In Pursuit of Happiness: American Conceptions of Property from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century

In Pursuit of Happiness: American Conceptions of Property from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century

In Pursuit of Happiness: American Conceptions of Property from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century

In Pursuit of Happiness: American Conceptions of Property from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century

Excerpt

When I undertook this project six years ago I set out to determine "the American conception of property" and how that conception had changed through time. Very quickly I learned the first axiom of intellectual history. Literary sources only reveal the ideas of the particular person involved and do not necessarily mirror wider views. Furthermore, only rarely have Americans seen fit to reflect at length on their notion of property. Property, like water, has for the most part been one of those facts of life which seldom needed explanation or justification. Consequently, I have focused my attention on those individuals who gave some thought to the concept of ownership and whose thought was either significant or particularly perceptive. Thus, this is not a study of the "American mind" or even a study of "representative" samples of such a mind, although at times I considered and tried to assess the views of Americans generally. Instead, it is a study of a number of different American minds and their differing conceptions of property.

Among commentators on American society it has become almost ritualistic to point out Americans' general commitment to "private property." Such an observation has validity. Americans, in the past, do seem to have supported some notion of private ownership. Yet, despite general agreement, Americans have not all agreed as to the exact meaning of property rights or the ends they should serve. Jefferson and Hamilton, for instance, both endorsed pri-

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