“The Second Greatest Force in the Universe” – Ownership of Property and Personhood in the 19th Century (Part 1 of 3)

How does the owning of property shape our sense of individuality? And what if you are the property? (Photo by fables98 via Flickr)
How does the owning of property shape our sense of individuality? And what if you are the property? (Photo by fables98 via Flickr)

Walter Lippmann, the famous American reporter who was among the first people to introduce the concept of the Cold War, once said that “Private property was the original source of freedom.  It still is its main bulwark”. From the earliest days of enlightenment philosophy, the right to own property and the effects that such ownership has on individuals has been central to discussions about democracy, especially within the United States. In his Second Treatise of Civil Government, the theorist John Locke, a man whose writing was immensely influential in the formation of the democratic republic that would become America, wrote that “The reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property” (Locke). With philosophical foundations like this, it is not hard to see how the United States developed into a nation so obsessed with materialism; the owning, buying, and selling of various kinds of ‘property,’ whether goods, services, or even people.

It is within these latter disenfranchised figures that the idea of ‘property’ becomes complex and convoluted. In America’s past, there have been two groups of people treated as property. Juridically, African-Americans were bought and sold within America up until 1865. Socially, women have been treated as property well into the 21st century; in fact, they were incapable of legally owning property in some states until the 1900s.

African American women were, in a very real sense,  doubly disenfranchised. (Photo by ABQ MUSEUM PHOTOARCHIVES via Flickr)
African-American women were, in a very real sense, doubly disenfranchised. (Photo by ABQ MUSEUM PHOTOARCHIVES via Flickr)

From 1830 through 1900, it is a small wonder that ownership and property were ideas very much in the forefront of the public mind. Around this time, Congress enacted the first copyright laws. Soon, not only would land and money be legally owned by companies or individuals, but ideas, voices, and words would also be up for grabs in the public domain. In their essay The Sociology of Property Rights, Bruce Carruthers and Laura Ariovich state in the section titled “Objects of Property” that “In the past, ideas were not something to own (during the Middle Ages, knowledge was viewed as a gift from God), but with patent, trademark, and copyright laws, designs, symbols, and forms of writing could become property” (Carruthers and Ariovich, 25). How could it be, then, that at a time in America when so many people were becoming ‘owners’ of ‘property’, two large groups of individuals were pointedly left out.

The original title page from Kate Chopin's The Awakening
The original title page from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

Two novels published during this era relate directly to this question of property and confront, if not explicitly challenge, the system. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl focus on the struggles of their respective heroines, Edna Pontellier and Linda, as they attempt to escape from the patriarchal systems under which they are subjugated. Both of these texts explore the various ways the concept of ‘property’ both confines and liberates the novels’ protagonists. Both women are treated as property; while one is treated socially as thus and the other is, in fact a legally owned object, their struggles to gain self-ownership both center around their desire to reject their ‘object’ status. What is revealing about this endeavor, however, is that both women succeed in this goal by becoming ‘owners’ themselves, whether it be of people, property, or ideas. In order to prove their ‘self-hood’ and ‘self-ownership’ to the world, these women are forced to participate in the very system of ownership from which they are attempting to escape. In the end, however, even after having accrued a certain amount of property, both women experience an imperfect sense of their own freedom.

Works Cited

Carruthers, Bruce G. Laura Ariovich. “The Sociology of Property Rights.” Annual Review of Sociology Vol. 30 (2004): 23-46. JSTOR. Web. 1 Mar. 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29737683.

Locke, John. “John Locke / Of The State of Nature (on Liberty versus License).” The School of Cooperative Individualism / Welcome Page. Web. 13 Mar. 2011. http://www.cooperativeindividualism.org/locke_liberty_vs_licence.html.

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

4 thoughts on ““The Second Greatest Force in the Universe” – Ownership of Property and Personhood in the 19th Century (Part 1 of 3)

  1. As Robin elegantly points out, there was a time in human history when people sought freedom by resisting the coercive power of the State to take whatever it wanted, for whatever purpose it chose, without regard to cost to the individual and the development of a civil society. If modern liberalism continues to be enamored with the notion of waging war on poverty, consider the following quotation from Dr. Jacob Bronowski in his landmark work, The Ascent of Man.

    “Of course it’s tempting to close one’s eyes to history, and instead speculate about the roots of war in some possible animal instinct: as if, like the tiger, we still had to kill to live, or, like the robin redbreast, to defend a nesting territory. But war, organized war, is not a human instinct. It is a highly planned and cooperative form of theft. And that form of theft began 10,000 years ago when the harvesters of wheat accumulated a surplus and the nomads rose out of the desert to rob them of what they themselves could not provide. The evidence for that, we saw, in the walled city of Jericho and its prehistoric tower… That is the beginning of war. ”

    If we fail to respect private property, we consign humanity to perpetual strife. The Founders of the United States understood this essential “enlightenment insight” and laid it within the foundation of our constitution to build the most prosperous and peaceful Nation in the History of Mankind.

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