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The Enclosure of America


Eric T. Freyfogle


University of Illinois College of Law

October 26, 2007

Illinois Public Law Research Paper No. 07-10

Abstract:     
Legal memory in the United States has largely forgotten that most of America's landscape was open to public use well into the nineteenth century. Up until the Civil War and even after, landowners in many regions could exclude the public only from lands that they took the time and expense either to fence or cultivate. In the eyes of many, the public held affirmative use rights in these open lands; the landowner's desire to exclude was irrelevant. This paper explores the range of public uses of lands in early America. It considers how and why enclosure occurred and why historians and legal scholars have largely overlooked this chapter in American history. The answers have to do with shifting ideas about the "right to property," with the diminishing force of natural law, with narrowing ideas of liberty, and with ongoing economic and social change, particularly the coming of industrialization and its growing demand for wage labor. On top of these explanations was a general failure of defenders of the open countryside to find legal ways to talk about and structure the public's use rights. Many states were willing to set aside the common law of trespass, and did so for generations. Yet, defenders of the open countryside never produced an alternative legal vocabulary to protect these public use rights, except in specific, narrow circumstances; they never found a way to incorporate these public use rights into enduring law. Influential judges and treatise writers, largely urban and Eastern, viewed public rural-land rights with contempt. Their interpretation of the situation gained ascendancy by the late nineteenth century, and it has prevailed ever since.

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Date posted: November 1, 2007  

Suggested Citation

Freyfogle, Eric T., The Enclosure of America (October 26, 2007). Illinois Public Law Research Paper No. 07-10. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1024846 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1024846

Contact Information

Eric T. Freyfogle (Contact Author)
University of Illinois College of Law ( email )
504 E. Pennsylvania Avenue
Champaign, IL 61820
United States
217-333-8713 (Phone)
217-244-1478 (Fax)
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