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The Declaration of Independence and the Moral Economy

“No Property! No Property!”

by PETER LINEBAUGH

Let’s remember Thomas Lewis of Ghana.  He was sold as a slave to a Danish trader, and then worked in N.Y., Carolina, Jamaica, and Florida before going to London in 1770.  Slave catchers caught him riverside and trepanned him down river to sea but not before Granville Sharp, the Greek scholar, musician, and abolitionist could obtain a writ of habeas corpus.

Thomas Lewis’s allies were the common people of the neighborhood where he was apprehended, they heard his shouts and summoned Granville Sharp who was able to obtain the writ. That was on the Fourth of July 1770.  The wind died down and the writ was served upon the ship captain taking Lewis.  Lewis was released and then freed.  On hearing the jury’s verdict on behalf of Lewis the assembled onlookers triumphantly shouted, “No Property!  No Property!”

Let’s remember also the prosperous grain dealer (“corn factor”) named John Rusby who during the terrible famine of 1800 was found guilty on the Fourth of July of regrating the market of oats in Mark Lane, London.  Regrating is buying in order to sell in the same market.  The high court of Britain denounced his “shameless effrontery.” The Lord Chief Justice believed  sharp market practices were prohibited by common law, a law going back many, many centuries.  Leaflets were produced denouncing that concept of property that food could be sold to profit dealers while consumers were left to beg or steal or starve.  The people shouted, “Bread! Bread!”

Adam Smith believed that forestalling, engrossing, and regrating were as imaginary as witchcraft. However, the burning of “witches” and the profiteering upon the starving still existed then, as they do now. Rusby’s house was attacked and he escaped by leaping over a back wall. Street lights were smashed to prevent identification of the rioters.  The War Office sent troops, and quiet returned by one o’clock in the morning.  It was but one incident in a great transformation of the coming year defeating the ‘moral economy’ and turning England into an armed camp.

In reflecting on these legal cases and the social struggles giving rise to them, what conclusions might be drawn?  People are not property is one, and property serves people is another.

The Declaration of Independence surely requires amendment to reflect this.  Unamended, it set in motion an expansion of slavery and principles antithetical to the moral economy.

Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Toledo. The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is the Magna Carta Manifesto. He can be reached at:plineba@yahoo.com