Tennyson’s Northern Farmer, who did not want his son marrying for love, took a lesson from his horse’s hoofbeats:

Dosn’t thou ‘ear my ‘erse’s legs, as they canters awaäy?
Proputty, proputty, proputty—that’s what I ‘ears ’em saäy.

Conservatives, repeating that refrain ever since, stake everything on the third term of Locke’s trinity of life, liberty, and property. But what did Locke mean by property? We think of real property and personal property, of course, but there are also chemical properties, and Anglicans used to invoke a Divine Being “whose property is always to have mercy.” And what about such related words as “proper” and “propriety“?

All of these words are derived from the Latin proprius, “one’s own.” Hence, property is that which belongs to one, either in the sense of ownership or in the sense of an intrinsic quality. (Classical liberals often speak as if the right to buy or sell a property were an essential part of the definition. But fungible is precisely what property is (or rather was) not. When Locke defines the function of government, he says that people unite “for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I shall call by the general name—property.” In this context, “estate” might mean several things: properly in general; the sum total of properties and monies, debts and credits, which a man leaves behind after his date; and landed property in particular. Even in commercial England, however, the estates one would think of first were real property—that is, the lands and buildings that conferred identity and prestige.

Though estates were bought and sold in 17th-century England, they were primarily conceived of as inalienable by those who inherited them and were to be passed down to heirs according to strict laws of succession. Estates might be further entailed, sharply curtailing the proprietor’s right to dispose of them as he saw fit. On the other hand, though a proprietor might not easily be able to sell a particular “property,” he could “bid defiance to the crown” if it sent petty officials knocking at his door to collect taxes or search for contraband. The invasion of this essential property right sparked the American Revolution and led to the drafting both of the Declaration of Independence and the Fourth Amendment.

Americans long ago traded in this precious right for the trivial right to buy and sell. Tennyson’s farmer was thoroughly modern—”new style,” as he is called—and he can do anything he likes with his property. He can buy and sell and disinherit his next of kin as if he were not his own son:

Thim’s mv noätions, Sammy, wheerby I means to stick;
But if thou marries a bad un, I’ll leave the land to Dick.—
Coom oop, proputty, proputty— that’s what I ‘ears ‘im saäy— Proputty, proputty, proputty—canter an’ canter awaäy.

        —Humpty Dumpty