I admit that there are things in which a man can have absolute property, and which without qualification or restriction he can buy or sell or bequeath at his pleasure. But I deny that the soil is among these things.
— GERRIT SMITH, Speech in the U. S. Congress, February 21, 1854,
Speeches of Gerrit Smith, p. 74.
And now, to my argument, and to my endeavor to show, that land monopoly is wrong, and that civil government should neither practice, nor permit it; and that the duty of Congress is to yield up all the public land to actual settlers.
I admit, that there are things, in which a man can have absolute property, and which, without qualification or restriction, he can buy, or sell, or bequeath, at his pleasure. But, I deny, that the soil is among these things. What a man produces from the soil, he has an absolute right to. He may abuse the right. It nevertheless remains. But no such right can he have in the soil itself. If he could, he might monopolize it. If very rich, he might purchase a township or a county; and, in connection with half a dozen other monopolists, he might come to obtain all the lands of a state or a nation. Their occupants might be compelled to leave them and to starve; and the lands might be converted into parks and hunting-grounds, for the enjoyment of the aristocracy. Moreover, if this could be done, in the case of a state or a nation, why could it not be done in the case of the whole earth?
But it may be said, that a man might monopolize the fruits of the soil, and thus become as injurious to his fellow-men, as by monopolizing the soil itself. It is true, that he might, in this wise, produce a scarcity of food. But the calamity would be for a few months only, and it would serve to stimulate the sufferers to guard against its recurrence, by a more faithful tillage, and by more caution in parting with their crops. Having the soil still in their hands, they would have the remedy still in their hands. But had they suffered the soil itself to be monopolized; had they suffered the soil itself, instead of the fruits of it, to pass out of their hands; then they would be without remedy. Then they would lie at the mercy of him, who has it in his power to dictate the terms on which they may again have access to 'the soil, or who, in his heartless perverseness, might refuse its occupation on any terms whatever.
What I have here supposed in my argument is abundantly — alas! but too abundantly — justified by facts. Land monopoly has reduced no small share of the human family to abject and wretched dependence, for it has shut them out from the great source of subsistence, and frightfully increased the precariousness of life. Unhappy Ireland illustrates the great power of land monopoly for evil. The right to so much as a standing place on the earth is denied to the great mass of her people. Their great impartial Father has placed them on the earth; and, in placing them on it, has irresistibly implied their right to live of it. Nevertheless, land monopoly tells them, that they are trespassers, and treats them as trespassers. Even when most indulgent, land monopoly allows them nothing better than to pick up the crumbs of the barest existence; and, when, in his most rigorous moods, the monster compels them to starve and die by millions. Ireland — poor, land-monopoly-cursed and famine-wasted Ireland — has still a population of some six millions; and yet it is only six thousand persons, who have monopolized her soil. Scotland has some three millions of people; and three thousand is the number of the monopolists of her soil. England and Wales contain some eighteen millions of people, and the total number of those, who claim exclusive right to the soil of England and Wales, is thirty thousand. I may not be rightly informed, as to the numbers of the land monopolists in those countries; but whether they are twice as great, or half as great, as I have given them, is quite immaterial to the essence of my argument against land monopoly. I would say in this connection, that land monopoly, or the accumulation of the land in the hands of the few, has increased very rapidly in England. A couple of centuries ago, there were several times as many English land-holders, as there are now.
I need say no more to prove, that land monopoly is a very high crime, and that it is the imperative duty of Government to put a stop to it. Were the monopoly of the light and air practicable, and were the monopolists of these elements (having armed themselves with title deeds to them) to sally forth and threaten the people of one town with a vacuum, in case they are unwilling or unable to buy their supply of air; and threaten the people of another town with total darkness, in case they will not or cannot buy their supply of light; there, confessedly, would be no higher duty on Government than to put an end to such wicked and death-dealing monopolies. But these monopolies would not differ in principle from land monopoly; and they would be no more fatal to the enjoyments of human existence, and to human existence itself, than land monopoly has proved itself capable of being. Why land monopoly has not swept the earth of all good, is not because it is unadapted and inadequate to that end, but because it has been only partially carried out.
The right of a man to the soil, the light, and the air, is to so much of each of them, as he needs, and no more; and for so long as he lives, and no longer. In other words, this dear mother earth, with her never-failing nutritious bosom; and this life-preserving air, which floats around it; and this sweet light, which visits it, are all owned by each present generation, and are equally owned by all the members of such generation. Hence, whatever the papers or parchments regarding the soil, which we may pass between ourselves, they can have no legitimate power to impair the equal right to it, either of the persons, who compose this generation, or of the persons, who shall compose the next.
It is a very glaring assumption on the part of one generation to control the distribution and enjoyment of natural rights for another generation. We of the present generation have no more liberty to provide, that one person of the next generation shall have ten thousand acres and another but ten acres, than we have to provide, that one person of the next generation shall live a hundred years and another but a hundred days; and no more liberty to provide, that a person of the next generation shall be destitute of land, than that he shall be destitute of light or air. They, who compose a generation, are, so far as natural rights are concerned, absolutely entitled to a free and equal start in life; and that equality is not to be disturbed, and that freedom is not to be encumbered, by any arrangements of the preceding generation.
I have referred to the miseries, which land monopoly has brought upon the human family, and to the duty of the Government to put a stop to it. But how shall Government put a stop to it? I answer, by putting a stop to the traffic in land, and by denying to every person all right to more than his share of the land. In other words, the remedy for land monopoly is, that Government shall prescribe the largest quantity of land, which may be held by an individual; and shall, at distant periods, vary the quantity, according to the increase or diminution of the population. This maximum might, in our own country, where the population is so sparse, be carried as high as four or five hundred acres. Nevertheless, it might be necessary to reduce it one half, should our population be quadrupled. In a country, as densely peopled as Ireland, this maximum should, probably, not exceed thirty or forty acres.
"What I have said concerning the land maximum obviously applies but to such tracts, as are fit for husbandry. To many tracts — to such, for instance, as are valuable only for mining or lumbering — it can have no application.