To Have and to Hold: The Meaning of Ownership in the United States

By Neala Schleuning | Go to book overview

3 WHO OWNS THE UNITED STATES? PART I

Ownership--especially the ownership of land--was at the core of the early American experience. Stanley Lebergott noted that "the founders of the American nation... [believed] that widespread property ownership made for political stability... [and] by 1774 nearly three free families in every four owned land."1 In communities all across the land, the dominant political ideology was based on the belief that small, self-sufficient farm owners would govern themselves democratically precisely because they could, and did own the land. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, popular imagination had forged a powerful metaphorical link between landownership and the practice of American democracy. This mythology was made concrete in Jefferson's ideal of the independent yeoman farmer. In Jefferson's formulation, economic democracy went hand in hand with political democracy. Ownership gave people independence both economically and politically. To this end, the Revolution and the Constitution guaranteed both ownership and freedom, recognizing the strong linkages between owning and voting. In a study of political forces in one nineteenth century New England mill town, for example, historian Jonathan Prude found that Jefferson's theories were borne out in fact. In his case study, the ownership of property by the working class served to limit the political power of the mill owner. The owner could influence how his employees voted, but his political power was held in check by the majority of the community members who were not economically dependent on the mill. Prude concluded that "the concrete power that could be derived from wealth was limited. The relatively broad distribution of property, the ease of receiving extended credit, and the small number of wage laborers tied to even the larger agricultural and handicraft undertakings--all this meant that no

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To Have and to Hold: The Meaning of Ownership in the United States
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • 1 - What is Property? 1
  • Notes 31
  • 2 - Who Owns the Land? 35
  • Notes 55
  • 3 - Who Owns the United States? Part I 59
  • Notes 80
  • 4 - Who Owns the United States? Part II 83
  • Notes 100
  • 5 - The Meaning of Ownership 103
  • Notes 124
  • 6 - Consuming as Owning 127
  • Notes 149
  • 7 - Woman as Possession: Images of Owning 153
  • Notes 177
  • 8 - Beyond Consumerism: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness 181
  • Notes 209
  • Selected Bibliography 213
  • Index 235
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