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Primogeniture

Would you know whether a country inclines to aristocracy, first of all inquire into the laws or customs that regulate the distribution of wealth. According to a remark of Tocqueville's, it was the laws on succession which, by centring, grouping around a few heads first property, then power, force aristocracy, in a manner, to spring from the soil, or, by dividing, frittering, and scattering property and power, pave the way for democracy. In the Russian nobility, the custom of dividing the property equally among the sons had always prevailed, that levelling law, which, "passing over the soil again and again, razes the walls of dwellings to the ground and pulls down the enclosures of fields."

If in Russia the law of equal division had not reduced all the large estates into house lots, destroyed all possibilities of living broadly, the reason is that Russia, so far, has been placed in exceptional economic conditions. It was, at first, the immensity of the territory ; then the rapid rise in the value of land owing to the opening of new issues ; lastly, serfdom and the nobility's exclusive right to own "inhabited estates." In many regions the land revenue increased so fast, in proportion to the population and means of communication, that the properties would double, treble their value, sometimes increase it tenfold, in the space of twenty or thirty years. At this rate, it was not impossible for two or three sons, after dividing among themselves the paternal inheritance, to find themselves each as rich as their father had been at their age.

There was another cause still, at least to all appearance, for large fortunes : that is the fact that property is divided only among the male children. The sons, being those whom it behooves to perpetuate the family, share the estate. To the daughters who had living brothers, the law awarded an almost nominal portion: one fourteenth of the paternal inheritance, at least of the real estate. Often they got only their marriage outfit. In the spirit of ancient civilizations, a wedded and dowered daughter was put out of the family. A slice of bread once cut off, in the popular saying, does not belong to the loaf any longer. True, the dowry given to the daughters sometimes amounted to more than what would be their legal share ; there even are cases where the daughters had, in this way, received a portion as large or larger than that of their brothers.

This law by no means proceeds from contempt of the female sex ; for Russian law, so niggardly in its provision for them, is in many ways more liberal towards women than the French Code, which, with regard to inheritance, placed them on an equal footing with the men. If the Russian Code awards to the daughter but a trifling portion of her father's property, it ensured to the wife the free enjoyment and independent management of her own property, even in her husband's lifetime. The married woman is never, as in France, a ward under her husband's guardianship, and, in a general way, it may be stated that, with regard to the emancipation, or rather independence, of women, no society in Europe was more advanced or more liberal than the higher classes of this same Russia, whose laws, in other respects, treated them so meanly.

By the late 19th Century Russian nobles had been led by the economic revolution to work, and to like it; so that a moderate inheritance became what alone inheritances should be in an ideal state of society - an encouragement and aid to effort, a steppingstone, a stirrup, a reserve fund, not a bed to lie down on and idle away the best forces of manhood and the few years given to use them in.

Primogeniture, the privilege of one sex over the other appeared as a social guaranty, a way of protecting the transmission of property and of perpetuating families. This opinion, however, was not always borne out by the example of the Russian nobility. Where the law recognized all the children's equal right to the paternal inheritance, the curtailed portion of the sons was re-completed by marriage ; on the average, the wife restored to the husband what the sister took from the brother. If the division between the males alone cut up lands and fortunes less, that between all the children offered greater facilities for reconstituting or rounding them up by means of alliances. By the late 19th Century, when almost the only factors of wealth are industry, banking, and trade, there was no other bridge between the opulence of the new-made families and the neediness of the old ones but the girls' right of succession. With the opposite regime, power and wealth were in danger of passing wholesale to a ruling class of parvenus.

The exclusive division of property between the males had, from a conservative point of view, another disadvantage, which made itself specially felt in Russia : it disturbed the balance of fortunes and the relative position of families more quickly, in a manner more subject to chance than the equal division between all the children. Two fathers, owning equal fortunes and having an equal number of children, left their male descendants in very different plight according as they happen to have more sons or more daughters. On the whole, the Russian custom did not seem to foster aristocratic influences any more than the French, seemingly more democratic, custom.



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