I first came across a reference to Thomas Spence (1750 – 1814) in an article on the Mutualist.org website, summarising the history of working class radical movements in Britain. Having studied both the Levellers and Diggers for my MA in History at the University of Sussex, I was interested to see the extent to which their radical ideas were continued and developed by Spence. When I subsequently encountered references to Henry George in an article by John Médaille at ‘The Distributist Review’ blog, and began to read ‘Progress and Poverty’ (1879), it occurred to me that Spence may have been an intellectual forerunner of the Georgists, and their proposal to replace all taxation with a single Land Value Tax.
It would appear that Spence is little known today, even in his native Newcastle, and yet his work forms an important part of the popular radical tradition within Great Britain. He was one of the earliest writers in the English language to advocate female suffrage. He also campaigned in favour of spelling reform, producing a pronouncing dictionary of English and publishing many of his pamphlets, poems and songs in his new phonetic alphabet.
It is, however, Spence’s Land Plan for which he is best remembered (among those few who have heard of him, that is). Throughout his career, he consistently opposed the private ownership of land, and oppression by landlords. Indeed, in ‘The End of Oppression’ (1795), he even went so far as to suggest that some of his fellow radicals opposed monarchy because they were never likely to become kings, but supported lthe private ownership of land because they were likely to be landlords.
Spence’s Land Plan varied in minor details during the course of his career, culminating in a full-blown draft ‘Constitution of Spensonia’ (1803), modelled on the French Constitution of 1793. The basic elements however were extremely consistent, and can be summarised briefly as follows:
Spence accepted the concept of the inalienable rights of man in the state of nature, identified by John Locke in his ‘Second Treatise of Civil Government’(1690). However, he departed from Locke’s formulation of natural rights in his assertion that the right to life required that land continue to be held as common property:
That property in land and liberty among men in a state of nature ought to be equal, few, one would be fain to hope, would be foolish enough to deny. Therefore, taking this to be granted, the country of any people, in a native state, is properly their common, in which each of them has an equal property, with free liberty to sustain himself and family with the animals, fruits and other products thereof. Thus such a people reap jointly the whole advantages of their country, or neighbourhood, without having their right in so doing called in question by any, not even by the most selfish and corrupt. For upon what must they live if not upon the productions of the country in which they reside? Surely, to deny them that right is in effect denying them a right to live.[i]
Spence proposed that all land within each parish should be legally owned by the community. All adult inhabitants of the parish (such as had resided there for at least one year) would form a corporate body and would collect the entire rent of all land within the parish as an alternative to all other forms of taxation, which would be abolished. These rents would be used to fund all local services (including a community school within each parish) with about one-third being paid to support higher levels of government. Where there was a significant surplus from the rents of the parish lands, this would be equally divided between the men, women and children of the parish as a citizen’s dividend. A citizen could have plots of land in different parishes but would only be able to vote in one parish at any general election.
Continuing in the tradition of earlier radicals, such as the Levellers and Diggers, Spence proposed that the functions of the national legislature be comparatively limited, with the Congress or National Assembly acting to establish the legislative framework of the republic, administer the public finances, ensure the responsibility of government officials and deal with issues of national defence and foreign affairs. In the Constitution of Spensonia (1803) Spence proposed a National Assembly elected every year by secret ballot on the basis of universal suffrage and consisting of one deputy per parish. Where the number of Parishes exceeded one thousand, Spence proposed the creation of equal electoral districts consisting of groups of parishes. In all his pamphlets, Spence assumed that most of the day to day functions of government would be devolved to the parishes or, if the parishes were too small, to counties. This enthusiasm for localism extended to the armed forces, with local militias being formed in each parish. Spence even went so far as to argue that a standing army would no longer be necessary in such a society.
“All the men in every parish, at times of their own choosing, repair together to a field for that purpose, with their officers, arms, banners, and all sorts of martial music, in order to learn or retain the complete art of war; there they become soldiers. … There is no army kept in pay among them in times of peace, as all have property alike to defend, they are alike ready to run to arms when their country is in danger; and when an army is to be sent abroad, it is soon raised, of ready trained soldiers, either as volunteers or by casting lots in each parish for so many men. [ii]
In proposing the community appropriation of all rents of land as a replacement for taxation, Thomas Spence could indeed be regarded as a radical precursor of Henry George, although Spence preferred the solution of directly nationalising the land (albeit at a local level) to levying a Land Value Tax on the existing landholders. It is unclear what influence, if any, the French Physiocrats had on his ideas, which seem to have been inspired, at least in part, by the agrarian scheme proposed by James Harrington in his ‘Commonwealth of Oceana’ (1656) [iii] selections of which were published by Spence in his newspaper, ‘Pig’s Meat’, (named after Edmund Burke’s allusion to the ‘swinish multitude’).
Further details on Spence’s life and ideas can be found on the website of the Thomas Spence Society (http://thomas-spence-society.co.uk/). A selection of his political writings has been published and edited by H. T. Dickinson (ISBN 0 907977 02 2). Some of his works, including selections from Pig’s Meat, are available from Amazon.co.uk and other retailers.
Notes[i] Spence, T. (1775) The Real Rights of Man, in Dickinson, H.T. (ed.) (1982);"The Political Works of Thomas Spence, Newcastle, p.1
[ii] The Real Rights of Man, in Dickinson, H.T. (ed.) (1982) The Political Works of Thomas Spence, Newcastle, p.4
[iii] Harrington proposed that no-one should be permitted to own lands with an annual value of more than £5,000, in order to hinder the development of a class of extremely wealthy landowners, who would thereby be in a position to exert undue influence in the political life of his proposed republic. This upper limit to landed wealth was principally to be achieved by reform of the law relating to inheritance and dowries.
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