history minus theory

One problem I have with the author of The Whiskey Rebellion is that he knows that questions of property theory are central to the conflict, and yet he doesn’t seem to know or care about property theory itself.

Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a “property” in his own “person.” This nobody has any right to but himself. The “labour” of his body and the “work” of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.

John Locke, The Second Treatise on Civil Government

Slaughter correctly calls the frontiersmen and rebels “Lockean” in their implicit theory and explicit rhetoric — as was the American Revolution itself — but then he doesn’t point out that George Washington’s claims to vast land ownership are anti-Lockean, that surveying doesn’t count as “mixing labour” with the land, and that the so-called “squatters” were actually the legitimate property owners and victims of the aggression of absentee landlords such as George Washington.

He doesn’t need to endorse the theory or tradition to acknowledge them. As it is, the squatters come across as ornery, recalcitrant, and criminal, where I see them as righteous and justified in their resistance.

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