All Commentary
Thursday, April 1, 1971


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 everything 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 merchandise, or money, is called his property.

In the latter sense, a man has a 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 a 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, though 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 fettered 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 unalienable 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 withhold 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 his warrants to a press-gang would be in his proper functions in Turkey or In­dostan, under appellations prover­bial of the most complete 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 weaver 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 in 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 passions, 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.



Abraham Lincoln, on Property

Property is the fruit of labor. Property is desirable, is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich shows that others may become rich and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another, but let him work diligently to build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence…. I take it that it is best for all to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can. Some will get wealthy. I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it would do more harm than good.