corporation, and other persons at the same time when the census is being taken, give an inventory of all personal property, of whatever description it may be, and to whomsoever it may belong, in his, her, or their possession. Let also a similar inventory of all real property, within the State, be taken, whoever may be the owner of it. And from these data, let a General Inventory, be made out of all the real and personal property, within the State, which does not belong to alien residents, or transient owners. To this, let there be added all property in the possession of our tribunals of law and equity; and such State property, as can be offered up to sale without detriment to the State. [139]

4. Let there be, next, a dividend made of this amount, among all such citizens, who shall be of and over, the age of eighteen, if this should be fixed, as I am inclined to think it should be, as the age of maturity; and let such dividend be entered in a book for the purpose, to the credit of such persons, male and female.

5. Let public sale be made, as soon after such dividend is made, as may be practicable, to the highest bidder, of all the real and personal property in the State. Care must be taken that the proper authority be required to divide all divisible property, that shall require it, into such allotments or parcels, as will be likely to cause it to bring the greatest amount, at the time of sale.

6. All persons having such credit, on the books before mentioned, are authorised and required, to bid for, an amount of property, falling short not more than ten per cent, of the sum placed to their credit, and not exceeding it more than ten per cant. Delivery may be made of the whole, if it be real property and the receiver may stand charged with the overplus. If it be personal property -- delivery to be made, only to the amount of the dividend, unless it be secured.

7. When property, real or personal is offered for sale, which is not in its nature divisible, and in its value such as to be of an amount -- greater than would fall to the lot of any one person -- then it shall be proper to receive a joint-bid, of two or more persons, and these may purchase in [140] conjunction, giving in their names, however, at the time of sale.

8. As it regards personal property, which may be secreted, or clandestinely put out of the way; order should be given, that from the time when any inventory, of any person's property of the kind, is made out, up to the completion of the General Sale, the owner should be answerable for the forth-coming of so much as may be left in his possession, at the peril of imprisonment for fourteen years, as is now the punishment for the crime of grand larceny, unless good cause were shown to the contrary. Similar punishment, also, should be visited upon everyone who, knowingly, gave in a false or defective statement of the property he had in his possession, or who, having received his patrimony, goes abroad and receives debts or property which the State has renounced.

9. As the General Sales are closed, their amount should be ascertained, and a new dividend declared. It will then be seen how much this dividend, which may be called a patrimony, differs from the original dividend. By comparing the amount of each person's purchases with this patrimony, it will be seen whether he is creditor or debtor to the State, and how much; and he will be entitled to receive the same from, or required to pay it to, the State accordingly.

10. There is one exception to the delivering of property to persons, who may bid it off. It is to those, for whom, from excessive intemperance, [141] insanity, or other incapacitating cause, the law may provide, as it should, proper and suitable trustees or guardians. Under proper regulations, it should be entrusted to them.

11. While all this is transacting, persons already arrived at the age of maturity, and before they can be put in possession of their own patrimony, will die. Of these and others throughout the State, a daily register should be kept from this time forward forever; and so also should be kept, another register of the births of those now in minority, and of those that shall hereafter be born. The property intended to be given to those who shall thus have died, and the property of those who shall have received their patrimony in consequence of the General Division, and who shall die before the first day of January ensuing, the completion of the General Sales, shall be divided equally among all those who shall have arrived at the age of maturity, between the time of taking the Census aforesaid, and the first day of January just mentioned.

12. An annual dividend, for ever, shall be made of the property, left, throughout the State, by persons dying between the last day of every year and the first day of the next succeeding, among those who, throughout the State, male and female shall have arrived at the age of maturity, within such period: and it shall be at their option, after the dividend is made, to receive it in cash, or to use the credit of it, in the future purchase of other [142] property, which the State will have constantly on sale, in consequence of the decease of other persons in the ensuing year.

13. Property belonging to persons, not citizens but transiently resident among us, and dying here, to abide by the laws which govern the State or nation to which such person belonged, in the disposal of property in such a situation; provided such State or Nation allows the property, or the value thereof, of our citizens, dying there, and leaving property, to be sent home, to abide by the operation of our own laws.

14. Other States or Nations adopting a similar internal organization, as it regards the transmission of property to posterity, and consenting to bestow patrimonies upon minors born in this State, (and who shall prefer receiving them in any such foreign State) upon their producing documents certifying the fact of their nativity, age, &c. and that they have received no patrimony from their native State: shall have the favor reciprocated, under like circumstances: otherwise, a minor born in another State must reside the last ten years of his minority in this, before he can be considered as entitled to the patrimony of a native born citizen, and must moreover be liable to severe punishment, if, either after he has received his patrimony, he accepts aught from his native or other State, by way of legacy or gift; or, before maturity, he receives such legacy or gift, and then accepts the patrimony in question, [143]

15. All persons of full age, from abroad, Ambassadors &c. excepted, resident one year among us, are citizens, and must give up all property over an amount equal to the patrimony of the State for the year being, unless such persons were citizens of a State, acknowledging the equal rights of all men to property, in manner the same as this State is supposed to do.

16. All native born citizens from the period of their birth, to that of their maturity shall receive from the State, a sum paid by monthly or other more convenient instalments, equal to their full and decent maintenance, according to age and condition; and the parent or parents, if living and not rendered unsuitable by incapacity or vicious habits, to train up their children, shall be the persons, authorized to receive it. Otherwise, guardians must be appointed to take care of such children and receive their maintenance -- allowance. They are to be educated also, at the public expense.

17. When the death happens, of either of any two married persons, the survivor, retains one half of the sum of their joint property, their debts being first paid. The other half goes to the State, through the hands of the Public Administrator; this Officer taking charge of the effects of all deceased persons.

48. Punishment by imprisonment, for a term of fourteen years, should be visited upon him, who, during his life time, gives away his property to [144] another. Hospitality is of course not interdicted, but charity is, inasmuch as ample provision will be made by the State for such persons as shall require it. The good citizen has only to inform the applicant for charity where his proper wants will be supplied.

19. All persons after receiving their patrimony will be at full liberty to reside within the State; or to take it, or its avails to any other part of the world which may be preferred, and there to reside, as a citizen or subject of another State.

20. Property being thus continually and equally divided forever, and the receivers of such property embarking in all the various pursuits and occupations of life; these pursuits and occupations must be guaranteed against injury from foreign competition, or, otherwise, indemnity should be made by the State.

I have thus developed the principles of the modification which the Government of this State should undergo, and the means necessary to accomplish it, in order that every citizen may enjoy in a state of society, substantially, the rights which belong to him in a state of nature. I leave the reader therefore for the present to his own reflections; intending in the next chapter to offer such reasons as the subject admits, for enforcing the propriety of adopting such modification, and of the means proposed, of accomplishing it.