The modern land reform movement originated, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, in Great Britain. Its aims and ends are different from those of the Peasants' War (1381, 1449, 1549) and the Diggers (1649), for, while these fought either for a restoration of the village community or the establishment of communism, it advocates a compromise between communism and private property, with a view to increase the number of farmers and, generally, to improve the condition of the labouring population.
The pioneers are Thomas Spence (1750-1814), William Ogilvie (1736-1813), and, to some extent, Thomas Paine (1737-1809). They all argue from the natural law doctrines, according to which the earth and the fulness thereof were, in the original state of society, or the state of nature, the common property of mankind, so that every child born into the world had ipso facto an inalienable right to an equal share in the common inheritance. Further, in the state of
nature all men were free -- no government, no man-made law coerced or regulated society. Economic equality and social liberty are thus the fundamental rights of man. This conception is very old ; it arose, as is well known, in antiquity, and governed social thought throughout the ages up to recent times ; the last British scholar who made use of it was Alfred Russel Wallace, his book Land Nationalisation (London, 1882) being based on it. With the rise of natural history study that theory received a new aspect. While in former times natural law philosophy was bound up with ethics and religion, original society began to be regarded, since the latter half of the eighteenth century, as a horde of human animals, whose common pasture was the earth, just as much as the forests, woods, rivers, and seas were the common feeding and breeding places of the other species of the animal kingdom. This latter mode of thinking is to be found in Spence.
Various causes united to put an end to the state of nature. The growing moral deterioration of man as well as the insufficiency of the means of life for the increasing population led to inconveniences and disturbances; the strong and crafty offered violence to the weak, and appropriated large portions of the land for their own exclusive use; finally, notions of private property arose with regard to those things which men created or considerably improved and made valuable by their own labour. The old order
of communism, equality, and liberty was being undermined; a new order was urgently called for; therefore men, by express or tacit agreement, abandoned the communist mode of life and established civil government and private property. Civil society brought certain great advantages by promoting agriculture and trades, thus increasing the national wealth; but it produced the division of society into rich and poor, into oppressing and oppressed classes, and furthered covetousness, selfishness, crime, ignorance, and misery of the many. The moral deterioration, far from being checked by the new order of things, reached its lowest depths in civil society. Hence the need for a reform which would combine the advantages of both forms of society and exclude their disadvantages.
Spence asks the nation to cancel, by virtue of its sovereignty, the social compact and to expropriate the landlords and restore the land to its rightful heirs, whereupon it should be transferred to the parishes, who would let it to farmers on a moderate rental. This rent would form the only tax, from which the expenses of local and central administration would be defrayed. No other taxes or duties to be levied. Free trade and manufacture, a flourishing agriculture, and complete democracy would unite to lift the nation to a high moral level. Spence must be regarded as the author of "Single Tax," which was advocated, a century later, by Henry George. He is
also against nationalisation, his ideal being a nation consisting of a loose federation of autonomous communes.
Spence was of Scottish origin, his father having left Aberdeen for Newcastle, where Thomas was born. From a self-taught workman he gradually became a tutor and lecturer. On November 8, I775, he delivered his lecture on land reform before the Newcastle Philosophical Society. Later on he left for London, where he took part in all revolutionary movements, and was twice imprisoned, for altogether seventeen months. In 1793 he republished his Newcastle Lecture under the title The Real Rights of Man, and in 1796 under the title The Meridian Sun of Liberty, or The Whole Rights of Man displayed. It was republished in 1882 by Mr H. M. Hyndman, who gave it the title Nationalisation of the Land, and in 1896 by Messrs Verinder and Morrison Davidson for the Land Restoration League.
William Ogilvie was Professor at Aberdeen University; he was also a successful agriculturist. His Essay on the Right of Property in Land (1781) was published anonymously. His critical views on the existing land tenure are, at least, as severe as Spence's, but much more scholarly; in his reform proposals he is, however, incomparably milder, and rejects any catastrophic break with the past. The utmost he desires to do for the citizen without property is to procure him a farm of 40 acres, for which he is to pay a fixed
rent and to render certain feudal services to the landlord. Ogilvie's Essay was republished in 1838 and in 1891.
Thomas Paine's Agrarian Justice (1795-96) is brilliantly written, and breathes the spirit of the French Revolution. The contrast between the state of nature and civil society is clearly depicted. His reform programme is very moderate, and was therefore taken to task by Spence in a pamphlet entitled Rights of Infants (1797). He was a member of the Society of Friends, and a worthy successor of the great social reformer John Bellers (1655-1725).