American Concepts of Property and State Development

The development of the American state has been heavily influenced by different understandings of property over time. What the founding fathers felt about property is not how all leaders have always thought about it, and their opinions regarding private property significantly influenced the choices they made in developing the country and its systems. This is reflected in their early writings. At the beginning, property was considered public for all. Some still feel this way. Today, however, and for the founding fathers, property became privately owned.

Early notes show that there was some confusion in who could own property or if, in fact, anyone could own property at all. Most of the writers in the time of the founding fathers believed in God and felt that all of the world was given to man, in general, and so owning any property individually was a difficult idea to grasp. However, they conceded that man did own some things, such as anything he had worked on himself. A man who farmed land owned what he produced, and could, to some degree, also own the land that it came from because the land was tied to the production itself.


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Locke covers this idea in chapter 5 of his writing. Initially, all land did belong to all men, who were, in fact, created equally. This idea was featured prominently in the Declaration of Independence. “All men were created equal,” states the Declaration. If, then, the founding fathers were thinking like Locke, owning property would be a difficult concept to grasp. It may not have been easy in America, either, where all of the land was new and free to the colonists. There was so much land for the taking, since Native Americans did not concern the colonists at all.
Westward expansion allowed for all men to have property which they could farm and live on without needing to officially own it. They “owned” the property via natural law, that if they took care of the land and produced from it, that it would become theirs. Locke has this to say about the natural rights of property: “Though the water running in the fountain be every one’s, yet who can doubt, but that in the pitcher is his only who drew it out? His labour hath taken it out of the hands of nature, where it was common, and belonged equally to all her children, and hath thereby appropriated it to himself.
” That is, anything that comes from nature or is a part of nature belongs to anyone and everyone, but when someone reaps from the land, or draws some small bit of it for himself, it belongs only to him. Locke is convinced that property is a general concept, whereby everything that doesn’t belong to someone personally (and then only because he possesses it) belongs to everyone. However, should someone gather food or drink for himself, to which is naturally entitled, he then owns what he has gathered.
This leads to the idea that property is allowed when a man works the land. If he works it, and he can use what he produces, then he owns it. In America’s beginnings, nearly all men would have had to work land to some extent in order to survive. They would also need land on which to house their families. So, the view of property originally grew out of sheer need. The small government expected that men would need to work land to survive. This was especially true when the immigrants were few and there was no nearby central government to care for them.
At first there were barely even real civilizations, so very little division of labor could take place. A man’s life was defined by working his land and supporting his family that way, and so he would come to own the property he occupied. This definition of property owning would persist well into America’s history in certain circumstances. For example, during Westward expansion, all a man had to do to own the land was to live on it and work it for several consecutive months, and then he owned it. In addition to this natural law of who could own property, there were certain considerations.
A man should not take more than he can reasonably use, because it would deny another man land that he could use. Instead, the first man should take only what he needs, so that all men could have a chance to have their needs met through the use of property. This was, of course, more of an ideal than an actual law at this time, but considered a necessary courtesy. It was also a reaction to the tyranny of the king of England. In the development of the owning of property in the new United States, the founding fathers were reacting very strongly to the tyranny of the king.
The king, many writers felt (including Thomas Paine, who saw government as a necessary evil and nothing better), had taken what was naturally available and made it his own when he should not have. The king was abusing his power, Paine wrote, and although God had given him some power, He had not given him as much as he had taken. Because this feeling about the power was prevalent, the new government did not want to take away these natural laws that held that men were equal and were entitled to land they worked. The government strongly opposed intervention and a major central government.
Paine in particular was so opposed to strong government that he wrote this: “Monarchy is ranked in scripture as one of the sins of the Jews, for which a curse in reserve is denounced against them. ” Monarchy especially was seen as wrong, because it destroyed the very nature of men as equal in the eyes of God. Of course, Paine, and other writers of the time, were heavily concerned with the power of any strong central government, because these governments had greed for land and power, and used one to get the other. Otis was especially concerned with this connection.
Another concern for the founding fathers was the nature and necessity of property in a government. Some seemed to feel that property was a necessary part of the government. That is, in order to really exist, the government had to own and deal with property. But in “Otis Rights,” the author claims that that isn’t true. He writes, “…therefore government is not founded on property or its security alone, but at lest on something else in conjunction. ” That is, the government might have a need to deal with property, but owning property does not define a government.
He goes on to say that a government need not be based on property, which is likely also a reaction to the British rule. The British “owned” the land for what became the United States, and therefore they had a right to govern it. This author does not agree with that philosophy. British rule used the fact that they “owned” the land in their own country, and the land in this “new world” to their advantage, politically. Their empire had expanded, and they saw fit to treat the colonies in any way that would grant them more power.
Many of the ways they treated the colonies – soldiers constantly occupying their territory, for one – were to maintain their dominance and keep hold of their territory. Otis and others were very concerned about this misuse of power and property. With the Declaration of Independence, the founding fathers were declaring that, in fact, England did not own them, and could no longer do the things that they were unhappy with, including high taxes; governance without representation; occupation during peace times; forcing citizens to quarter soldiers, and more.
England did not have rights to their property or anything in this country, and so would have to relinquish the control they had. In this way, citizens were declaring their own right to have property because of the natural rights that existed, and that God had given them as equal men. The political consequences of this move were obviously huge. The Declaration itself brought about the American Revolution, in which the newly formed United States fought for these rights against the British.
Additionally, not all men within the colonies would have agreed, which is why the Declaration itself went through so many versions before it was finalized. Having so many different definitions of property was tough on the new Americans. Britain told them they did not own their land, while Americans felt that they did, since they lived on it and worked it. This of course led to a huge power struggle and ultimately the war between England and the colonies. It also led to struggles between colonists who supported the war and those who remained loyal to England.
Some in the colonies certainly felt that they were not entitled to own the property; that because they had left England to help England expand its empire, they owed what they had to the country. After the war was over, the government was left in pieces in America. The rulers were still determined to have no strong central government, to avoid the tyranny that they had just escaped from. Instead, states and individuals were given power. The focus was on the natural rights of man rather than any major leading body. This gave the American states a large amount of power in and of themselves.
As they were developing, boundary lines began to be drawn, which essentially designated certain land as the individual states’ property. The states then took it upon themselves to create other arbitrary rules that citizens, and other states, would have to follow. They created their own money, and certain tariffs on trade between the states. Effectively, the states became drunk with their own power. It is interesting that in trying to limit the power of large, overbearing system that the government created many small systems of power that made life even more difficult for some.
There is, however, another major problem with the original idea of property. Locke is absolutely certain that whoever works the land and makes use of what it produces is the owner of the land. He is also certain that whoever does this should be praised for his efforts, because developed land cares for many and yields nourishment for citizens. God, he says, intended man to use what He had given them. However, in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson originally intended to put in a section that showed he abhorred slavery and it would not be tolerated.
All men were not only equal, he wrote, but also “independent. ” In deference to a couple of southern states, namely North Carolina and Georgia, this part was removed from the Declaration. It was not the only concession made, but it was an important one. Slaves were not considered to be men who were equal under the law, and they had no rights. However, they worked the land and they produced, so by Locke’s argument, they should own the land on which they worked. Of course, they did not.
Slaves themselves were owned as property, and could not own property themselves. This meant that their land owners should not own the land because they did not work it themselves, but they came to own both the land and the slaves. This was a point of contention in the original Congress, but as the Declaration could not be finished and signed until the delegates all agreed on something, the issue of slavery (despite its obvious contradictions) was left alone for the time being. Despite its general evils, writers believed that some form of government was necessary.
In “Otis Rights,” the author states “…I affirm that government is founded on the necessity of our natures; and that an original supreme Sovereign absolute, and uncontroulable, earthly power must exist in and preside over every society…. ” This view of government did fly in the face of many others, including Paine, who still believed that the government was a barely necessary evil, and should not have much control over what went on. As Otis points out, though, due to the nature of man, some kind of government was necessary. Without a strong, but fair government, the country would find itself in trouble again.
Of course, within only a few years, the country realized (despite their initial thoughts on the matter) that a complete lack of a central government was really no better than an overly strong central government. States squabbled amongst themselves over money, property rights, and more. The government had to step in and do something about it. The states were finding themselves doing what the British government had: owning property for the sake of owning it, rather than using it as a natural right that God had given them, and to be used for the protection and enhancement of all men.
In this time, there were a lot of logical fallacies that would have great political consequences in the future, such as in the late 1700s when the central government realized that it did need to take a firmer role in running the country. Later on, the Civil War would result. Overall, the development of the American state took time, but boundary lines were drawn, and property was divided up for those states. This in itself was an interesting problem, as drawing boundary lines violated what many writers felt at the time.
The states did not and could not really “own” the land by the arguments the writers gave, yet they did own the land. Within those states, men owned individual parts of the land, and that agreed with the natural laws as stated. In general, the American views on property took awhile to develop, and were very much in reaction to the British stronghold in the beginning. Differences in ideas necessitated the beginning of the Continental Congress, the drafting of the Declaration, and the war itself.
However, it also led to the development of the American states, regardless of any problems that they had initially. Reacting solely to Britain’s tyranny was not the best way to make decisions about a new government. Rather, the writers needed to take into consideration what their people currently needed, the way that Otis did in his writings. The nature of man is such that a government needs to watch over the people so that bad things do not happen to them, even if the government is a potential evil to them.
Once the colonists realized this, things ended up fine for them, and the states developed a healthier relationship with one another and with other sources. Politically it was a fascinating time, no more so than any other in history, but one that shows the growth of a new country out of small, humble beginnings, belonging to another country entirely. Americans pushed for growth, freedom, and independence for all, even if the final version of the Declaration did not explicitly say so.
This thirst for what was right, for restoring man’s natural rights of property and of equality led the Americans to the political juncture they faced with England, and it led them to freedom as independent states. America would never be the same once the Declaration was written, not with all of the strong rebels that lived in the country. They persevered, and the result is the great country that we all now live in, a country where every person has the right to own property, and every state has some of its own rights.
The early days factored heavily into today’s current perception, and it is good that it did. America is a country of freedom. Sources Jefferson, Thomas (1776). “The Declaration of Independence. ” Locke, John (1776). “Second Treatise on Civil Government. ” Accessed December 2, 2007. Website: http://www. constitution. org/jl/2ndtreat. htm. Otis, James (1776). “The Rights of the British Colonists Asserted and Proved. ” Paine, Thomas (1776). “Common Sense. ” Accessed December 2, 2007. Website: http://www. constitution. org/civ/comsense. htm.

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