allan greer on commons and enclosure in north america


Allan Greer, ‘Commons and Enclosure in North America’, American Historical Review 117, 2 (2012).

Opening paragraphs:

What were the broad processes by which settlers of European stock created new forms of tenure and wrested control of lands from indigenous peoples, first in the Americas and later across wide stretches of Africa and Oceania? Anyone interested in this basic question about colonization and dispossession in an Atlantic world setting may be tempted to think in terms of a great “enclosure movement” that took shape first in England and Western Europe and then extended overseas to the New World, bringing survey lines, fences, and legal rules fostering exclusive access and transferability. More than one historian has pointed in the direction of such an extended conception of enclosure, although none has so far made the case in detail. “When the English took possession of lands overseas, they did so by building fences and hedges, the markers of enclosure and private property,” write Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker. In relation to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, E. P. Thompson has also pointed to a connection between enclosure within England and the imposition of private property across the overseas British Empire, notably in India, where the Permanent Settlement of Bengal (1793) represented a particularly brutal and doctrinaire attempt to establish unitary proprietorship over land. Thompson’s argument about enclosure and colonization appeared in an essay published late in his life, and it touches on North America, New Zealand, and Africa as well as India. Richly suggestive, it remains schematic and preliminary, pointing to a long‐term global movement to privatize the commons that emanated outward from the British Isles. Certainly, there is an intriguing, if rough, coincidence of peak periods of enclosure in England—the Tudor period and the late eighteenth century—with times of imperial expansion and reinvigoration.


Settlers did frequently erect fences, since “enclosure” in that mundane sense of the term played an important part in separating ruminants and crops, the two elements whose coexistence typified European agriculture. It is also true that commodified, individualized forms of property usually followed in the wake of colonization, although the transition may not have been as rapid as some imagine. While the long‐run tendency may indeed have been in the direction of an enclosed private property regime that largely excluded natives, colonization was also accompanied by the establishment of commons. Evidence from seventeenth‐century New Spain, New France, and New England can shed light on the interplay of enclosure and commons in the formation of colonial property regimes in North America. It shows that common property was a central feature of both native and settler forms of land tenure in the early colonial period and that dispossession came about largely through the clash of an indigenous commons and a colonial commons.

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