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The Fateful Choice: The Pilgrims Assign Private Property Rights in Land

On the eve of Thanksgiving here in the US, Andro Linklater, the author of a new book, Owning the Earth:  The Transforming History of Land Ownership (Bloomsbury), describes how the Pilgrims imposed their notions of private property on the land commons in the New World.  The consequences – while perhaps inevitable, whether from them or other settlers – were nonetheless pivotal in the future development of America.  Lanklater published an excerpt of his book recently on the Bloomberg News website. (Tragically, Linklater died a week before his book’s publication on November 12.)

In 1623, William Bradford, the future governor of the colony, declared that land would be privately owned and managed, with each family assigned a parcel of land “according to the proportion of their number.”  This decision had profound effects on how individual Pilgrims managed their land and related to each other.  

As Bradford wrote:  ‘‘And no man now thought he could live except he had catle and a great deale of ground to keep them all, all striving to increase their stocks. By which means they were scattered all over the bay quickly and the towne in which they lived compactly till now was left very thinne.’’ You might say that private property rights in land were the beginning of suburban sprawl. 

Linklater points out that the native people, the Wampanaog, had allowed individual parcels of land to be used and occupied by individual families, but no one could have exclusive, permanent ownership of the land.  As the Wampanaog leader Massasoit explained:  ‘‘The land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish, and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?’’

But the Pilgrims went in a different direction.  The Pilgrims’ governor, John Winthrop, writes Linklater, “put forward a revolutionary proposal, usually ascribed to John Locke half a century later.”

“In a pamphlet published in 1629, he argued that private ownership of the earth did not depend upon the law, but was created by human toil. He constructed this novel explanation by weaving together Puritan doctrines and the pragmatic outlook of the enclosers. ‘God has given to the sonnes of men a double right to the earth,’ Winthrop declared, ‘a natural right, and a Civill Right.’’’

“Winthrop was breaking new ground when he asserted that the purely English civil or legal right to own land as private property came about when men enclosed and improved that land. The natural right was established by use and occupancy.”

Unsatisfied with a secular, civil justification for private property rights, the Pilgrims went further.  They wanted to establish a Biblical basis for their individual land ownership.  Reverend John Cotton obligingly reached into the Bible to invoke a story from the Book of Genesis about Abraham’s search for a place to settle among the Philistines:    

“When [Abraham] was prevented from using a well he had dug in the dry land of Beersheba, Abraham appealed to the Philistine king, Abimelech, claiming that he had the right to draw water because he was the person who had sunk the well. In Cotton’s sermon, however, Abraham also made a specific claim of individual ownership, based on ‘‘his owne industry and culture in digging the well.” In other words, there was biblical evidence to reassure the new Americans that their right to individually owned, landed property depended on their own efforts in improving the ground, and not on English law.

“If property was created by individual effort, and not just by the king’s “mere motion,” then there was another authority in the land whose power rivaled that of the royal prerogative. And it was one that everyone possessed.”

Interestingly, the assigning of private property rights brought with it a new need to measure land in universally recognized units.  Instead of land being judged as organic ecological tracts based on idiosyncratic local knowledge, new systems of surveying took root that measured land in universal, objective units. The local identity of land was in a sense stripped away. This, in turn, enabled the land to be treated as a marketable piece of property, leading to the financialization of land through mortgages and other legal instruments.

And what about the Native Americans and their right to the land?  Here is how John Winthrop rationalized the Pilgrims’ taking of their land:  ‘‘As for the Natives of New England they inclose noe land neither have any settled habitation nor any tame cattle to improve the land by, & soe have noe other but a natural right to those countries. Soe as if we leave them sufficient for their use wee may lawfully take the rest, ther being more than enough for them & us.’’

The entire excerpt by Linklater is fascinating.  His book Owning the Earth sounds promising.

Thanksgiving is a wonderful tradition passed down to Americans by the Pilgrims.  But our inheritance of strict private property rights for land is perhaps more problematic....or at least, the full consequences of such propertization are not fully appreciated.  As I said, this may have been an inevitable outcome given the flood of English settlers who brought English civil law with them.  But it is still worth reflecting upon this critical crossroads in American land use practices.  The Pilgrims molded the American landscape and character in more ways than we may realize.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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