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Thomas Skidmore, Property as a Weapon: 1829

“If a man were to ask me, to what I would compare the unequal distribution of property which prevails in the world, and has ever prevailed, I would say, that it reminds me of a large party of gentlemen, who should have a common right to dine at one and the same public table; a part of whom should arrive first, sit down and eat what they chose; and then, because the remaining part came later to dinner, should undertake to monopolize the whole; and deprive them of the opportunity of satisfying their hunger, but upon terms such as those who had feasted, should be pleased to prescribe.”

Thomas Skidmore (1790–1832) was a leader and theorist of the early American labor movement. His “Rights of Man and Property” (1829) called for the organization of the propertyless and near-propertyless to displace the existing government with a popular convention that would: expropriate the great fortunes of the day; harness the power of the developing industries for the common good; and establish a social and economic democracy.

Skidmore was very blunt and strong in his language against the upper classes. “Inasmuch as great wealth is an instrument which is uniformly used to extort from others their property, it ought to be taken away from its possessors on the same principle that a sword or pistol may be wrested from a robber.” And “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 disproportionate 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.”

He railed against the “right” of the rich to remain lazy simply because of their inheritance, and felt any wealth extracted from the working class was wrong:

“Even if it be admitted that the present possessors of property, in any country, are the true and rightful owners of it, beyond any question, still I maintain that they have no just right to use it in such a manner, as to extract from others, the result of their labors, for the purpose of exempting themselves from the necessity of laboring as much as others must labor, for a like amount of enjoyment. The moment that any possessor of property, makes such use of it, I care not how, nor under the sanction of what law, or system of laws, as to live in idleness, partial or total, thus supporting himself, more or less, on the labors of others; that moment he contravenes and invades the rights of others; and has placed himself in the condition which would justify the party injured, in dispossessing the aggressor, of the instrument of his aggression.”

Skidmore supported a variant of historical Rome’s Agrarian Law, saying that the rise of the aristocracy was the beginning of the fall of Rome. He felt that land in America could and should have been divided up more evenly. “Undoubtedly the domain of a State or Nation, 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.” He argued against those, including a certain Mr. Raymond, that said equal divisions of land were contrary to nature.

He defines property as “the whole material world: just as it came from the hands of the Creator.” Skidmore is unclear as to how something can become private property, as all the earth is the property of mankind, and even labor upon something requires that something to be a material owned by all (he seemingly accepts the idea of “positive community”). He further does not accept occupation or mere possession as a signs of ownership, but feels that private property can only arise from consent. As has been discussed regarding many other property theorists, it is impractical — indeed, impossible — to get consent from all of mankind. Should an Indian kill a deer, he does not then own the deer, because “the animal is the property of the whole, and if consent have not been given, it still remains their property, whatever one of their number may have thought or done to the contrary. For the owners of this deer, are only to be divested of their right and title to it, by their own act — and not by the act of another.”

We tend to think of “property” in terms of “private property” most often. “Indeed, the right of property, as the term is usually understood, is vastly more vague and fluctuating, than most of us are inclined to imagine. One would think, that if there be any one quality by which property can be known, it is this; that it cannot be taken away without the owner’s consent. For, if it can, it is not easy to understand how it can be property.” Yet, Skidmore points out that no government has a firm law of property grounded in principle. The very fact taxation laws exist imply that governments can overrule the “right to property” by simply changing how much they wish to take. There is no real consent involved. One might argue that should we wish to avoid sales tax, we could avoid buying things, but that is, of course, not a realistic argument.

Skidmore found fault with the words of Thomas Jefferson who claimed “all men are created equal” and that we have a right to “the pursuit of happiness”. He says that “if property is to descend only to particular individuals from the previous generation, and if the many are born, having neither parents nor any one else, to give them property, equal in amount to that which the sons of the rich, receive, from their fathers and other testators, how is it established that they are created equal? In the pursuit of happiness, is property of no consequence? Can any one he as happy without property of any kind, as with it?” His interpretation of Jefferson here is quite narrow and probably misguided, though he raises some valid points. We should also recall that in 1829, slavery was still a booming institution, and infringed upon equality, the pursuit of happiness, and any right to property.

Skidmore points out the inherently unequal methods of inheritance when he says “if two shepherds immediately adjacent to each other, should die, at the same time, one having, it may be, five children, and the other only one; would inquiry arise why the one child should have the flocks of the one father, and the five children have only the flocks of the other father?” He calls forth an important point that he ignores: perhaps the best way to have prosperous children is to have few of them.

He actually tends to think inheritance as a whole is foolish. “May not the being, it is asked, who has once owned property, and is now deceased, have his wishes gratified, by having such disposition made of that which was once his, as he may have desired in his life-time? I answer, no; unless he created it; unless, indeed, he brought it into existence with his own hands.” But this raises an objection: a living man may dispose of property as he wishes, but not a dead man. Should a man know his death was soon, he could begin the process of passing on his possessions. But what if death is premature or sudden? Wills and inheritance may not be perfect, but gambling on the time of death leaves even more to chance.

But he does raise a valid point as to how such possession may come about unequally. “Thus, in the first settlement of this State (New York), one man, of the name of Van Renssellaer, received an enormous grant of more than three hundred thousand acres of land, having a location second to none, except to this city and its vicinity, in advantages of every kind; and yet any contract entered into, between this large possessor, and the thousands and tens of thousands who were denied their equal rights With him, is to be considered as moral and good!” Regardless of the vast swaths of land available in America (ignoring the natives), is it fair or in the best interest of the people to grant one man more acres than he could ever hope to use? Surely not.

An interesting philosophical point is raised when Skidmore suggests, “One tree cannot own or have property in another. When mind is absent, there is no proprietor. When matter is absent, there is no property. Matter cannot own matter. It is perverting every thing to suppose such an absurdity.” Under Cartesian dualism, such a system works fine. But what if the materialists are right, and people are merely matter? Can matter own matter? This also calls forth the ideas of Hegel, who felt that to own something we must project something of our personalities into it. If such personalities are not real, Hegel is wrong.

Sources

Skidmore, Thomas. Rights of Man to Property Burt Franklin, 1966.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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