Sir William Blackstone argues that occupancy of previously unowned land creates a natural right to that property which excludes others from it (1753)

Sir William Blackstone

In his influential Commentaries on the Laws of England (1753) Sir William Blackstone has a chapter on “Of Property, in General” in which he outlines a case for property rights which has influenced a couple of hundred years of thinking on the subject in England and America:

The only question remaining is, how this property became actually invested: or that it is that gave a man an exclusive right to retain in a permanent manner that specific land, which before belonged generally to everybody, but particularly to nobody. And, as we before observed that occupancy gave the right to the temporary use of the soil, so it is agreed upon all hands, that occupancy gave also the original right to the permanent property in the substance of the earth itself; which excludes every one else but the owner from the use of it.

Blackstone begins his chapter on “property in general” by asking the question by right right do men claim “that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.” His answer is the Lockean notion that first occupancy and first use of the land gives men that right. From this basic right flows more complex interactions brought about by “mutual convenience” and the introduction of the practice of “commercial traffic”, resulting in the entire market system of his and our days. His Commentaries were widely read in the American colonies on the eve of the Revolution.