The right to own property is included in the U.S. Constitution.

A Brief History of the Right to Own Property

“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property”

The right to own property is fundamental to American and English law. You can even find it in the phrase “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” That phrase if from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson. One of Jefferson’s influences was the philosopher John Locke. And Locke had a more practical view of life than “pursuit of happiness.” He focused on the need for people to be able to own stuff. Without the ability to own property, you don’t have any freedom at all.

Thomas Jefferson narrowed this concept from Locke’s idea of “property” to “happiness.” Why? Otherwise the southern slave-owning colonies would have a justification for their barbaric practices.[1]

(Southern Democrats–at the time called Federalists–considered slaves to be property at the time. Jefferson disagreed with this. He did not want a foundational document for the new country to justify the owning of humans as property.)

Along a similar line, John Adams wrote in 1790 that “Property Must Be Secure or Liberty Cannot Exist.” (He wrote this in his Second Essay Concerning Civil Government.) Also, George Washington said, “Private property and freedom are inseparable.”

It has also been said that without the right to own and control property, we become property.

The Legal Origins of Right to Own Property

American property rights dates back almost 400 years to the Age of Enlightenment.
17th-century English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) discussed natural rights in his work. He identified them as being “life, liberty, and estate (property).” Locke argued that these were fundamental rights. There is a social contract between people and their government. People could not surrender them in this social contract.
Thomas Jefferson, like Locke, was a man of the Enlightenment. Jefferson Locke’s ideas for the Declaration of Independence. But Jefferson substituted the word “property” for “happiness.” Jefferson himself said that he had adopted the “harmonizing sentiments of the day.” These ideas were “in the air” during that fateful summer of 1776, he said.

Locke proposed his theory of property rights in his Second Treatise of Government (1690). He based his theory in laws of nature. Locke referred to natural law. Natural law allows individuals to take possession of land and other material resources. Locke’s ideas were revolutionary. They contrasted with those of other philosophers at the time. Thomas Hobbes described existence as “nasty, brutish and short.” He had argued that rules protecting private property must come from political authority. Today that sounds like a cop-out, a way of coping with a world mired in chaos and anarchy. Later, David Hume would argue that property rules evolved from pre-legal social interaction. In other words, the right to own property comes from the mutual agreement of people in a society. But, people of the Enlightenment embraced Locke’s view. They favored the idea of inalienable rights to property. This view would continue to hold sway through the centuries. It continues to undergird American property law. Property law was first set down as an official government act by the Napoleonic code of 1804. This introduced and made law of the concept of absolute ownership of movable and immovable property. These can be roughly categorized as personal possessions and real estate. Before Napoleon’s time, history tells of personal property rights in the common law courts of medieval England. Fast-forward a few hundred years. The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

“Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others,” the resolution states. “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.”

Yet, there was a lively debate among the delegates about this right. They disagreed over whether property should mean only personal property. If so, how should they define personal property. Others argued over a more expansive meaning of property, including shares in corporations.
International law on property rights has changed. And it continues to evolve in the 21st century. Yet the right to own property remains a bedrock principle in the United States.

The right to own property helps people to realize their economic human rights. Such rights include freedom from hunger, and also assists in development. Everyone needs the right to own property to preserve their human dignity.

Protecting those that property is no less important than the right to own it in the first place.

[1] The result is that we have generations of Americans who are now seeking the pursuit of “happiness” as their purpose in life. This leads to all sorts of logical, but unhealthy, conclusions. For example, the rise of the consumer-based economy that keeps people looking for something to make them happy. (As opposed to simply being happy.)