Private Property: The History of an Idea

My current research looks at the history of whiteness, masculinity, and the intellectual history of private property from the seventeenth century onwards in the anglophone Atlantic world. There has been a flowering of work in recent years on the history of capitalism. I am interested in bringing this new history of capitalism into a valuable conversation with the histories of gender and race. Specifically, I want to trace the intellectual work that went into making the white, male, property-owner the modern world’s normative economic actor. Thus, this research examines the intellectual history of private property and how much idealisations of private property have also been idealisations of whiteness and of masculine sovereignty.

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17th Century Land-Surveyor – Source: TCD, Down Survey of Ireland

Inspired by works such as Robin Blackburn’s intellectual history of Atlantic slavery, Corey Robin’s essays on conservative thought and Mark Blyth’s Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, this will be a close reading of some of the dominant theorists of private property in the Anglophone world, such as John Locke and Edmund Burke, as well as more obscure figures like George Fitzhugh, Adam Ferguson and Granville Sharp.  At the centre will be the role of private property as a category of analysis in their thought.

Specifically, I am interested in how idealized visions of private property went hand-in-hand with dystopian visions of what a world without private property would look like. So, for instance, when Edmund Burke constructed a vision of chaos and violence in post-1789 France in his famous Reflections on the Revolution (1792), he was constructing a vision of a dangerously disordered society in which private property had ceased to exist. But simultaneously he was constructing a vision of a harmonious British society where private property was still suitably respected. His vision of British social peace required his vision of French anarchy. The Reflections on the Revolution in France were simultaneously a reflection on the lack of a revolution in Britain.

In the Reflections on the Revolution, Burke regularly labeled the revolutionaries as “Jews”, or said they were acting like “Maroons”, escaped Caribbean slaves. He believed that French society was losing respect for private property and thus was becoming deracinated. Conversely, he spoke of Britain as a place where “manly” respect for private property still ruled. For Edmund Burke, race, gender, and private property were all part of a broader whole: civilized normality.

This parallel imagination is the central focus of this research; as private property-ownership became increasingly synonymous with whiteness and masculinity, the condition of not owning property took on racialised and gendered registers: to not own property, or to even be seen as suitable for ownership as property, was to be placed under the signs of “the feminine” and “the non-white other”.

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“You Can Easily Hide or Disguise Your Home During War Time Or Have a Garden on the Roof… Your Home is the Opportunity to Realize Your Ambition”, Design for Post-1945 US Family Home, Papers of Harry S. Truman, Box 364, Official Files 63, June-December 1949, Harry S. Truman Presidential Library

It is this interlocking genealogy of race, gender, and private property that I want to uncover, in a project with a strongly transnational focus incorporating material related to England, Ireland, and Scotland, as well as North America, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. And where so much of the recent work on race, class, and gender draws on the concept of intersectionality – in which race, class, and gender are usually understood as separate but overlapping vectors – I am interested in moving beyond the limits of this conceptual model, to investigate whether all three are actually part of a broader whole, “normality”.

This project is funded by a two-year Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Irish Research Council/An Comhairle um Taighde in Éirinn and the History Department at Trinity College Dublin.

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