Joshua King Ingalls, “Property and Its Rights”

Here’s the third installment in J. K. Ingalls’ series on property and rights, from The Spirit of the Age. Notice that Ingalls had by this time already encountered Edward Kellogg’s work. He had, in fact, written a two-part review of Labor and Other Capital in the Univercoelum (which I’ll be travelling to track down in the next week or so). In his Reminiscences, Ingalls talks about arguing face to face with Kellogg about the latter’s belief that the power of increase through interest was an essential feature of money. This is obviously germane to the issue here, and Ingalls, like Greene, used Kellogg’s work on the power of capital to increase for rather different ends. Ingalls’ audience was a rather broad one, since The Spirit of the Age had incorporated both The Univercoelum and The Harbinger. But it appears that the spiritualists associated with Andrew Jackson Davis and the former periodical, and the associationist connected to Charles Fourier and the latter, shared some conviction that passive capital should be compensated from the share of active human labor—precisely the point that Ingalls is at pains to disprove.


We have seen that Property exists as the product of man’s activity on a possession, which is his by birthright. The right to property thus produced, cannot be questions; it is to us a self evident truth, which would involve the utmost folly to deny, or attempt to establish by rules of logic. Nor can any of the evils complained of, as attaching to the present relations of capital and labor, be justly attributed to this source. It will be seen on the contrary that they generally arise from direct violation of this right, and that to establish it on natural and scientific foundations, would be to abrogate all unequal and unjust operations of business, which now enable the indolent right not plunder the toiling poor.

But it must still be remembered, that this right is second to the other of possessions, for which alone it flows; so that in fact the consistent recognition of one must result in recognition of the other. But it is necessary that the terms be explicitly defined. That property is the product of man’s activity is well enough; but then by trade, it has been made to mean other things as well; indeed anything else, but this. It seems another self evident proposition that the product of human labor can only be exchanged for the product of human labor. If this be true, then nothing can be property, but what has been produced by toil, human toil; and whoever claims protection under its rights, for that which has not thus been produced, is practicing an imposition. It is not necessary to distinguish between actual creations, and that which has merely been “taken our of a state of nature,” for after all, we only change the relations, forms and combinations of things in our most elaborate productions. When this shall apply, however, to the primitive elements, as the earth, the air, and the water, something more must be understood than a mere fencing in, or still more questionable appropriation on paper. A legitimate use of these can only entitle one to assume property in them, and even then the property is not in them, for they are natural possessions, but simply in the products realized. If a man chooses to employ his labor in such a manner as to render the soil more productive, to build a labor saving machine, or in any other way improve the power of production, he thus changes the property to a passive agent; but his rights over it as property only extend to the expenditure of skill and toil, and not to the original element, or even materials. These are his by right of position, to the full extent of his needs and power to employ. No false claim, based upon unnatural law, can justify another in the ownership of that soil or material, upon which he exerts his mental or physical energies; or, on the ground of such ownership, in exacting one half or two thirds of the results. Were the rights of possession fully guaranteed, the value of everything, and each improvement, would just equal the industry requisite to replace them. And in this remark would be embraced the remuneration to the labor of the financier and agent of exchange, as well as the actual producer, inventor or teacher.

Moreover, it may not be entirely certain, what things are, and what are not in a state of nature. An emigrant may cut a tree in a mighty forest; does the forest therefore belong exclusively to him? Does the tree even? If he leaves it there to rot, and another traveler take the dried branches to kindle himself a fire, could the utmost stretch of justice demand more than the cutting down of another, of similar dimensions and quality. Then it will be remembered that property is the result of industry, and that alone, never by any construction, extending to the passive elements, or the spontaneous productions of nature. These are the heritage and benefactions, a bountiful Creator has bestowed upon a family of brothers and sisters, equal in natural rights and possessions, however varied may be their capacities and attractions. With this understanding we will proceed to speak of the Rights of Property.

In our civil and social codes, these rights are numerous; as we have seen, they are superior to all rights of men; and human life and liberty are not to be regarded, where a protection of them is involved. Yet upon the plane we have treated our subject, thee appears very little to say about rights of property except what is vested in the producer. If we are not able to expatiate upon the positive side of this question, there is certain abundant room on the negative. We may show how it has been misconceived, and what disorganizing and unjust relations have transpire, principally, from having confounded the rights of man, the rights of possession, and the rights of property, all in one, and made the less, not only to supersede the greater, but to embrace the whole. This much may be affirmed, nevertheless, that he who has produced twice as much as he has consumed in one day, may, if he choose, consume, another day, without production, and so for any given length of time. But this is the farthest extent to which he can lay any claim. It is impossible to conceive the least particle of justice in the claim of A., to have for life, one half of the products of B.’s labor, because A. produced, for a while, double what B. could, or worked some years previous to the period when the latter began, or because some of his ancestors worked, or cheated, or robbed more successfully than the other’s. And yet this is the only ground upon which remuneration to capital is based. Its present practice is principally owing to the necessity to which the wronged are reduced, in consequence of having their natural rights to the soil, and the passive agent generally, infringed by irresponsible monopoly. Man must have access to the soil or die, he must have materials to act upon, or he cannot labor; and the present monopoly of thee, and not the legitimate operation of any law defending the rights of property, cause all the derangement of rights and duties complained of, and alone enable the capitalist to cancel the labor of man, by the use of money, or of things, justly or unjustly, termed property. Few capitalists, certainly few Reformers, would urge as a reason why money should be paid interest, that with it you could by slaves, and appropriate the proceeds of their industry. And yet this is one of the powers which are accorded to property by our civil polity in this nation; and the license no doubt exerts a large influence on the rate of usance which money at present commands. It were not difficult either, to show that the power which enables wealth to buy possession of the passive agent, is only exceeded in injustice, by that which gives it a like power over the active, human being; is not exceeded in its horrible, terrible results.

The right of property as well as all other rights must be self limiting. It must not interfere with itself. It is based on the claim that individual production has exceeded actual consumption. How then can this right enable the capitalist, landlord or slaveholder, to take from the operative, tenant or chattel, the surplus of their production? By not means, justly. An inversion of this, with the other rights are alike destructive to all, bestow a power on the representative of property to own the active and the passive agent. No wonder that property may be productive! But property justly conceived, possesses no power of reproduction. A hundred dollars locked up in the miser’s coffers, will, by no magic, come out a hundred and six at the end of the year. A new house, left tenantless, would in no way produce another of equal value in eight or ten years, and these two, another pair in another period, and so on in duplicate ration. On the contrary, it would continue yearly to decay, until all value was annihilated. The greatest mass of human productions, decay in a few years. Most of the agricultural productions are valueless at the end of one year. The most exquisite works of art or mechanism are subject to change, gradual though it be; and are liable to be superceded, at any time, by higher attainments. No production can now be thought of, which should entitle its owner to a compensation for its use. He may use it to his advantage, so might another; but the man who uses it is entitle to the results; the owner, only, a return for value of value. Under any just and equitable arrangement of the advantage of having the surplus productions of labor preserved to us, by allowing them to be employed to facilitate the productiveness of other’s labor, would overbalance any advantage derived from their use. A young man, with health and strength, can produce with moderate labor, several times the amount of value he need consume. But this activity will not always remain. Besides he contemplates the rearing of a family, the members of which will be non-producing consumers. What an advantage to him, that society uses his grain, vegetables, or any other perishable productions, and in his future need returns the same, undiminished in quantity or value! This is the true basis of reconciliation between Capital and Labor; and this would be sought by both, were the rights and possession of all in the first place guaranteed. It might be asked, if it would not be better, could this man at the end of a few years receive as interest enough to double the principle? By no means; a condition of things which would secure such a result, would have extracted from the products of his labor, in the first place, more that would be made up to him afterwards. For if he should pay for the privilege of laboring, and to this all remuneration of capital comes, if he should pay the same as he subsequently received for allowing others to labor, what were the object to be gained, except to stimulate greed, and discourage patient toil? If he receives more than he gives, then he who is evidently better able to do without it, extorts from some more needy than himself, what they pay and never receive back again.

In a joint stock association, dividends could not safely be made to capital, unless the amounts of capital each member should contribute were equal; in which case it would amount to nothing. This would be impracticable, and on the other ground, entirely unnecessary; since the organization would guarantee to each capitalist great or small, the consideration merely of his property. The man who is dissatisfied with such arrangement, would enter no association, because parosital commerce, stock-jobbing, organization to monopolize the soil, and establish a universal system of peonage; companies for the concentration of wealth and subjection of the operatives under the wages system. Where men are brought into direct competition with brutes and machines; and last though not least, chattel slavery, its traffic and speculations; these offer at present, and will for some time to come, much greater inducements for investment, than any association could offer short of suicidal expedients. Carried into the phalanx, this wrong would work out the same results as in the world. Not the most industrious, the most useful or worthy, would be best rewarded, but the crafty, the scheming and unprincipled, at the expense of those.

One family, transmitting for a few generations their talents of acquisition and accumulated fortune, would at the lowest rate of usance, absorb, not the wealth of the association alone, but the wealth of states and nations. It would seem that society applies its arithmetic least in financial matters, where its employment is most required. Mr. Kellogg in his book on “Labor and Capital,” gives a table which shows the terms, in which the principle doubles itself at fixed rates of interest or of rent. Even at one per cent, it will become double in seventy years, quadruple in one hundred and forty, eight fold in two hundred and eighty years, &c. The higher the rate, the more destructive the operation. At a low rate there is little inducement for the poor man to invest a few dollars or a few hundreds, as he would realize for the year, but a few cents or dollars; but with hundreds of thousands, even at one per cent, his income would be thousands of dollars. So that here would be repeated the same system of favoritism, partiality and unbrotherly assumption, that now disgraces our professed christianity. The object would be, to obtain, in some way, possession of capital enough to enable the individual to live idle on the income. The interest of the larger capitalists would dictate a high rate of remuneration to wealth, the laboring portion would be interested in curtailing it, and this the old antagonism, so far from being reconciled, would be renewed in closer quarters.

The question about rewarding the passive agent has already been canvassed. It is not with us a question. It is a clear principle of nature, a chemical fact, that “soil can only retain its thriftiness and capacity of vegetable production, by having restored to it as much elementary matter as it taken from it.” But society must see that this award goes to the real and not to the assumed passive agent; for this both man and the soil might be robbed. Now, when any kind of property, for purpose of preservation, or with a generous regard for the social prosperity shall be employed productively, it becomes a passive agent, and should be regarded as such; that is, its value like the productiveness in the soil should be preserved. When the owner of the property thus converted, requires it, in a form to be consumed, his right over it as property, enables him to claim it without deterioration of value. But it must be remembered, that nothing but what justly represents the products of human industry, can thus be reclaimed.

In speaking of the united relations of capital and labor, the various bearings of this question will be more fully dwelt upon. It is now requisite to notice but one remaining ground which has much weight with the associationists generally, because, supposed to be furnished by Fourier. He found the human faculties divisible into twelve elements, of three groups, with five productive, four mental, and three affective powers, in each group respectively; and he based the ratio of distribution on this order. Three twelfths to the affections, four twelfths to mental endowment, and five twelfths to physical activity. Now it is nowise clear that he intended what is claimed; or if so, it is inconsistent with some of his other propositions. By why was five twelfths awarded to labor? Plainly because labor was performed, not because its power was possessed, or because it had been exercised in years past; this alone would make it consistent with the principle of paying capital a premium. So with the mental faculties; they are to be employed as well as possessed, or they are clearly not entitled to any reward. And the affections are to be exercised, or no share belongs to them. So after all it is only labor or one kind or other, which Fourier proposes to reward, and not capital, a passive possession; which perfectly coincides with his conception of property, that it s the product of man’s activity, not of his passivity. What then is the exercise to which the affections are called? Surely the affections embrace something higher than avarice? To provide for and educate the young, to beautify the common or individual home, to care for the sick and aged, these had been supposed to be the common duties of the affections, and for which they require that a portion of the common products should be set apart. But will your capitalist or monopolist do these things? or will he appropriate these means to his own purposes and suffer the objects of regard to die with hunger? He is entitled to no dividend until he has performed the duty, and then it would be accorded him cheerfully by all. The miserly grasp with which he clutches gold, and obtains it by any and every means, could never have been thought worthy of three twelfths of the award of all human industry, by Charles Fourier. It is somewhat singular that although Fourier and Davis both deny the right of capital to any compensation, but only seem to yield to the method, as a matter of present expediency, the prominent admirers of their works have each attempted to prove the principle consistent with nature and right; whether with a view to conciliate capital cannot be said. As however we reverence no name or book as much as truth, the authority of nature, not of men, is sought.

Within the present century rights were accorded to property and measures for obtaining it were legalized, which now would incur the crime of piracy and the punishment of death. By such practices, capital, invested in whatever business, commanded a high premium. The mass of capital, that is now in the hands of the few, was obtained by means scarce less questionable. In the place of being a preservation of the products of labor, which all accumulations should be, it is an isolation and monopoly; the main detriment to useful enterprise, the juggernaut that crushes the limbs, and forms, and souls of human beings. Whoso shall live another half century, shall see the system of Rent and Interest and Dividends to capital, looked upon by the lover of human freedom, the moralist, the Christian, with as little favor, as he now looks upon the slave trade, privateering, or slave holding; or else they shall see chaos come again; and Cossack Europe and Spartan America, laying anew the basis of an obsolete civilization. The resource of no country, however bountifully endowed, can long satisfy the rapacity of the greedy monster. Bankruptcy, the peculiar attendant, follows in close proximity to this wrong; strangling first, with the hand of want and death the poor laborer, then higher and higher victims, until there shall be only two classes left, and all distribution of the results of business be determined by the relative amount of capital and labor employed. Let us hope and labor for the first.

Joshua King Ingalls, “Property and Rights,” Spirit of the Age, I, 10 (September 8, 1849), 146-8.

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.