Ohio History Journal

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Book Reviews

Book Reviews



In Pursuit of Happiness: American Conceptions of Property From the Seventeenth

to the Twentieth Century. By William B. Scott. (Bloomington: Indiana University

Press, 1977. xi + 244 p.; notes, index. $12.50.)


Scott's admirably lucid survey traces not only changing conceptions of property

rights, but also alterations in expectations of what private ownership may

contribute to the pursuit of happiness. His spokesmen of "American conceptions"

are mainly politicians, jurists, and social reformers.

During the colonial period, individual proprietorship of land was expected to

maximize productivity, provide freemen with the means to pursue a calling, and

secure to labor its appropriate reward. Though claims to land based on purchase

from Indians provided a justification for landholding other than "need and use,"

several advocates of confiscatory taxation challenged the right of proprietors to

hold idle land for speculative purposes.

The Harringtonian founding fathers agreed that widely distributed landed

property gave citizens a stake in society; but most of them came to agree with

Madison that a balance of interests rather than universal proprietorship offered the

most promising guarantee of social stability. Later suffrage reformers uncritically

substituted the vote itself for landholding as a foundation for political in-


In some northern states, "natural rights" theories provided the legal rationale for

emancipation. Some southern defenders of slavery sought to define slaves with

other property as possessions for whose protection government was instituted.

Other defenders of the peculiar institution eschewed natural rights theories in favor

of positive law and positivist sociology.

The economic transformations associated with factory technology, the wage

system, and the corporation led to further re-evaluation of the role and definition of

property. Antebellum judges chose to protect corporate property as in-

distinguishable from individual proprietorship. Justice Stephen J. Field, speaking

emblematically for the later nineteenth century courts, included use of and revenues

from corporate property among the rights protected by constitutional guarantees

of substantive due process. But where economic development required the

abridgement of individual proprietary rights, judges construed those rights as

narrowly as possible. Political economists defined wages as property and perceived

owners, managers, and laborers as functionally equivalent, if differentially

rewarded, participants in the productive process.

By the mid-twentieth century, most Americans "accepted with only sentimental

protest their virtual loss of entrepreneurial opportunity" originally associated with

private property (p. 158). Courts tended to define equal opportunity in terms of

access to education and employment rather than to ownership of productive


Concurrently with these transformations, social critics from Robert Owen and

Alfred Brisbane to Edward Bellamy and John Dewey announced that the industrial

system required cooperative ownership and management of the means of

production. Non-Marxist critics virtually abandoned the labor theory of value-

and reward-as anachronisms.

Scott's 205-page summary ignores countless struggles over the definition of