William Oglivie


(1736 – 1819)

“The earth having been given to mankind in common occupancy, each individual seems to have by nature a right to possess and cultivate an equal share. This right is little different from that which he has to the free use of the open air and running water; though not so indispensably requisite at short intervals for his actual existence, it is not less essential to the welfare and right state of his life through all its progressive stages.”

“That every man has a right to an equal share of the soil, in its original state, may be admitted to be a maxim of natural law.”

“If the original value of the soil be the joint property of the community, no scheme of taxation can be so equitable as a land-tax, by which alone the expenses of the state ought to be supported.”

For a man whose life was marked by outstanding courage and whose written works were nothing short of revolutionary, remarkably little is known about the actual life of William Ogilvie. In fact Ogilvie, as far as known, never disclosed his name to the public in connection with anything he wrote or attempted to reform during the whole course of his long life, and this lousy background sketch is the only known pictorial representation of him. The reasons for this secrecy are because of the mind-boggling power of the landed “gentry” of Scotland, but we’ll put a bookmark there.

There’s no doubt that Ogilvie was a died-in-the-wool geoist. Indeed, few in his time had grasped so firmly the fact that the faithful collection by a nation of its land rent will of itself effect a just and radical redistribution of the land, while preserving – upon payment of that rent – full security of tenure to the occupant, and the abolition of the entire false system of taxation besides.

Strange to say, William Ogilvie of Pittensear was a born and bred land-owning patrician – and what a masterful cover this proved to be for such a would-be insurgent! We’ll skip most of the usual biog details, for what little is known of him is remarkable for being unremarkable. He received the sort of solid education for a man of his class and era, and spent almost his entire adult life as a professor at Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities, lecturing in philosophy, political and natural history, antiquities, criticism and rhetoric.

But, in the form of his nameless economic writings, Ogilvie did leave for posterity a great legacy. In 1782 he published anonymously his monumental Right of Property in Land, which stood in stark contrast to the works of his famous Scottish contemporary, Robert Burns. While Ogilvie and Burns did see eye to eye on many issues of the day, Burns roused up his fellow-men from the gutter of serfdom whereas Ogilvie reasoned with them as to the causes which brought them to such a low condition, and also as to the means of reclaiming their natural rights. Ogilvie considered the whole question from a magnanimous, impartial, and truly scientific point of view. He pleaded for free inquiry and sought the underlying cause. In that sense, he looked upon landlordism not as a cause but as an effect. The primary and fundamental cause of all the evils under which humanity suffers was traced by him to man’s want of knowledge; and landlordism, with all its consequent evils, is directly owing to man’s ignorance of his natural rights.

Ogilvie’s Right of Property in Land was read on the continent of Europe as the work of an Englishman, and had great influence outside Britain, particularly in Prussia. But in Britain, where landlords reigned supreme, this work was brutally suppressed – merely possessing it was a serious crime, which is why it was portrayed as the work of an unknown Englishman. Similarly, possession of The Age of Reason (written by a more famous geoist, Thomas Paine) could land a person in jail.

Today, it’s hard to imagine just how dangerous a time it was to question the ruling elite. But get this – before 1747 the great landlords of Scotland held not only power of military tenure but the right to hang miscreants according to their own verdict. When, in 1747, these powers were removed, the Duke of Argyle alone was awarded £21,000 compensation for loss of these privileges. But was his power greatly diminished? In 1890 his descendant, with other dukes and lairds had control of the church to the extent that they received tithes amounting to £3,700,000. Of this they paid the clergy a little more than £240,000, and divided the rest up among themselves. The Duke of Argyle possessed the patronage of no less than 30 churches. The clergy, whose crumbs came from this source, usually preached as though the landlords were a chosen race unconnected with the rest of humanity, who in that day were largely considered tainted with Original Sin.

Let this lesson in the power of landed interests be the main theme of this biog, alongside the courage of a man who dared to deny the divine origin of rents and tithes.