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First Principles

Property Rights as the Stumbling Block Against Slavery

It’s the natural right to property—and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise—yesterday and today.


- August 29th, 2019
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The recent charge that the United States was founded on slavery and racism is nothing new. It is a charge that has been leveled repeatedly—and refuted—ever since the Founding. The most decisive response, of course, was the devastating American Civil War, which freed the slaves on the basis of America’s founding proposition that “all men are created equal” in their right to self-government.

But having forgotten the most elementary parts of our history—see Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural for a tutorial—we need to revive our citizenship through recovering our past. When human beings make other human beings their property, our rage should know no bounds. If such slavery is not wrong, then nothing is.

Fortunately, a splendid work that combines sterling scholarship with citizen zeal has just been published, Property and the Pursuit of Happiness, by Edward J. Erler, a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute. While the standard intellectual criticism of America is that it has preferred property over humanity, Erler obliterates this and other banalities with his powerful argument that the protection of the right to property, rightly understood, is the same as the protection of the pursuit of happiness. This was the intention of America’s founders, advanced by Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War, and it is available to us today if we dare to understand it.

Freedom and Flourishing

The key to understanding the central importance of property rights to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, and the other founders was their expansive definition of property. Madison put it succinctly in his Party Press essay of 1792:  “In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.” Property covered more than material possessions—it also included one’s thoughts, religious views, and physical safety.

Moreover, the founders distinguished between the right to acquire property and holding on to the property one already possessed. They were not seeking to cement the status of the already rich but rather to encourage a dynamic economy, where striving for wealth would reward the talented, capable, and ambitious. In fact, the freedom and flourishing of the mind are at the core of protecting property rights and the ability to obtain wealth.

The Continental Congress that drafted the Declaration of Independence replaced Jefferson’s original inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and property” with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Again, for the cognoscenti, this substitution points to a romantic American vision of fulfillment of the spiritual self. Erler has a sobering reprise to such foolishness:  the “founders understood the ‘pursuit of happiness’ as both a right and a moral obligation” (emphasis mine).

America is not a stage for some self-realizing herd of radical individuals, entrepreneurs one day, flower children the next. The Declaration of Independence is a deadly serious document, designed to create a new nation of free, self-governing men and women. They pledge to each other their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” in the cause before them. Their “pursuit of happiness” includes these most solemn duties to each other. There are no free riders.

Thus, Erler is right to observe, “Not since the promulgation of the New Testament has a document had such a profound influence on world opinion as the Declaration of Independence.” The intertwining of religion and politics, properly understood and made famous by French republican Alexis de Tocqueville, was present from the beginning. The first English settlers were New England Puritans and (the ones who bought slaves) Virginia adventurers, but these are to be distinguished from the first Americans who were those created by the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

The Duty of Justice

The best example of how protecting an individual right can serve to protect the community can be found in what became the Second Amendment, the right to keep and bear arms. For this right illustrates “the relationship between rights and obligations that is at the heart of the social compact.”

In fact, Erler goes further, maintaining that “Anyone who is unwilling or incapable of fulfilling his obligation to cooperate in the defense of his fellow citizens cannot be a member of civil society.” The purpose of our freedom in the pursuit of happiness is the duty of justice.

But have we in these reflections on property and the pursuit of happiness left behind fellow Americans who were themselves once considered property? Americans of an earlier, more patriotic generation couldn’t live with this contradiction, which Lincoln repeatedly pointed out. Once freed of the yoke of slavery and thus entering into the social compact of American society, the freedmen knew the beginnings of a longer struggle for freedom.

A New Serfdom?

Today, however, we note that the threat to freedom from the modern administrative state, with its bureaucracy and regulation, is a danger not just to a class of Americans but to all Americans with its claim to be the “universal landlord”—see, for example, the property rights case of Kelo v. City of New London. Erler quickly seizes on the conclusion: If the administrative state is the government “agent for the redistribution of property, then the conclusion is inevitable that ultimately all property . . . belongs to government.”

And this property that the government holds in trust cannot be accessed by individuals unless they show to bureaucrats that they can serve the public better by using it. We live in a time of total regulation, or a new serfdom. “The unregulated life is not worth living.”

Thus, property we know as income, land, and even our capacity for speech (as in radio and television broadcasting licenses) and thoughts (political correctness) all belong—in theory and, increasingly, in practice—to the administrative state, which determines whether the “freedom” involving our supposed property is in the public interest.

So near now to serfdom and lordship, this is the time when those descended from slaves should appreciate both the potential and the perils of the moment. And those who do not have such a legacy can see their fraternity with those whose ancestors once were property.

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