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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

50. Property Rights

The right to procure property and to use it for one's own enjoyment is essential to the freedom of every person, and our other rights would mean little without these rights of property ownership. It is also for these reasons that the government's power to tax property is placed in those representatives most frequently and directly responsible to the people, since it is the people themselves who must pay those taxes out of their holdings of property.

"The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen in his person and property and in their management." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, 1816. ME 15:36

"A right to property is founded in our natural wants, in the means with which we are endowed to satisfy these wants, and the right to what we acquire by those means without violating the similar rights of other sensible beings." --Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, 1816. ME 14:490

"[We in America entertain] a due sense of our equal right to... the acquisitions of our own industry." --Thomas Jefferson: 1st Inaugural, 1801. ME 3:320

"He who is permitted by law to have no property of his own can with difficulty conceive that property is founded in anything but force." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Bancroft, 1788. ME 19:41

"That, on the principle of a communion of property, small societies may exist in habits of virtue, order, industry, and peace, and consequently in a state of as much happiness as Heaven has been pleased to deal out to imperfect humanity, I can readily conceive, and indeed, have seen its proofs in various small societies which have been constituted on that principle. But I do not feel authorized to conclude from these that an extended society, like that of the United States or of an individual State, could be governed happily on the same principle." --Thomas Jefferson to Cornelius Camden Blatchly, 1822. ME 15:399

50.1 The Origin of Ownership

"It is a moot question whether the origin of any kind of property is derived from nature at all... It is agreed by those who have seriously considered the subject that no individual has, of natural right, a separate property in an acre of land, for instance. By an universal law, indeed, whatever, whether fixed or movable, belongs to all men equally and in common is the property for the moment of him who occupies it; but when he relinquishes the occupation, the property goes with it. Stable ownership is the gift of social law, and is given late in the progress of society." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson, 1813. ME 13:333

"A right of property in moveable things is admitted before the establishment of government. A separate property in lands, not till after that establishment. The right to moveables is acknowledged by all the hordes of Indians surrounding us. Yet by no one of them has a separate property in lands been yielded to individuals. He who plants a field keeps possession till he has gathered the produce, after which one has as good a right as another to occupy it. Government must be established and laws provided, before lands can be separately appropriated, and their owner protected in his possession. Till then, the property is in the body of the nation, and they, or their chief as trustee, must grant them to individuals, and determine the conditions of the grant." --Thomas Jefferson: Batture at New Orleans, 1812. ME 18:45

"The laws of civil society, indeed, for the encouragement of industry, give the property of the parent to his family on his death, and in most civilized countries permit him even to give it, by testament, to whom he pleases." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Earle, 1823. ME 15:470

50.2 Every Citizen is Entitled to Own Property

"The political institutions of America, its various soils and climates, opened a certain resource to the unfortunate and to the enterprising of every country and insured to them the acquisition and free possession of property." --Thomas Jefferson: Declaration on Taking Up Arms, 1775. Papers 1:199

"The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on. If for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be provided to those excluded from the appropriation. If we do not, the fundamental right to labor the earth returns to the unemployed... It is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1785. ME 19:18, Papers 8:682

"No right [should] be stipulated for aliens to hold real property within these States, this being utterly inadmissible by their several laws and policy." --Thomas Jefferson: Commercial Treaties Instructions, 1784.

"Whenever there is in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1785. ME 19:18, Papers 8:682

"[The] unequal division of property... occasions the numberless instances of wretchedness which... is to be observed all over Europe." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1785. ME 19:17, Papers 8:681

"I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1785. ME 19:17, Papers 8:682

50.3 The Protection of Property Rights

"[The] rights [of the people] to the exercise and fruits of their own industry can never be protected against the selfishness of rulers not subject to their control at short periods." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac H. Tiffany, 1816.

"I may err in my measures, but never shall deflect from the intention to fortify the public liberty by every possible means, and to put it out of the power of the few to riot on the labors of the many." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804. ME 11:33

"Our wish... is that... equality of rights [be] maintained, and that state of property, equal or unequal, which results to every man from his own industry or that of his fathers." --Thomas Jefferson: 2nd Inaugural Address, 1805. ME 3:382

"To take from one because it is thought that his own industry and that of his father's has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association--'the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.'" --Thomas Jefferson: Note in Destutt de Tracy's "Political Economy," 1816. ME 14:466

"If the overgrown wealth of an individual is deemed dangerous to the State, the best corrective is the law of equal inheritance to all in equal degree; and the better, as this enforces a law of nature, while extra-taxation violates it." --Thomas Jefferson: Note in Destutt de Tracy's "Political Economy," 1816. ME 14:466

50.4 Rights Associated With Ownership

"It would be singular to admit a natural and even an hereditary right to inventors... It would be curious... if an idea, the fugitive fermentation of an individual brain, could, of natural right, be claimed in exclusive and stable property. If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody... The exclusive right to invention [is] given not of natural right, but for the benefit of society." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson, 1813. ME 13:333

"By nature's law, every man has a right to seize and retake by force his own property taken from him by another by force or fraud. Nor is this natural right among the first which is taken into the hands of regular government after it is instituted. It was long retained by our ancestors. It was a part of their common law, laid down in their books, recognized by all the authorities, and regulated as to circumstances of practice." --Thomas Jefferson: Batture at New Orleans, 1812. ME 18:104

"Charged with the care of the general interest of the nation, and among these with the preservation of their lands from intrusion, I exercised, on their behalf, a right given by nature to all men, individual or associated, that of rescuing their own property wrongfully taken." --Thomas Jefferson to W. C. C. Claiborne, 1810. ME 12:383

"Nothing is ours, which another may deprive us of." --Thomas Jefferson to Maria Cosway, 1786. ME 5:440

"[If government have] a right of demanding ad libitum and of taxing us themselves to the full amount of their demand if we do not comply with it, [this would leave] us without anything we can call property." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Lord North, 1775. Papers 1:233

"The first foundations of the social compact would be broken up were we definitely to refuse to its members the protection of their persons and property while in their lawful pursuits." --Thomas Jefferson to James Maury, 1812. ME 13:145

"Persons and property make the sum of the objects of government." --Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1789. ME 7:459

"The right to sell is one of the rights of property." --Thomas Jefferson to Handsome Lake, 1802. ME 16:395

"The power of repelling invasions, and making laws necessary for carrying that power into execution seems to include that of occupying those sites which are necessary to repel an enemy, observing only the amendment to the Constitution which provides that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation... Where the necessary sites cannot be obtained by the joint and valid consent of parties,... provision should be made by a process of ad quod damnum, or any other more eligible means for authorizing the sites which are necessary for the public defense to be appropriated to that purpose." --Thomas Jefferson: Message on Defence, 1808. ME 3:326

ME, FE = Memorial Edition, Ford Edition.   See Sources.

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