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The nineteenth century witnessed a revolution in thinking about property that was also a revolution in thinking about the state. The commonsense understanding of property at the opening of the century might be read in Thomas Macaulay’s 1833 argument for a coercive enforcement of order in Ireland: “[Mr. Macaulay] thought there was no situation in the life of a public man more painful than that in which he found himself, under the necessity of supporting the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, and the even temporary abolition of trial by jury. These were sacred portions of our Constitution, older than Parliament itself—their origin was lost in the darkness of ancient times. . . . [But] what were the Habeas Corpus and Trial by Jury intended for? Why, to be the means, not the ends, of protecting life and property.”1 Macaulay’s reluctance to impose coercive measures on Ireland gives way to his conclusion that all laws exist to protect life and property and thus are simply means to that end. For Macaulay, no law is sacred that does not protect property , which, like life itself, exists prior to any state institution. That this position was one of consensus, not partisanship, is evident from the argument of his opponent on the matter of Irish coercion. John Romilly, while condemning the Introduction 2 The Dispossessed State coercion that Macaulay reluctantly advocated, argued from precisely the same basis as Macaulay, contending that proposed searches of Irish households could never lawful: “Was it not clear that the authorized breaking open of houses was nearly as great a breach of order as unauthorized murder?”2 In both views, the preservation of property was equated with the preservation of life. Property, like life, is assumed to pre-exist the law, not to be constituted by it. Law itself can only be legitimate if it respects that fact. Yet by the late 1870s a new way of thinking about property and its relation to the institutions of the state had started to take hold, as Matthew Arnold’s claim made clear: “If it is the sound English doctrine that all rights are created by law and are based on expediency, and are alterable as the public advantage may require, certainly that orthodox doctrine is mine. Property is created and maintained by law. . . . Legal society creates, for the common good, the right of property and for the common good that right is by legal society limitable” (“Equality” 46). Arnold’s assertion that property exists for the sake of the social order, rather than the social order existing to preserve property, represents a complete reversal of Macaulay’s and Romilly’s assumptions. For Arnold, all property rights originate with the state and end when the state withholds its recognition and enforcement. Arnold’s assertion that his stance is “sound English doctrine” is somewhat ironic—he knew well that his claim was not universally accepted. Still, by this point in the century, Arnold was part of a group of thinkers who revolutionized the way the state was conceived. Instead of a state whose purpose was to preserve and respect property rights that preceded the state, Arnold’s state created the order of property over which it presided. This book explores this shift in thinking in both fiction and nonfiction. Drawing on the political, economic, and legal theory behind these changes, it explores how journalists, political theorists, and fiction writers imagined the fluctuating relationship between a person’s orientation toward property and a person’s orientation toward the state in the nineteenth century. My purpose in writing it is twofold. First I aim to flesh out what has previously been a rather limited discussion of how Victorians thought about property. Scholars of Victorian literature and culture tend to think of property in terms of its redefinition under the influence of an increasingly pervasive market-driven culture. Jeff Nunokawa tells us of Victorians “alarmed that market values had managed to engross everything under the sun” (4). Andrew Miller observes that for the Victorians, “the penetrating anxiety” was “that their social and moral world Introduction 3 was being reduced to a warehouse of goods and commodities, a display window in which people, their actions, and their convictions were exhibited for the economic appetites of others” (6). In these terms, no property was safe for actual keeping. The new world of capitalism was one of endlessly circulating objects, all primed for exchange rather than ownership. All its inhabitants could do was hanker nostalgically for...


Subject Headings

  • Property in literature.
  • Land tenure -- Government policy -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century.
  • Land tenure -- Government policy -- Ireland -- History -- 19th century.
  • English fiction -- Irish authors -- History and criticism.
  • English fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
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