Land Reform and Working-Class Experience in Britain and the United States, 1800-1862

By Jamie L. Bronstein | Go to book overview

2
The Intellectual Heritage of Working-Class Land Reform

Who can tell but the Millennium
May take its rise from my poor Cranium?

-- Thomas Spence, Constitution of Spensonia

Although Feargus O'Connor's claimed in 1842 that land for the working classes was a "somewhat novel" idea, it was anything but. 1 In fact, there had been a steady stream of writing in both Britain and America on the topic since the turn of the nineteenth century. Both abstract thinkers on social questions and more pragmatic schemers considered the possibility of transferring allotments of land to the poor. 2 Reformers ranging from Thomas Paine to William Cobbett to the country gentlemen of the Labourer's Friend Society claimed that every man had a natural right or a birthright in the soil, and linked the distribution of land to the balance of political power or the existence of corruption in society. As this chapter will illustrate, two generations of writers on land reform created a discourse on the social and moral benefit of cultivation of land for the laborer. The first generation generated a series of natural-law propositions setting forth each man's right to the land, from which later reformers could and did draw at will. A second generation of social engineers attempted to translate these theories into practice, through programs ranging from home colonization to small-allotment farming to legislated redistribution of property. The working- class land-reform movements on both sides of the Atlantic were part of this discourse and drew from a common stock of ideas with a respectable pedigree.

If much that the reformers of the 1840's espoused had been suggested before, the working-class land reformers distinguished them

-23-

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