This article was last modified on February 2, 2010.

William Wollaston: Property and Truth, 1722 (extreme rough draft and notes)

William Wollaston is a now largely unknown thinker of the 18th century, a man who wrote much but unfortunately committed his papers to the fire in his waning years. What little we have left from him comes almost primarily from one book, The Religion of Nature Delineated. As the title implies, it is a discourse on natural religion, but also touches on a variety of topics, including property.

Interestingly, Wollaston connects the concepts of “property” with “truth”, something of an unusual bridge.

In Defense of First Occupancy

The idea that “first occupancy” can legitimize property rights is controversial, but for Wollaston there was no other logical way to approach the subject. “The first possession of a thing gives the possessor a greater right to it, than any other man has, or can have, till he and all, that claim under him, are extinct.” [Wollaston: 134] First occupancy must be a right, because if it did not grant man a right to property, there would be constant power struggles for material things, and the power to take something must not be considered a legitimate right to take it.

Surely, once a property has been established as belonging to someone, it is generally agreed that no one may take that property from him without just cause. “To usurp or invade the property of another man is injustice: or, more fully, to take, detain, use, destroy, hurt, or meddle with any thing that is his without his allowance, either by force or fraud or any other way, or even to attempt any of these, or assist them, who do, are acts of injustice.” [Wollaston: 137]

Why must those with the power not be given a right to take what they may? Because this would not serve the interest of the general public. As Wollaston says, “Moreover, that a man should have a right to any thing, merely because he has the power to take it, is a doctrine indeed, which may serve a few tyrants, or some bandits and rogues, but is directly opposite to the peace and general good of mankind” [Wollaston: 131] This offers something of an undefined implicit moral argument, either that the greatest good must be served (utilitarianism) or that we must not do to others what we ourselves would not want done to us (a Kantian categorical imperative). Wollaston is not explicit in his moral foundations, and his exact argument for rejecting “might makes right” is unclear beyond that he apparently sees it as self-evident.

Interestingly, the property that is gained illegitimately may become legitimate if not contested. “The successors of an invader, got into possession wrongfully, may acquire a right in time, by the failure of such, as might claim under him who had the right. For he, who happens to be in possession, when all these are extinct, is in the place of a prime occupant.” [Wollaston: 135]

Wounding Truth; or, the True Purpose of Things

Not using something according to its proper use is to “wound truth”. [Wollaston: 27] Wollaston says that the purpose of an enemy is to be killed or to have revenge unleashed upon him. However, an enemy is rarely just an enemy but may be considered as something else, such as “a man” or a “fellow-citizen”. In these respects, he is to be treated humanely.

Actions speak louder than words. A man can pledge loyalty to Caesar, join the enemy, and claim he never denied Caesar. But his actions are more true than his words. [Wollaston: 11] With regard to property, how we use property speaks more to our claim on it than our words.

“If a man steals a horse, and rides away upon him, he may be said indeed by riding him to use him as a horse, but not as the horse of another man, who gave him no license to do this. He does not therefore consider him as being what he is, unless he takes in the respect he bears to his true owner. But it is not necessary perhaps to consider what he is in respect to his color, shape, or age: because the thief’s riding away with him may neither affirm nor deny him to be of any particular color, etc. I say therefore, that those, and all those properties, respects, and circumstances, which may be contradicted by practice, are to be taken into consideration.” [Wollaston: 18]

Ownership of Labor

“Every man hath in himself a principle of individuation, which distinguishes and separates him fro mall other men in such a manner, as many render him and them capable of distinct properties in things (or, distinct subjects of property). That is, B and C are so distinguished, or exist so distinctly, that if there is any thing which B can call his, it will be for that reason not C’s: and v.v. what is C’s will for that reason not be B’s. The proof of this I put upon every man’s own conscience. Let us see then whether there is any thing, which one man may truly call his.” [Wollaston: 127]

“There are some things, to which (at least before the case is altered by voluntary subjection, compact, or the like) every individual man has, or may have, such a natural and immediate relation, that he only of all mankind can call them his. The life, limbs, etc. of B are as much his, as B is himself. It is impossible for C, or any other to see with the eyes of B: therefore they are eyes only to B: and when they cease to be his eyes, they cease to be eyes at all. He then has the sole property in them, it being impossible in nature, that the eyes of B should ever be the eyes of C.” [Wollaston: 127]

“Further, the labor of B cannot be the labor of C: because it is the application of the organs and powers of B, not of C, to the effecting of something; and therefore the labor is as much B’s, as the limbs and faculties made use of are his.Again, the effect or produce of the labor of B is not the effect of the labor of C: and therefore this effect or produce is B’s, not C’s; as much B’s, as the labor was B’s, and not C’s. Because, what the labor of B causes or produces, B produces by his labor; or it is the product of B by his labor: that is, it is B’s product, not C’s, or any other’s. And if C should pretend to any property in that, which B only can truly call his, he would act contrary to truth.” [Wollaston: 127]

“If B works for another man, who pays him for his work, or labor, that alters not the case. He may commute them for money, because they are his.” [Wollaston: 128]


“who has the use and disposal of any thing, has all that he can have of it; and v.v. he who has the all (or property) of any thing, must have all the use and disposal of it. So that a man cannot more fully proclaim any thing to be his, than by using it, etc.” [Wollaston: 10]

“That whoever acts as if things were so, or not so, doth by his acts declare, that they are so, or not so.” [Wollaston: 13]

“If A steals a book from B which was pleasing nad useful to him, it is true A is guilty of a crime in not treating the book as being what it is, the book of B, who is the proprietor of it, and one whose happiness partly depends on it: but still if A should deprive B of a good estate, of which he was the true owner, he would be guilty of a much greater crime. For if we suppose the book to be worth to him one pound, and the estate 10000 [pounds] that truth, which is violated by depriving B of his book, is in effect violated 10000 times by robbing him of his estate. It is the same as to repeat the theft of one pound 10000 times over”. [Wollaston: 21]

“If the glass be nothing else but an useful drinking-glass, and these words fully express what it is, to treat it accordingly is indeed to drink out of it, when there is occasion and it is truly useful, and to break it designedly is to do what is wrong.” [Wollaston: 30]

“That, which no man has yet any title to, the finder may take without the violation of any truth. He doth not deny that to be another man’s, which is another man’s: he doth not begin to interrupt the happiness of any body, etc. Therefore to possess himself of it is not wrong.” [Wollaston: 134]

Property may be transferred by the owner through compact and this does not violate truth.

“There is then such a thing as property, founded in nature and truth: or, there are things, which one man only can, consistently with nature and truth, call his.” [Wollaston: 136]

“Those things, which only one man can truly and properly call his, must remain his, till he agrees to part with them [or he dies].” [Wollaston: 136]

“To have the property of any thing and to have the sole right of using and disposing of it are the same thing: they are equipollent expressions.” [Wollaston: 136]

“Laws indeed have introduced a way of speaking, by which the property and the usufruct are distinguished; but in truth the usufructuary has a temporary, or limited property; and the proprietary has a perpetual usufruct, either at present, or in reversion. Propriety without the use (if the use is never to come to the proprietary) is an empty found.” [Wollaston: 137]

“He, who uses or disposes of any thing, does by that declare it to be his.” [Wollaston: 137]

“For by taking that, which (by the supposition) is his neighbor’s, he acts as if it was not his neighbor’s, but his own, and therefore plainly contradicts fact, and those truths … respecting property” [Wollaston: 171]


Wollaston, William. The Religion of Nature Delineated. Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1974. (originally 1722)

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

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