In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Land and Property in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Philosophy of Property
  • General Theory of Property
  • Legal Theory of Property
  • Political Theory of Property
  • Property and Gender
  • Property Inheritance

Atlantic History Land and Property in the Atlantic World
Thomas J. Humphrey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0282


Land and the struggles to own it characterized the history of Europeans’ interactions with each other and with people throughout the early Americas. Those same concerns continued to shape the interactions among Europeans in the early Americas at every level, from households to interactions with indigenous people. How people defined property, how they legitimated their claims, how those claims conflicted, how people passed on their land, and how land shaped communities sat at the heart of these interactions. Land—property—was the central commodity in these interactions and was a phrase whose meaning changed over the course of the Early Modern period. By the late 15th century among European legal things, property because synonymous with non-moveable estates, although it also included moveable goods. Before then, writers of legal tracts referred to possessions and the use of those possessions. Some writers argued that only a monarch could own land without benefit of another’s authority because only that political authority had the power to bestow possession. By the middle of the 17th century, legal writers had added that one’s labor on something also granted a person a sense of ownership of land. Later in the 17th century, political writers considered the impact that possession and labor had on possession of land and on one’s access to political power. It was John Locke who combined possession with use when arguing about what entitled people to own land, which could be authorized only by a title from a political authority. European colonists carried those ideas with them across the Atlantic to the Americas. Once there, indigenous people compelled those colonists to reshape their perceptions of property to create a spectrum of ownership.

General Overviews

These entries provide an overview of how Europeans thought about what constituted property ownership and how those perceptions changed over time. For most Europeans, and especially for English and then British colonists, John Locke served as a turning point. Ashcraft 1986 describes Locke’s important role in that process, and Aylmer 1980 outlines the history of that idea before Locke. De Moor, et al. 2002 examines the critical element of common land in a European context, while Brewer and Staves 1996 details how property became a broader element of European and colonial society. Mensch 1982 describes the contradictions that shaped the development of these ideas in the colonies.

  • Ashcraft, Richard. Revolutionary Politics & Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

    Ashcraft has done more than nearly any historian to explain Locke’s writings on government, civil and political society, and property. In this book, Ashcraft studies Locke’s writings in the context in which the author produced them to show how the ideas shaped his actions and how his political involvement with Whigs influenced how he thought about the emerging relationship between rulers and the ruled.

  • Aylmer, G. E. “The Meaning and Definition of ‘Property’ in Seventeenth-Century England.” Past & Present 86 (February 1980): 87–97.

    DOI: 10.1093/past/86.1.87

    In this highly influential piece, Aylmer traces the development of property as a term used by Locke. He argues there was no presumed collision of common law with other kinds of law, such as civil, to produce a notion of property that emerged in early modern Europe. According to Locke, paraphrasing here, every man has a “property and right” to defend his life, liberty, and estate.

  • Brewer, John, and Susan Staves, eds. Early Modern Conceptions of Property. Consumption and Culture in the 17th and 18th Centuries. New York: Routledge, 1996.

    This collection of essays is indispensable. Individual essays cover the entirety of the subject of property, from political theory to property and the family, literary property, and the property of self and of land. Taken together, the volume illustrates the evolution of property from an ideological perspective to a way to define people’s relationship to land and power. The essays also examine the development of people’s production as a form of property.

  • De Moor, Martina, Leigh Shaw-Taylor, and Paul Warde, eds. The Management of Common Land in North West Europe, c. 1500–1850. CORN Publication 8. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2002.

    The collection shows how common lands shaped communities throughout much of early modern northwestern Europe. The essays cover a variety of regions, including England, Flanders, France, Sweden, and parts of Germany. While each section describes how people farmed with common land, the authors also address issues of common land rights, who possessed and had access to said land, and what institutions legitimated that possession and access.

  • Mensch, Elizabeth V. “The Colonial Origins of Liberal Property Rights.” Buffalo Law Review 31 (1982): 635–735.

    Mensch describes the fundamental contradiction inherent in early American conceptions of landed property. On one side, people presumed the legitimacy of the social, political, and religious hierarchies that accompanied property ownership. On the other, people who did not own property often challenged that hierarchy by arguing that independence and freedom were the basis for an ordered society.

  • Parker, John. Books to Build an Empire: A Bibliographical History of English Overseas Interests to 1620. Amsterdam: Thieme-Nijmegan, 1965.

    This is an annotated bibliography of books written about colonization from roughly 1481 to 1620. The volume highlights the different ways in which writers described and legitimated colonization and the expropriation of Indians’ land.

  • Pocock, J. G. A. Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century. Ideas in Context. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511720505

    Pocock outlines the contentious history of property in the Early Modern period. He highlights how property was described both as political and fundamental to civic virtue, on one side, and as the key to sovereignty and power, on the other. For Pocock, that contested duality shaped the meaning of property as it changed over time.

  • Ryan, Alan. Property and Political Theory. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984.

    Ryan explores what philosophers have said about the relationship between property and labor. Rather than situate their ideas in historical context, Ryan interrogates arguments to show connections and influences.

  • Schlatter, Richard. Private Property: The History of an Idea. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1951.

    Schlatter traces the history of ideas on property from ancient Greece to 19th-century Europe. In doing so, he shows how property as a philosophy could be used to control people’s political and economic activities and to acquire power. Once in power, rulers distributed what they considered to be justice as long as it supported their ownership of property and their politically powerful position.

  • Thirsk, Joan, ed. The Agrarian History of England and Wales. Vol. 4, 1500–1640. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

    No history of land or property, as a legal or political construction, is complete without this classic collection of essays. The authors especially focus on landed property, conservatively noting the drift toward the polarization of property over the course of the period.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.