A Journal for Western Man

 

Property Rights Amidst Revolutions

Joseph McCleary

Issue XCIX- May 9, 2007

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Statement of Policy

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The Age of Enlightenment spawned both the American and French revolutions. New thinking about the individual and his relationship to government empowered the people to rebel against tyrannical authority. The French Enlightenment and the British Enlightenment, which was adopted by the Americans, differed in some major respects even though they developed at the same time. The British Enlightenment philosophy recognized the individual as the possessor of all property and rights which resulted in a free people, whereas the French Enlightenment, with the concept of a social body that engulfs the individual and his rights, resulted in the bloodbath of the French Revolution.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the foremost political philosopher of the French Enlightenment. His main political treatise, The Social Contract, was widely read throughout revolutionary France and played a major role in forming the ideals behind the revolution. Rousseau advocated that individuals give up their power to the general populace. Rousseau wrote, "Each of us places in common his person and all his power under the supreme direction of the general will." Rousseau explained that in the social contract, the individual ultimately gives all personal authority to society. Rousseau continued, "And as one body we all receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole." Here, Rousseau proposes that after each person subjects himself to the social body, the body acts without any distinction of the individual members. This destructive philosophy saps the individual of his will. The idea had major consequences in revolutionary France and prompted cries of "Egalité, and Fraternité". It fed the revolutionary terror of the populist government, which acted on behalf of all individuals as the "general will". This ran contrary to the philosophy behind the American Revolution, which empowered the individual over government.

John Locke was the primary philosopher who influenced the British Enlightenment. His work was widely read prior to the American Revolution. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were great admirers, and the Declaration of Independence is evidence of this, as they incorporated many of Locke's ideas. Locke advocated personal liberties and private property over societal and political power. In his Second Treatise of Civil Government, he wrote, "Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent." Locke advocated the individual's freedom and ascendancy over political power. This differs from Rousseau, who said that the individual is subject to the authority of the social body.

Locke passionately defended private property. He wrote, "every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his." Locke explained that a person's property is his and his alone; no other body—whether that be a social body or a tyrant—has the right to take the "work of his hands". This idea was prominent during the American Revolution. The slogan "No taxation without representation" is evidence of this, as it refers to the individual's property rights. In this slogan, the Colonials said that no other body—referring to King George III—was allowed to take their property without their consent.

Unlike the Americans, the French had little respect for property rights. Rousseau's writings clearly illustrate this. In his Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, Rousseau lamented the time in history when the first man enclosed a piece of property and claimed it as his own. He wrote, "From how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes on this property." Rousseau believed that private property, particularly private land, was a misfortune to mankind. Rousseau continued with his collectivist ideas, "You are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody." Rousseau believed that the earth's fruits—or people's goods which they worked for—belonged to everybody, while the earth—or the land—belonged to no one. This radical idea encouraged the revolutionary political body in France to confiscate private property in the name of the people. It occurred in 1790, when the National Assembly confiscated the church's property and also occurred in the seizing of anti-revolutionaries' lands from 1790-1795.

The ideals of the American Revolution advocated a free state in which the individual's property was protected. The French Revolution descended into chaos due to collectivist ideas, which swallowed the individual's property and rights. Edmund Burke—a prominent English statesman who supported the American Revolution and opposed the French Revolution—wrote, "Never did a state, in any case, enrich itself by the confiscation of the citizens." This remains true. States do not enrich themselves when they take away their citizens' property. Common citizens also have a duty to defend their property from encroaching tyranny of all forms. Only then can we live in a free society.

Joseph McCleary is a contributor to The Rational Argumentator.

This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA’s Statement of Policy.

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