The Founders' Concept of "Property"--Embracing All Rights--Not Merely Things Material

The Founders considered the right to property to be subordinate, and a supporting right in relation, to The Individual's God-given, un-alienable rights; as discussed in Part I, under Principle 10. (Note the especially pertinent quotation of John Adams on page xviii.) As the main, material support of all of Man's rights, the right to property was rated by them as being of great importance--essential to the enjoyment and security of all rights. This was true of all of The Founders and their fellow leaders as well as of their fellow countrymen in general--notably those who were in the forefront of the fight for "Liberty and Independence," especially for Freedom from Government-over-Man, but not possessed of great wealth, such as Samuel Adams. His writings, for example, contain numerous, pertinent essays published in newspapers prior to 1776.

Furthermore, the thinking of The Founders and of their fellow Americans did not limit the meaning of the word "property" so as to apply merely to things material: physical things. They considered that Man's rights in general--separate and apart from material possessions--were also an extremely important, if not the most valuable, part of his property; that Man has not only a right to property but a property in his rights. This general line of thought--reflecting truly American thinking of that day, of The Founders second to none--was never expressed more soundly and clearly than in the essay on "Property" by Madison published in The National Gazette (one of a series of essays by him on various topics so published) on March 29, 1792. Brief but comprehensive in presenting this characteristically American viewpoint, the full text of the essay deserves consideration here (emphasis Madison's). Note that the expression "excess of liberty" refers to license.


"This term in its particular application means 'that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.'

"In its larger and juster meaning, it embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage.

"In the former sense, a man's land, or merchandize, or money is called his property.

"In the latter sense, a man has property in his opinions and the free communication of them.

"He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.

"He has property very dear to him in the safety and liberty of his person.

"He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them.

"In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.

"Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties or his possessions.

"Where there is an excess of liberty, the effect is the same, tho' from an opposite cause.

"Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.

"According to this standard of merit, the praise of affording a just security to property, should be sparingly bestowed on a government which, however scrupulously guarding the possessions of individuals, does not protect them in the enjoyment and communication of their opinions, in which they have an equal, and in the estimation of some, a more valuable property.

"More sparingly should this praise be allowed to a government, where a man's religious rights are violated by penalties, or lettered by tests, or taxed by a hierarchy. Conscience is the most sacred of all property; other property depending in part on positive law, the exercise of that, being a natural and inalienable right. To guard a man's house as his castle, to pay public and enforce private debts with the most exact faith, can give no title to invade a man's conscience which is more sacred than his castle, or to withold from it that debt of protection, for which the public faith is pledged, by the very nature and original conditions of the social pact.

'That is not a just government, nor is property secure under it, where the property which a man has in his personal safety and personal liberty, is violated by arbitrary seizures of one class of citizens for the service of the rest. A magistrate issuing warrants to a press gang, would be in his proper functions in Turkey or Indostan, under appellations proverbial of the most compleat despotism.

"That is not a just government, nor is property secure under it, where arbitrary restrictions, exemptions, and monopolies deny to part of its citizens that free use of their faculties, and free choice of their occupations, which not only constitute their property in the general sense of the word; but are the means of acquiring property strictly so called. What must be the spirit of legislation where a manufacturer of linen cloth is forbidden to bury his own child in a linen shroud, in order to favour his neighbour who manufactures woolen cloth; where the manufacturer and wearer of woolen cloth are again forbidden the economical use of buttons of that material, in favor of the manufacturer of buttons of other materials.*

"A just security to property is not afforded by that government under which unequal taxes oppress one species of property and reward another species: where arbitrary taxes invade the domestic sanctuaries of the rich, and excessive taxes grind the faces of the poor; where the keenness and competitions of want are deemed an insufficient spur to labor, and taxes are again applied by an unfeeling policy, as another spur; in violation of that sacred property, which Heaven, in decreeing man to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, kindly reserved to him, in the small repose that could be spared from the supply of his necessities.

"If there be a government then which prides itself on maintaining the inviolability of property; which provides that none shall be taken directly even for public use without indemnification to the owner, and yet directly violates the property which individuals have in their opinions, their religion, their persons, and their faculties; nay more, which indirectly violates their property, in their actual possessions, in the labor that acquires their daily subsistence, and in the hallowed remnant of time which ought to relieve their fatigues and soothe their cares, the inference will have been anticipated, that such a government is not a pattern for the United States.

"If the United States mean to obtain or deserve the full praise due to wise and just governments, they will equally respect the rights of property, and the property in rights: they will rival the government that most sacredly guards the former; and by repelling its example in violating the latter, will make themselves a pattern to that and all other governments."

As the foregoing indicates--and as proved by the discussion of the Twelve Basic American Principles in Part I, especially Principle 10--the traditional American philosophy considers that the right to material property is only a small but important part of The Individual's over-all rights; and that the higher things of life--those intangible reflections of Man's spiritual, moral and intellectual being--are infinitely superior in value if they could be considered separately. This philosophy is, however, an indivisible whole. It recognizes, further, that the desire for material property is merely one of Man's driving urges, or chief motivations; also that it is, in truth, most valuable and helpful to Man when harnessed in the service of his ideals and higher aspirations, as discussed for instance in Part II (page 209) in connection with Individual Enterprise in its ethical, moral and social aspects.

A part of the particular value today of the above-quoted essay by Madison on "Property" is that it highlights the core-concept of the traditional American philosophy in such a way as to expose the fallacy in modern attempts to make it appear that there is something inherently antithetical in the right to material property in relation to what are referred to as "human rights." There can be no such thing as "human rights" which are different from the traditional American philosophy's God-given, unalienable rights and their supporting rights, including the right to material property--always accompanied by correlative duties, as discussed earlier. The definition and discussion of the Twelve Basic American Principles, in Part I of this study-guide, are believed to demonstrate adequately the inescapably inter-related nature of this entire group of rights, including the right to material property, as understood and accepted by The Founders and their fellow Americans. If, indeed, the so-called "human rights" were in any respect different from, and in conflict with, The Individual's God-given, unalienable rights and the supporting rights, then there would be no room in the American philosophy for such "human rights." This is all the more true to the extent that so-called "human rights" are an integral part of any Government-over-Man philosophy and system--the antithesis of the traditional American philosophy and system.

No conclusion appears more clearly and impressively, it is believed, even from consideration merely of the limited material presented in this study-guide, than the idea that--from the viewpoint of this philosophy--the economic is subordinate to higher values not only in such comparative rating but also among Man's motivating influences. Assuredly any adequate examination of pertinent historical materials proves this to be unquestionably true of the thinking of the entire generation in America of the period 1776-1787 and, second to none, of The Founders as a group. They rated their economic interests and security as secondary to their ideals in seeking "Liberty and Independence"--a truth which is highlighted, for example, by the Declaration of Independence, especially its closing words: "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." The record proves they meant it, and equally the almost-naked, ever-hungry and shoeless men at Valley Forge who stained the snow with bleeding feet, yet fought on.

Among the writings which make this truth apparent is The Federalist, partly through its making clear the fundamental goals--chief of all the security of Man's God-given, unalienable rights--which were intended to be served by the constitutional system as discussed in detail in this volume's essays. This assumes that these essays are read with adequate understanding: with scholarly competence and intellectual honesty--free from warping bias stemming from a desire to undermine respect for this philosophy, The Founders and their handiwork.

An Example

Some have nevertheless so grossly misread The Federalist, for example, as to contend that Madison's discussion in number 10 of the relationship of property to political factions shows that he considered the economic to be the most influential--even determinative--factor among Man's motivations. Nothing could be further from the truth as to Madison's own thinking, or as to his representation of the nature of the American philosophy, in his writings in general (for instance, the above-quoted essay) as well as in his report--jointly with Hamilton and Jay--in The Federalist of the thinking of the Framing Convention. This applies equally to Hamilton and all The Founders.

In one widely-known, still widely-disseminated, writing by a prominent educator in the present generation, for example, it is asserted that Hamilton, like Madison, clearly believed in the economic interpretation of history. This 1937 writing praised, as being brilliant, the 1913 book, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, by the historian Dr. Charles A. Beard, who was on the faculty of Columbia University in 1913. In Beard's book, as generally understood and widely condemned by many leaders in various walks of life in the period following its publication, he made it appear, first: that The Framers designed the Constitution primarily so as to benefit themselves and their "class" financially--especially as to their Confederation-government securities--at the expense of the people's liberties; and second: that the economic motive is the dominant one, indeed the decisive factor, in the affairs of mankind in keeping with the theory of the economic interpretation of history. These were in substance his two main propositions; which he helped greatly to popularize for decades, most strikingly in the 1930's. His attack on The Framers and the Constitution started a trend which has had gravely harmful effects, continuing today, within education and government.

The phrase "economic interpretation of history" refers to the thesis that the economic is the determining, the decisive, factor in shaping history--that it is controlling in influencing and motivating Man and in shaping history's development. In one aspect, this thesis asserts that social evolution is due basically to economic causes. This is also referred to as "economic determinism"--in the more blunt and uncompromising language of Marxist Socialism-Communism.

Later in life, Beard tried to make it appear that he did not intend to espouse "economic determinism" in that 1913 book but he was unsuccessful in this attempt; the book was unmistakably clear in this regard. Note, for example, the contemporaneous criticism of the book in a book-review by Dr. Edwin S. Corwin when (and for many years afterward) a full professor of Politics at Princeton University--in History Teachers Magazine for February 1914. Corwin stated that had Beard "been less bent on demonstrating the truth of the Socialistic theory of economic determinism and class struggle as an interpretation of history, his own performance would be less open to criticism."

The complete unsoundness of the Beard book, judged from the standpoint of sound scholarship, has been proved conclusively in the volume: Charles Beard and the Constitution, A Critical Analysis of "An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution" by Dr. Robert E. Brown of the faculty of Michigan State University, published in 1956 by the Princeton University Press. Brown's devastating and unanswerable analysis exposes what he calls "the many ways" in which Beard violated "the concepts of historical method"--meaning violation of sound scholarship and of sound writing requiring the use of sound methods in dealing with historical materials. At one point, Brown notes some of these "ways" in connection especially with Beard's pretense of offering historical "evidence" that The Framers designed the Constitution largely to benefit their holdings of government securities, primarily "as an economic document" for their own financial benefit:

"These ran the gamut from omission to outright misrepresentation of evidence, and included the drawing of conclusions from evidence that not only did not warrant the conclusions but actually refuted them. To say that the Constitution was designed in part to protect property is true; to say that it was designed only to protect property is false; and to say that it was designed only to protect personalty is preposterous." (Emphasis per original. Personalty means personal property, such as government securities like bonds, as distinguished from real property: land and buildings.)

Many years later, Beard disclaimed any intent of attacking the integrity, the good character, of The Framers; but this obviously amounted to a dissembling tactic, because the burden and effect of his presentation--in substance making it appear that they framed the Constitution primarily so as to "feather their own nest"--was precisely such an attack and was generally accepted as such (accepted by some, who approved, with praise but many leaders criticized it harshly with great hostility). The net effect of his attack was to charge them with being so lacking in moral and intellectual integrity, in framing the Constitution, as to sacrifice the people's liberties in favor of their own financial benefit; than which nothing could have been further from the truth, as all pertinent historical records amply prove when judged competently and without such bias. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, for example, stated in a 1916 letter about this book that Beard's disclaimer (of any intent to impute to The Framers self-seeking motives) was discredited by the book's presentation of "all the facts" about their holdings of government securities. In other letters in later years, Holmes asserted that he rejected this disparaging thesis of Beard and still believed that Washington and the other Founders ". . . had for their dominant motive a patriotic desire . . ."--that they had not ". . . talked patriotism because they had invested . . . ;" and Holmes charged Beard with dealing in "drivelling cant" by implying in this connection that The Framers represented the rich indulging in "exploitation" of the poor.* Holmes also stated that Beard's approach to the subject was "ignoble" and dealt in "innuendo" and avowed his own belief (as opposed to Beard's, as evidenced by the 1913 book's thesis) "that high-minded-ness is not impossible to man"--for instance, that it characterized The Framers.** *(1928 to J. C. H. Wu) **(1928 to Pollock)

Lack of space precludes adequate discussion here of the motive which prompted Beard in making this attack in 1913 upon The Framers and, therefore, upon their handiwork: the Constitution. The topic is, however, a most important one because of the vast, harmful influence of that Beard book and thesis, especially within the educational world (upon many teachers, textbook writers, and a multitude of students), setting a trend for decades. Some supplementary comments are made at the end of the "References" section of the Appendix (pages 345-347), in part quoting a book of special interest about him published after his death--an appraisal of him and his record in a series of essays mainly by prominent educators who had known him well: Charles A. Beard--An Appraisal (1954), edited by Howard K. Beale. As these essays make clear, his great influence, especially upon students in his classes during his teaching at Columbia University, was due in considerable part to his lovable and admirable character as a person--always so gracious, gentle and warm-hearted in his personal relationships--to which the present writer can testify most sincerely; which makes all the more distressing the need of criticism such as is presented here. (Dr. Beard died in 1948.)

In connection with any false and defamatory claim, in effect, that The Framers sought to "feather their own nest" by framing the Constitution chiefly to benefit their Confederation-government securities, several facts merit emphasis. One is that such securities owned by these patriotic leaders and other leaders as well, considered as a group, were in the main purchased to help the government win the Revolutionary War (like buying "war bonds" in modern times), or to support the struggling government of the Confederation after the war ended, during the years when the governmental situation was nothing less than desperate financially. Also, there was even a very good prospect all the while that the "securities" would turn out to be virtually worthless, like the wartime paper currency after some years of extreme inflation (the ill-fated "Continentals"). Indeed, through the entire period 1776-1788, there was only a slim chance that the government would ever repay the sums borrowed by its selling these "securities" to patriotic Americans such as The Framers and the multitude of others willing to risk their money to aid their country. Furthermore, wealthy men like Washington helped to "make a market" for such securities (there was no such thing then as an established "stock market" where anyone could readily buy and sell such securities) when neighbors and friends were in need of selling their own securities of any such type--thereby performing an important and patriotic task by thus helping to maintain confidence in the government and make it possible for it to sell other securities from time to time, when necessary to support government activities. Without such aid by men like Washington, these necessitous sellers would not have been able to get needed funds by selling such securities--bought for patriotic reasons mainly--and would thus have been penalized for indulging their patriotism; while the government would have been virtually paralyzed financially because people generally would have refused to buy its unsalable securities. Here Washington is cited merely as a shining example because he was one of the wealthiest men in the country and his exalted patriotism was and is impregnable. The other Framers--also unjustly maligned, in effect, in Beard's book--were undoubtedly also uncontaminated by any such compelling lust for money, at the expense of the people's liberties, as that book's pretended "evidence" purported to prove had motivated them. This is a case where any exception, if one could actually be proved to have existed, would only serve to prove the general rule just stated.

The Beard book's utter unsoundness is thus seen to make equally unsound the contention that it was brilliant in its thesis that The Framers were part of a "class" with a conscious solidarity of interests (economic interests which they preferred over all else). This unsound contention is found in that 1937 writing, by a prominent educator, which falsely alleges that Madison and Hamilton believed in economic interpretation (page 235, ante). A third false pretense in this 1937 writing is that The Framers perpetrated a coup d'dtat, which we have seen to be a gross falsification of history. This writing thus provides an excellent example of modern ones which, in effect, foster public opinion conducive to dishonor of The Founders, on the basis of false information in defiance of historical truth--in some cases accompanied by lip-service to them, or even genuine praise, in other respects. This writing, which is also seriously defective in other major respects from the standpoint of sound scholarship and American history, nevertheless continues to receive wide distribution--being a 1937 "Introduction," to an edition of The Federalist, by the late Edward M. Earle, then and afterward associated with the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey. (He died in 1955.) The evil influence of the Beard book is continuing.