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I believe in the existence of a great, immortal, immutable principle of natural law, or natural ethics,-a principle antecedent to all human institutions, and incapable of being abrogated by any ordinance of man,- a principle of divine origin, clearly legible in the ways of Providence as those ways are manifested in the order of nature and in the history of the race, which proves the absolute right to an education of every human being that comes into the world, and which, of course, proves the correlative duty of every government to see that the means of that education are provided for all.
In regard to the application of this principle of natural law, - that is, in regard to the extent of the education to be provided for all at the public expense,- some differences of opinion may fairly exist under different political organizations; but, under our republican government, it seems clear that the minimum of this education can never be less than such as is sufficient to qualify each citizen for the civil and social duties he will be called to discharge,—such an education as teaches the individual the great laws of bodily health, as qualifies for the fulfilment of parental duties, as is indispensable for the civil functions of a witness or a juror, as is necessary for the voter in municipal and in national affairs, and, finally, as is requisite for the faithful and conscientious discharge of all those duties which devolve upon the inheritor of a portion of the sovereignty of this great republic. . . . So far is it from being a wrong or a hardship to demand of the possessors of property their respective shares for the prosecution of this divinely ordained work, that they themselves are guilty of the most far-reaching injustice when they seek to resist or to evade the contribution. The complainers are the wrong-doers. The cry, "Stop thief!" comes from the thief himself.
To any one who looks beyond the mere surface of things, it is obvious that the primary and natural elements or ingredients of all property consist in the riches of the soil, in the treasures of the sea, in the light and warmth of the sun, in the fertilizing clouds and streams and dews, in the winds, and in the chemical and vegetative agencies of Nature. In the majority of cases, all that we call property, all that makes up the valuation or inventory of a nation's capital, was prepared at the creation, and was laid up of old in the capacious storehouses of Nature. For every unit that a man earns by his own toil or skill, he receives hundreds and thousands, without cost and without
recompense, from the all-bountiful Giver. A proud mortal, standing in the midst of his luxuriant wheat-fields or cottonplantations, may arrogantly call them his own; yet what barren wastes would they be, did not Heaven send down upon them its dews and its rains, its warmth and its light, and sustain, for their growth and ripening, the grateful vicissitude of the seasons! It is said that from eighty to ninety per cent. of the very substance of some of the great staples of agriculture are not taken from the earth, but are absorbed from the air; so that these productions may more properly be called fruits of the atmosphere than of the soil. Who prepares this elemental
wealth? Who scatters it, like a sower, through all the regions of the atmosphere, and sends the richly freighted winds, as His messengers, to bear to each leaf in the forest, and to each blade in the cultivated field, the nourishment which their infinitely varied needs demand? Aided by machinery, a single manufacturer performs the labor of hundreds of men. Yet what could he accomplish without the weight of the waters which God causes ceaselessly to flow, or without those gigantic forces which he has given to steam? And how would the commerce of the world be carried on, were it not for those great laws of Nature of electricity, of condensation, and of rarefactionthat give birth to the winds, which, in conformity to the will of Heaven and not in obedience to any power of man, forever traverse the earth, and offer themselves as an unchartered medium for interchanging the products of all the zones? These few references show how vast a proportion of all the wealth which men presumptuously call their own, because they claim to have earned it, is poured into their lap, unasked and unthanked for, by the Being so infinitely gracious in his physical as well as in his moral bestowments.
But for whose subsistence and benefit were these exhaustless treasuries of wealth created? Surely not for any one man, nor for any one generation, but for the subsistence and benefit of the whole race from the beginning to the end of time. They were not created for Adam alone, nor for Noah alone, nor for the first discoverers or colonists who may have found or have peopled any part of the earth's ample domain. No. They were created for the race collectively, but to be possessed and enjoyed in succession as the generations, one after another, should come into existence,— equal rights, with a successive enjoyment of them. If we consider the earth and the fulness
thereof as one great habitation or domain, then each generation, subject to certain modifications for the encouragement of industry and frugality,— which modifications it is not necessary here to specify, has only a life-lease in them. There are certain reasonable regulations, indeed, in regard to the outgoing and the incoming tenants, regulations which allow to the outgoing generations a brief control over their property after they are called upon to leave it, and which also allow the incoming generations to anticipate a little their full right of possession. But, subject to these regulations, nature ordains a perpetual entail and transfer from one generation to another of all property in the great, substantive, enduring elements of wealth,in the soil, in metals and minerals, in precious stones, and in more precious coal and iron and granite, in the waters and winds and sun; and no one man, nor any one generation of men, has any such title to or ownership in these ingredients and substantials of all wealth that his right is evaded when a portion of them is taken for the benefit of posterity.
This great principle of natural law may be illustrated by a reference to some of the unstable elements, in regard to which each individual's right of property is strongly qualified in relation to his contemporaries, even while he has the acknowledged right of possession. Take the streams of water or the wind, for an example. A stream, as it descends from its sources to its mouth, is successively the property of all those through whose land it passes. My neighbor who lives above me owned it yesterday, while it was passing through his lands: I own it to-day, while it is descending through mine; and the contiguous proprietor below will own it to-morrow, while it is flowing through his, as it passes onward to the next. But the rights of these successive owners are not absolute and unqualified. They are limited by the rights of those who are entitled to the subsequent possession and use. While a stream is passing through my lands, I may not corrupt it, so that it shall be offensive or valueless to the adjoining proprietor below. I may not stop it in its downward course, nor divert it into any other direction, so that it shall leave this channel dry. I may lawfully use it for various purposes for agriculture, as in irrigating lands or watering cattle; for manufactures, as in turning wheels, etc.; but, in all my uses of it, I must pay regard to the rights of my neighbors lower down. So no two proprietors, nor any half-dozen proprietors, by conspiring together, can de
prive an owner, who lives below them all, of the ultimate right which he has to the use of the stream in its descending course. We see here, therefore, that a man has certain qualified rights
- rights of which he cannot lawfully be divested without his own consent - in a stream of water before it reaches the limits of his own estate, at which latter point he may somewhat more emphatically call it his own. And, in this sense, a man who lives at the outlet of a river, on the margin of the ocean, has certain incipient rights in those fountain-sources that well up from the earth at the distance of thousands of miles. . . .
In one respect, the winds illustrate our relative rights and duties even better than the streams. In the latter case the rights are not only successive, but always in the same order of priority, those of the owner above necessarily preceding those of the owner below.... In the case of the winds, however, which blow from every quarter of the heavens, I may have the prior right to-day; but, with a change in their direction, my neighbor may have it to-morrow. If, therefore, to-day, when the wind is going from me to him, I should usurp the right to use it to his detriment, to-morrow, when it is coming from him to me, he may inflict retributive usurpation upon me.
The light of the sun, too, is subject to the same benign and equitable regulations. As the waves of this ethereal element pass by me, I have a right to bask in their genial warmth or to employ their quickening powers; but I have no right, even on my own land, to build up a wall mountain-high that shall eclipse the sun to my neighbor's eyes.
Now all these great principles of natural law which define and limit the rights of neighbors and contemporaries are incorporated into and constitute a part of the civil law of every civilized people; and they are obvious and simple illustrations of the great proprietary laws by which individuals and generations hold their rights in the solid substance of the globe, in the elements that move over its surface, and in the chemical and vital powers with which it is so marvellously endued. As successive owners on a river's bank have equal rights to the waters that flow through their respective domains, subject only to the modification that the proprietors nearer the stream's source must have precedence in the enjoyment of their rights over those lower down, so the rights of all the generations of mankind to the earth itself, to the streams that fertilize it, to the winds that purify it, to the vital principles that animate it,
and to the reviving light, are common rights, though subject to similar modifications in regard to the preceding and succeeding generations of men....
Is not the inference irresistible, then, that no man, by whatever means he may have come into possession of his property, has any natural right, any more than he has a moral one, to hold it, or to dispose of it, irrespective of the needs and claims of those who, in the august processions of the generations, are to be his successors on the stage of existence? Holding his rights subject to their rights, he is bound not to impair the value of their inheritance either by commission or by omission. Generation after generation proceeds from the creative energy of God. Each one stops for a brief period upon the earth, resting, as it were, only for a night, like migratory birds upon their passage, and then leaving it forever to others whose existence is as transitory as its own; and the migratory flocks of water-fowl which sweep across our latitudes in their passage to another clime have as good a right to make a perpetual appropriation to their own use of the lands over which they fly as any one generation has to arrogate perpetual dominion and sovereignty, for its own purposes, over that portion of the earth which it is its fortune to occupy during the brief period of its temporal existence.
Another consideration bearing upon this arrogant doctrine of absolute ownership or sovereignty has hardly less force than the one just expounded. We have seen how insignificant a portion of any man's possessions he can claim in any proper and just sense to have earned, and that, in regard to all the residue, he is only taking his turn in the use of a bounty bestowed in common, by the Giver of all, upon his ancestors, upon himself, and upon his posterity, a line of indefinite length, in which he is but a point. But this is not the only deduction to be made from his assumed rights. The present wealth of the world has an additional element in it. Much of all that is capable of being earned by man has been earned by our predecessors, and has come down to us in a solid and enduring form. We have not erected all the houses in which we live, nor constructed all the roads on which we travel, nor built all the ships in which we carry on our commerce with the world. We have not reclaimed from the wilderness all the fields whose harvests we now reap; and, if we had no precious metals or stones or pearls but such as we ourselves