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'Tis sweet to steal abroad at grey of eve,
Yet will imagination cheat our cares. And gild the dawning scene w ith richest dies,
So that the toiling wretch, as on he fares, Sees, ever, lovely lands before him rise;And still o'erwhelmed in present agonies, Looks onward for some turning in the way, In which the vision that before him flies May overtaken be, or choose to stay,
And I, I also gaze towards the goal Which Fancy bids me hope may yet be won, Though the tenth hour has on my musings stole, As on him parabled by Judah's son, Who, though hard labour's heavy sands had run Nearly through all the day, was yet allowed To overtake by diligence the sun, And mingle with the eirlier toiling crowd,
ON THE LAW OF PRIMOGENITURE.*
In times like the present, when want and calamity are every day becoming more and more prevalent among the great mass of the people, it seems to be the duty of every public writer, who can feel for mankind, honestly to indicate what appear to him the causes of these evils. The indispensable brevity of periodical composition must always, however, confine the writer of a public journal to certain branches only of every great subject at a time; but perhaps there is little evil in this; the lapse of a month brings him again before the public, with another part of his investigation, which, though merely the continuation of a former inquiry, can hardly fail, if pursued with moderate judgment, to appear novel and agreeable. At least, such is the persuasion with which we now and then enter repeatedly upon topics like the one before us, which, whatever their importance and utility may be, are much less calculated than many others that could be chosen, to be wrought up into fashionable essays. On these occasions, however, we waive all considerations of fame or pleasure, content if by any means we can be useful.
The question at present to be determined is, whether it be for the good of the community that all the lands of the kingdom should belong to a few aristocratical families, to the entire disinheriting of a vast majority of mankind; or that they should lawfully descend in equal portions from the father to all his children, and thus, by degrees, be equitably divided among the citizens of the state. By the laws of England, as they stand at present, all the landed property of the father descends, along with his rank and title, to the eldest son. Against the injustice, and the mischievous and despotic tendency of these laws, we now contend; as it is principally from them that the poverty and enslaved condition of the majority of the English people have, in our opinion, been derived.
A man without political rights is a slave, and undoubtedly the majority of Englishmen have no political rights. It is vain to talk of the right of petitioning; while man has a tongue he will complain; but, unless he can command the Redress of his grievances, his complaining will prove of little benefit to him. Of the poverty and misery of the people no proof is wanting; as it is acknowledged, we believe, that more than one-fifth of the population has long been reduced to the condition of paupers. Moreover, at this very moment, tens of thousands of people are bordering on starvation, or actually dying for wint, and, if they survive, they must owe their lives to the charity of their fellow-citizens. Were these calamities
* Disconrs de Mirabeau sur l'fgalit* des nartages dans les successions; pl-fcea* du Nouveati Projet de Loi, de la Loi exislante, et de leurs motives. 24mo. Paris, 1826.
occasioned by any convulsion or irregularity of nature, falling in its consequences upon all alike, there would then be no room, at least on their account, to call in question the excellence of our institutions. But the famine that now ravages the country, passes every moment by full granaries and stately and plentiful mansions, whose owners never experienced any other embarrassment than that which arises from superfluity of riches.
There are therefore imperfections somewhere in our laws. Distress, overwhelming and almost universal, exists; and it cannot have arisen from the minute division of landed property, or property of any kind, for never were there so many immense proprietors of land, so many unwieldly capitalists more wealthy than Croesus, so many princely bankers and merchants, so many well-paid bishops, priests and deacons, so many rich generals, admirals, pensioners, placemen. Here, then, great estates and great poverty exist together: the law of primogeniture, if it does not cause, does not, at all events, prevent almost national pauperism. Seeing that this is the case, it appears rather surprising that a worthy Baronet, one of the most popular friends of the people, a politician of long standing, and a man of ability likewise, should, in a late speech in Parliament, have given it as his opinion "that it was the so much carped-at law of primogeniture that kept up the wealth of the country"! Keep up the wealth of the country, indeed! Yes, this so much carped-at law does certainly keep up the wealth of the country— for it keeps it entirely out of the reach of the majority. But let us not anticipate. On subjects of this kind, which have generally been regarded as legal questions, it is customary, we believe, to imagine that none but lawyers are qualified to write. In our opinion, however, they, of all men, are the least qualified: versed in the history of particular cases and precedents, and habituated to the forms of existing institutions, it is but seldom that they look so far as the first principles of legislation, and examine the reasons of laws. Yet, in speaking of the prerogative of primogeniture, it is necessary to understand, not what has, at various periods, appeared just and politic to certain legislators, but what really is so.
Plato, in his Republic, undertook to prove that what is just is politic. Whether it be so or not, it will always, we think, make rather against the character of a law to know that, whatever else it may be, it is utterly and radically unjust. In this predicament the law of primogeniture stands. For, upon the supposition that the father has a right to bestow his property as he pleases, and that it is for the good of society that great families should be founded and preserved, all the estate of the father descends after his death to his first-born son. It is clear from this that the prerogative of the eldest son is erected upon two fallacies; because it may be incontestibly shown that, first, the father neither has, nor ought to have, the right to dispose arbitrarily of his wealth; and, secondly, that if he had, the existence of great families, in favour of which alone primogeniture is maintained, is an evil that ought not to he tolerated in a free state.
With respect to the father's right: philosophers have very clearly developed the manner in which the right of property is created; the savage inserts a sharp stone into a stick, and thus by his labour creates a new form, which from that moment is his property. Prior to this, the materials were free. With this axe he fells trees, shapes them, and erects himself a hut, which likewise becomes his own. He tames wild animals, and encloses a spot of ground to prevent their flight, and the animals and the ground become his property. But he does not labour alone; his wife and his children share his toils, and enable him to support them: while he raises the hut, or forms his enclosures, the sons range the forests for game, and the wife and the daughters prepare it for food. When not thus employed, they engage directly in his labours; some sharpen stakes, others weave the willows into the fences, others run about for the materials, and carry poles and reeds to form or roof the hut. When the work is completed, can the father rise up and say,—" All these things are mine"? Grant that the infancy of the children is supported by his sole labour; old age and sickness and diseases come upon him; he can no longer labour; then are repaid the debts of infancy; filial affection watches round his bed, provides him savoury and nourishing food, or leads his tottering footsteps to the sunny bank before the hut. Without children how could he avail himself of his property? Who would assuage the miseries of age, or keep off, by watchful tenderness, the hand of death, for a time? But having children, he is enabled, during manhood, to multiply, tenfold, the property of the family; every hand increases it; every eye watches over it. Should he, then, attempt, in the dotage of old age, to defraud his children of their shares, and bestow the common property upon some guest, brought by chance to his habitation, every clown of his neighbourhood would exclaim against his injustice. They would do the same, were he to call all his family round his death bed, and say to them—" Children, it is very true that the sheep I hear bleating without in the cotes were caught and tamed by you all; that you likewise lent your hand to raise these walls, and gathered the reeds that roof them, and shelter us from the rain; that, in short, all we have is the product of our joint labour; nevertheless, as it is highly expedient that posterity should know such a man as ' Mumbo Jumbo' existed, I must now bestow on you a loaf a-piece, and turn you out of doors, that your elder brother, Mumbo, may remain here with his wife, and preserve the name and honours of the Jumbos to all eternity."
To know upon what principle the possession of wealth and power should be regulated in a state, we ought to consider how we would now distribute them in case we were to take men from the equality of nature to form a new community. Supposing us acquainted with their minds and habits, it is probable we should not select a drunkard and an adulterer to be King, or President; nor weak-minded, superstitious persons for our senators; quite the reverse; our choice would single out, for exalted stations, the loftiest intellects, and the most unblemished characters, and servile and mean employments would fall to the lot of those to whom nature should be found to have given low and imperfect minds. But in this distribution every thing should re mrd the individual, and nothing the family; it being important to know what a man can do, but not whose son he is. When a state, however, has been formed, as most states have, by accident, and grown to unwieldy size and power in the course of ages, the laws enacted from time to time, to answer some immediate exigency, adhere most commonly to the body politic long after the circumstances which gave rise to them have ceased to exist. By every bad law there are some gainers, (there are, at least, some who reckon themselves such,) and these individuals, having an interest which is not that of the public, will always labour to promote "the craft by which they live." It is no wonder, therefore, that elder brothers, like political Cains, should approve of the law of primogeniture, as it is to them a legal instrument by which they quietly possess themselves of the rights of the younger.
The principle, however, upon which all public business is conducted in this country—the prevalence of a majority, would quickly put an end to what Gibbon called emphatically " the insolent prerogative of primogeniture," for, were all mankind to give their suffrages on the question, the first-born, we suspect, would be greatly outvoted. In fact, it is this law that has maintained the "monarchical principle" in Europe, and kept the great body of the people in the condition of aliens and strangers in their own country. The privileged orders, always directing the powers of government, contrive successfully to mask their domestic policy from the people, and abandon a large portion of their own class, the younger brothers, to conduct the brute forces of the populace in foreign wars, or, in the shape of teachers, to stultify and enslave their understandings at home. If, by any miracle, a poor man rises to some commanding eminence in society, the privileged ranks are opened to him, and his energies, like a piece of artillery taken in battle from the enemy, are pointed against the ranks from whence he came. As to younger brothers, being scions from the privileged trunk, they are planted in the great champaign of rank and honours, and either shoot up to a level with the parent tree, or quickly wither and die away in the shade of their pestilent neighbours.
It is the law of primogeniture which creates and preserves an hereditary aristocracy, the greatest evil which political institutions have ever brought upon a country. For what but mischief could possibly spring from an order of men born with every favour and