Amos Gilbert, A Sketch of the Life of Thomas Skidmore, With Appended Selections from Skidmore's Rights of Man to Property!, Introduced, annotated & edited by Mark A. Lause (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 1984).

Selections from The Rights of Man to Property!

Written under the pressure of events, Skidmore's work appeared in the Summer of 1829 under the imprint of Alexander Ming, a prominent supporter of the ideas it expressed and an old friend of Thomas Paine. Since, various anthologies have included passages from the book and the Burt Franklin company issued a facsimile reprint of the entire work. The following edited excerpts, with modernized punctuation, offer a glimpse of the sweeping scope and polemical power of this neglected classic of American labor history.

Labor: the Only Just Title to Own

There is no man of the least reflection who has not observed that the effect -- in all ages and countries -- of the possession of great and undue wealth, is to allow those who possess it to live on the labor of others. And yet there is not truth more readily, cheerfully, and universally acknowledged than that the personal exertions of each individual of the human race are exclusively and unalienably his own.

It would seem, then, to be no bad specimen of argument, to say, inasmuch as great wealth is an instrument which is uniformly used to extort from others their property in their personal qualities and efforts, that it ought to be taken away from its possessor, on the same principle that a sword or a pistol may be wrested from a robber who shall undertake to accomplish the same effect in a different manner.

One thing must be obvious to the plainest understanding; that as long as property is unequal -- or, rather, as long as it is so enormously unequal as we see it at present -- that those who possess it, will live on the labor of others and themselves perform none -- or, if any, a very disporportionate share -- of that toil which attends them as a condition of their existence, and without the performance of which they have no just right to preserve or retain that existence even for a single hour.

It is not possible to maintain a doctrine to the contrary of this position without, at the same time, maintaining an absurdity no longer tolerated in enlightened countries: that a part -- and that a very great part -- of the human race are doomed of right to the slavery of toil, while others are born only to enjoy. [3-4]

New Technology

The Steam-Engine is not injurious to the poor when they can have the benefit of it. And this -- on supposition being always the case -- instead of being looked upon as a curse would be hailed as blessing. If, then, it is seen that the Steam-Engine, for example, is likely to greatly impoverish or destroy the poor what have they to do, but TO LAY HOLD OF IT, AND MAKE IT THEIR OWN? LET THEM APPROPRIATE ALSO, in the same way, THE COTTON FACTORIES, THE WOOLEN FACTORIES, THE IRON FOUNDERIES, THE ROLLING MILLS, HOUSES, CHURCHES, SHIPS, GOODS, STEAM-BOATS, FIELDS OF AGRICULTURE, &c. &c. &c. in manner as proposed in this work, AND AS IS THEIR RIGHT, and they will never have occasion any more to consider that as an evil [that] which never deserved that character, which, on the contrary, is all that is good among men, and of which we cannot, under these new circumstances, have too much. It is an equal division of property that MAKES ALL RIGHT, and an equal transmission of it to posterity KEEPS IT SO. [383-84]

Social Classes

... [I]t 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. [17]

Nor is it improbable that holders of much smaller fortunes -- although far above what will probably be the amount of the patrimony heretofore spoken of -- would find it much more to their interest than they at first thought may imagine to insist upon the levelling of their Colossal neighbors. Every day furnishes evidence of the ease with which capitals of from one to five or ten millions swallow up and appropriate to themselves other capitals of thirty, fifty or a hundred thousand, so that the very precarious tenure by which their small fortunes are held ought to be an admonition to those who hold them to accept of a smaller amount when it can be held by a tenure altogether secure. In the pecuniary world, it is much the same as it is in the vegetable: large umbrageous trees overshadow those which are smaller and prevent their growth. Independent, therefore, of every consideration of right, due to any and every fellow being around us the possessors of smaller fortunes have an undoubted interest in pulling down those which are larger. [334-35]

Nor let the man of toil, the man of no possessions forget to understand himself. Let him not believe that there is aught of value or of worth in man save such as he and his kindred producers bring forth to mankind. Let him not forget that all these improvements, all these productions of art and industry -- the surviving fruits of the labor of his ancestors -- are now actually less than they would have been if rich men had never existed. For every dollar paid to them by way of interest, by way of rent for houses and lands, by way of profit in trade or manufactures over and above the same return which poor men receive for similar service in superintendence is so much for idleness to subsist upon. [246]

I hasten to commit it (the book] to the hands, the heads and the hearts of those for whose benefit it is written. It is to them that I look for the power necessary to bring the system it recommends into existence. If they shall think I have so far understood myself and the subject I have undertaken to discuss as to have perceived and marked out the path that lead them to the enjoyment of their rights, their interests and their happiness, IT WILL BE FOR THOSE WHO ARE SUFFERING THE EVILS of which I have endeavored to point out the causes and the remedies, TO LEAD THE WAY. Those who are enjoying the sweets of the labor of others will have no hearts to feel for the misery which the present system occasions. And the first throe of pain which they will feel will be that of alarm that they are soon to be ordered to riot on the toils of others no more forever! But those who suffer will feel no cause of alarm. The very intensity of their sufferings, since now they understand their origin and cure, will add double vigor to their exertions to recover their rights. But let them understand that much is to be done to accomplish this recover. IT IS TO BE THE RESULT OF THE COMBINED EXERTIONS OF GREAT NUMBERS OF MEN. These, by no means, now understand their true situation, but when they do, they will be ready and willing to do what belongs to their happiness. If, then, there be truth -- if there be reason -- if there be force of argument in the work which I thus commit to the hands of those for whose benefit it is written, let them read. Let it be read. Let it be conversed about in the hearing of those whose interest it is to hear whatever of truth, of reason, and argument it may contain, and as often, too, as there may be opportunity. Let them awake to a knowledge of their rights, and how they may be obtained, and they will not be slow (since it will then be so easy) to reclaim them. [387-88]

The Responsibilities of World Citizenship

. . . [N]ations 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? [131]

The present allotment of the surface of the globe among its inhabitants is probably such that it is capable, if circumstances admitted, of receiving much improvement. There is no doubt that many countries are overpeopled, particularly for the habits, knowledge and other circumstances that now prevail among them. And they who should leave them and go to others which need population would not only make their own condition happier, but confer additional happiness on the inhabitants of those countries to which they should emigrate. [50]

. . . It is THE LIVING who give the present holders of property the possession of it; it is we ourselves -- for in us and us alone, rests the title -- who have done it, and who yet allow it to be said (and hardly without contradiction from us) that others have done it. It is a mistake. IT IS NONE BUT THE GENERATION PRESENT that gives to what are called heirs the possessions they enjoy. Without this gift -- this unjust and undeserved gift -- they could not and would not have it at all! It is in OUR POWER, then to CALL BACK the gift whenever we shall think fit! That NOW IS THE TIME need not further be shewn for in showing that ALL MEN HAVE EQUAL RIGHTS as well TO PROPERTY, as to life and liberty, everything is shewn that is requisite. [284]

If we were to allow the principle that because a man came into possession, even by rightful means, of the materials of the world, or a portion of them, and employed upon them his industry, judiciously or otherwise, that, therefore, the materials as well as the labor so employed upon them were of right his property -- and, as such, that he had a right to dispose of them as to him should seem good -- it would go the full length of annihilating, in toto, the rights of every subsequent generation. For, I have only to inclose, perhaps, or fertilize a field which a majority of my cotemporary fellow-beings shall have given me in order to make it mine, absolutely mine, and to deny possession of it, if I shall say so, to every human being coming after me forever. Under this pretext of ownership in property, we could set forests on fire, and consume them so that future generations should reap no benefit from them. A coal-mine, where circumstances admitted of it, might be burnt up in a similar manner. . . . Yet surely, it cannot be pretended that a theory of rights which leads to such baneful results can be a just and true theory. [117-18]

Nature Demands Human Equality

I would give the same rights of suffrage to the red man, the black man, and the white man. I would oppose everything of privilege now disfiguring our present Constitution, in whatever shape it might present itself. . . . [146]

. . . [H]istory informs us, children 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. [131-32]

The present Constitution guarantees to the Indians of this State the entire and exclusive possession of what they, as well as the State, call their lands. Now, these . . . are to be surrendered up in order that, if they be more than their equitable proportion, some of them shall be taken from them -- if they be less, then, that more may be given to them, so as to place them on a footing of equality with their white brethren, in respect to both real and personal estate. [158]

The same eternal and indissoluble rights exist for all: "all men are created equal." And neither governments, nor others, have any right, so to speak, to uncreate them. The black man's right to suffrage, being a personal right, is as perfect as the white man's and so also is his right of property. But if the present constitution existed and the colored citizen were put in possession of his equal portion of the domain of the State and all its personal effects, he would not have the same right to appear at the ballot boxes as the white man. It is necessary that he should have such right. . . . It would be non- sense on the one hand to say, "this is your property," and, on the other, to tell him "but you shall not have the same power to defend it as belongs to another." Nor can it be pretended, on any account, that what some people call policy should sanction the withholding from the black man the same right of suffrage which is extended to the white man by reason of the former existence of slavery among us. [158-59]

. . . [The right of suffrage, being a personal right, co-existent with the being himself, belongs to him also as a means of its defence and preservation, as well as of his personal liberty. It follows that woman as well as man is entitled to the same right of suffrage and ought, on no consideration to be deprived of it. It is not necessary to say one word on the propriety or utility of its exercise. This a matter to be left wholly and exclusively to the judgement and pleasure of her or him to whom such right belongs, independent and regardless, even, of the whole community.

To restore the right of suffrage to those to whom it has hitherto been denied -- but to whom of course it belongs with as much propriety as it belongs to anyone -- it is necessary that the State Constitution should be remodelled, and for this, in addition to the reasons already given, it is requisite to assemble a new State Convention. [159-60]

The Danger of Counterrevolution

. . . [The rich, now and then, will cast their eyes on this Work. And they, too, will see that the system which it proposes must, sooner or later, take place. Ultimately, the whole of them will come to the same conclusion. So many of them as shall dread its approach and shall not have the moral honesty to surrender up to the disposition of their fellow citizens all that they have, will, of course, conceal as much as they can. And that which is the most desireable to conceal and the easiest concealed is money. Now, whenever it shall appear -- correctly or otherwise (it is no matter) -- to the rich generally, that the great mass of the people have very nearly awakened to the determination to resume their rights and, pursuant thereto, to order a General Division of property, these concealments will take place very suddenly and perhaps to such an extent as to withdraw the precious metals entirely from circulation, out of the banks as well as elsewhere. In such an event, the banks would be broken and, as there would be no circulating medium. All business would be instantly suspended. Those who now carry on extensive business would have nothing with which to pay off their hands. And, if they had, they might be as willing as others to bury it in the earth for the purpose of defrauding the community out of it.

In such an event -- which is far from being impossible -- the wished-for change would arrive earlier than is already anticipated in this work, and in manner somewhat different . . . . If it should so happen, it will not be the fault of this Work or of the great mass of the people and may not be that even of the majority of the rich, for even a very few of them would be able to put away all the precious metals that are to be found in the State. And, as to other States, they could no more spare their precious metals than ourselves without coming in contact with a similar catastrophe, and of which they too will be in similar danger. Besides, as to personal property in the city of New-York alone, there is probably more in value than all the specie money in the United States, twice, or even thrice told. So that it will be no difficult thing, if dishonesty prevails -- even to a small extent among the rich -- to bring about the withdrawal of which I am speaking.

Under such circumstances, it may said that the government has suddenly ceased to exist -- that it has expired, as it were, in a fit of apoplexy. And it will then be incumbent on the people to organize a temporary committee of safety, and take care immediately that no property leaves the State or is wasted or destroyed further than is necessary for subsistence, until a State Convention can be assembled to form a new government on principles corresponding with all the rights of man, and which -- as it ensures his happiness by preserving his equality and that of all succeeding generations -- we may confidently hope will be eternal. . [389-90]

The Revolutionary Process

So much are mankind the creatures of habit that wherever they happened 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 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. [14-15]

For what will be the true character of all the discussion which this or any other similar work may excite, if it shall excite any? Will it not be in the nature of an inquiry into the rights of property? Will it not be a tribunal -- small and of few members at first but constantly increasing (if there be justice to all men in the principles I advocate) -- investigating the title by which any and every man holds in possession for his own exclusive use that which he calls his own? And when the entire community of the citizens of this State shall all have taken a share of duty in these investigations what else will it be but a great judicial tribunal of all our citizens sitting in judgement over and deciding for themselves in their own primary capacity upon the right to property which each man holds or pretends to hold? [311]

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