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Primogeniture

The injurious effects of aristocratic influence may be abundantly traced in the desire to aggregate the vast preponderance of family property in a single heir, which was often displayed in England to an extent that was an outrage upon morality; in the frequent spectacle of many children - often daughters, who are almost incapable of earning a livelihood - reduced to penury, in order that the eldest son may gratify the family vanity by an adequate display of ostentatious luxury; in the scandalous injustice of the law relating to intestacy. Although it would be an absurd exaggeration to attribute to the existence of an aristocracy the frightful contrast of extreme opulence and abject misery which is so frequent in England, it is undoubtedly true that the excessive inequality of the distribution of wealth, resulting from laws which were originally intended to secure the preponderance of a class, and from manners which were originally the product of those laws, has most seriously aggravated it.

The country was long seriously burdened, and some of the professions were systematically degraded, in order to furnish lucrative posts for the younger members of the aristocratic families; and the representative character of the Lower House was so utterly perverted by the multiplication of nomination boroughs in the hands of the peers that a storm of indignation was at last raised which shook the very pillars of the constitution.

The sons of the English nobility, except the eldest, descended after one or two generations, into the ranks of the commoners. Their eldest sons, before obtaining their titles, usually made it a great object of their ambition to sit in the House of Commons, and have there acquired the tastes of popular politics. In the public-school system the peers and the lower gentry are united in the closest ties. The intermarriage of peers and commoners has always been legal and common.

The name of primogeniture is given to the law or custom in virtue of which an eldest son succeeds either to the sovereign power or to the landed estate of his father. The right of primogeniture in males seems anciently to have only obtained among the Jews, in whose constitution the eldest son had a double portion of the inheritance. The Greeks, the Komans, the Britons, the Saxons, and even originally the feudists, divided the lands equally; some among all the children at large, some among the males only. This is certainly the most obvious and natural way; and has the appearance, at least in the opinion of younger brothers, of the greatest impartiality and justice.

But when the emperors began to create honorary feuds, or titles of nobility, it was found necessary (in order to preserve their dignity) to make them impartible, or (as they styled them) feuda individua (indivisible fees), and in consequence descendible to the eldest son alone. This example was further enforced by the inconveniences that attended the splitting of estates; namely, the division of the military services, the multitude of infant tenants incapable of performing any duty, the consequential weakening of the strength of the kingdom, and the inducing younger sons to take up with the business and idleness of a country life, instead of being serviceable to themselves and the public, by engaging in mercantile, in military, in civil, or in ecclesiastical employments. Primogeniture, in this sense, is a distinguishing mark of feudalism. Under the feudal system each man's status depended on his relation to the land. Each landowner in his degree discharged definite civil and military functions, and was so far a partaker in sovereign power. As the possession of land conferred this public character, it was natural that the estate should be treated like a little kingdom, should be considered indivisible, and should go to the eldest son.

The opposite principle of equal subdivision would have broken up the civil and military hierarchy in one or two generations. The government of a province or the command of a regiment does not admit of partition between the sons of a late governor or a late colonel. Accordingly the rule of primogeniture is said to have been first established with respect to the benefida or grants made by the Frankish sovereigns on condition of personal service. With the progress of feudal tenure it spread over most of central and western Europe.

On the continent the idea of primogeniture never attained universal or unqualified acceptance. In England, a small country united betimes nnder a strong central government, the rule of primogeniture, once introduced by the Normans, prevailed more rapidly and completely than elsewhere. It was well established by the end of the reign of Henry III, although the old custom of equal division between all the sons (gavelkinb) held its ground in Kent and in a few other places.

Sub-infeudation, which in England had been prohibited from the time of the Plantagenet kings, was largely practised in Scotland. The great baron, owner of an extensive but thinly peopled domain, could provide each of his sons with a fief to be held from him for rent, or military service. Each son divided his fief among his children ; and this sub-infeudation went on till every powerful family could count a large array of cadets ; many of them, no doubt, in comparatively obscure positions, but the tie of blood, carefully cherished on both sides, imparted a patriarchal character to the relation of superior and vassal. Moreover, in feudal Scotland, the following of commercial pursuits was not held to derogate from the status of gentility to the same extent as in some foreign countries, or even as in England : and two hundred years ago the younger scions of families of distinction were often engaged in occupations which are not nowadays associated with the idea of gentle birth.

As a law, or even as a custom of succession to landed property in modern times, it has been severely criticised, as (1) contrary to the feelings of justice and affection which prompt a parent to provide equally for all his children ; (2) corrupting to the eldest son who obtains the whole of the estate by the mere accident of birth, and cruel to his brothers and sisters who have been brought up in affluence and often spend the rest of their lives in penury ; (3) injurious to the land, which is frequently starved by the tenant for life in order to provide portions for his younger offspring; (4) discouraging to industry and thrift, inasmuch as it keeps estates few and large, thus withdrawing land from commerce and hindering the application of capital to land. On the other side it has been urged (1) that in the long run the importance of a family is an advantage to every member of that family; (2) that the proprietors of large estates are often liberal and enterprising in improvement; (3) that younger sons are often bold adventurers, and that adventurers are essential to national greatness. A law of compulsory subdivision may have bod effects in diminishing the size of properties beyond the limit compatible with high cultivation or in checking too strongly the natural increase of population.



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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:08:08 ZULU