“The reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property.” - John Locke. Throughout his many writings, John Locke covers a diverse range of topics regarding natural rights, the role of government, and social order. However, a common theme that ties all his ideas together is a man’s property. To Locke, the right to own property precedes government. Therefore, it is the government’s duty to make a man’s property more secure. Locke’s teachings influenced the mindset of many enlightenment thinkers and founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Locke’s persuasive ideas regarding property did not only affect life in the 17th and 18th centuries. His ideas have also affected many parts of the United States culture and government that last until today. Since the creation of the 13 colonies, the direction of the United States of America has been controlled by a myriad of issues ranging from race and gender to the definition of rights. However, the issue that has shaped the United States the most is an individual’s property and land. The topic of property and land has shaped the structure of the government, commerce, and culture of the United States.
Before one can understand how a man’s property has affected the United States, one must understand how Locke and others who thought like him define property. According to Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government,” he defines property as “Property is acquired through mixing labor and objects in the world” (Locke 116). However, James Madison extends Locke’s definition to include “his opinions and the free communication of them” (Madison Property). By expanding the definition property to include both physical objects and opinions, the founding fathers further enshrined the importance of property in America.
Although property affects many factors in American society, it affects the government the most. The influence of property affects many aspects of the constitution. For example, Article IV of the constitution protects physical property by prohibiting the unreasonable seizure of property. “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated” (Article IV). Not only does this apply to the average American, but this protection also applies people involved in criminal prosecution because of a similar clause in Article V. Granting these protections to criminals is very important. While many see criminals as not worthy for the same rights and privileges as average citizens, by stopping the government’s ability to seize criminal’s property it also stops the government from seizing a free man’s property. Not only does the constitution protect physical property, but it also protects the nontangible property outlined by James Madison. The first amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” (Amendment 1). Although not explicitly stated as property, the protection of speech and opinions closely follows Madison’s idea that the government should protect all forms of property. Without the constitution protecting all forms of property of all people, the United States government would be able to take possessions at a moment’s notice and dictate what opinions people can have. Both of which are unthinkable today.
Not only has property affected the structure of the United States government, but it has also affected how commerce is structured. Although capitalism, which is predicated on personal property, was not established until many years after the formation of the United States, its foundations have been established since the beginning. For example, George Fitzhugh outlines his issues with capitalism in the 19th century. Capitalism, which is an economic system based on private individuals owning the means of production, is Fitzhugh’s largest issue. Fitzhugh states, “The men without property, in a free society, are theoretically in a worse condition than slaves” (Fitzhugh 166). When stating that men without property are worse than slaves, Fitzhugh shows that achievement comes from acquiring and owning property. By comparing white men without property to black slaves, Fitzhugh insinuates that these men without property have no rights themselves. Also, when Fitzhugh says, “‘Property in man’ is what all are struggling to obtain.” (Fitzhugh 167), he admits that the goal of the economic system in the United States is to validate ourselves through amassing property. Through Fitzhugh’s analysis, it clear that every aspect of American commerce is completely controlled by property.
Lastly, American culture is mainly affected by property. Nowhere is this better exemplified than the social roles seen in popular culture. For a long time, it was the duty of men to provide for their household and a man’s image came from how much he earned. In his article, “The Male Privilege Checklist” Barry Deutsch analyses the privileges men have compared to women and many of these privileges stem from social roles regarding property. For example, item ten states, “If I have children but do not provide primary care for them, my masculinity will not be called into question” (Deutsch). This privilege shows that for a large part of United States history men were only seen as providers of property and women were caretakers. Without the influence of property being tied to a man’s image, many aspects of social roles could be different. Roles could be swapped or eliminated entirely. Even in subjects that seem like they are removed from property, such as culture, property still had a major part to play in its formation.
Although the United States has changed immensely since the times of the founding fathers, the lasting effects of Locke’s views on property can still be felt today. The expansion of American territory and economy did nothing but strengthen the effects property has on the lives of every American citizen. Property, and the ownership thereof has been the basis of the so-called American lifestyle.