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    Book III: Chapter 2

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    Chapter 20
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    When the German and Scythian nations overran the western provinces of the
    Roman empire, the confusions which followed so great a revolution lasted for
    several centuries. The rapine and violence which the barbarians exercised
    against the ancient inhabitants, interrupted the commerce between the towns
    and the country. The towns were deserted, and the country was left
    uncultivated; and the western provinces of Europe, which had enjoyed a
    considerable degree of opulence under the Roman empire, sunk into the lowest
    state of poverty and barbarism. During the continuance of those confusions,
    the chiefs and principal leaders of those nations acquired, or usurped to
    themselves, the greater part of the lands of those countries. A great part
    of them was uncultivated; but no part of them, whether cultivated or
    uncultivated, was left without a proprietor. All of them were engrossed, and
    the greater part by a few great proprietors.

    This original engrossing of uncultivated lands, though a great, might have
    been but a transitory evil. They might soon have been divided again, and
    broke into small parcels, either by succession or by alienation. The law of
    primogeniture hindered them from being divided by succession; the
    introduction of entails prevented their being broke into small parcels by

    When land, like moveables, is considered as the means only of subsistence
    and enjoyment, the natural law of succession divides it, like them, among
    all the children of the family ; of all of whom the subsistence and
    enjoyment may be supposed equally dear to the father. This natural law of
    succession, accordingly, took place among the Romans who made no more
    distinction between elder and younger, between male and female, in the
    inheritance of lands, than we do in the distribution of moveables. But when
    land was considered as the means, not of subsistence merely, but of power
    and protection, it was thought better that it should descend undivided to
    one. In those disorderly times, every great landlord was a sort of petty
    prince. His tenants were his subjects. He was their judge, and in some
    respects their legislator in peace and their leader in war. He made war
    according to his own discretion, frequently against his neighbours, and
    sometimes against his sovereign. The security of a landed estate, therefore,
    the protection which its owner could afford to those who dwelt on it,
    depended upon its greatness. To divide it was to ruin it, and to expose
    every part of it to be oppressed and swallowed up by the incursions of its
    neighbours. The law of primogeniture, therefore, came to take place, not
    immediately indeed, but in process of time, in the succession of landed
    estates, for the same reason that it has generally taken place in that of
    monarchies, though not always at their first institution. That the power,
    and consequently the security of the monarchy, may not be weakened by
    division, it must descend entire to one of the children. To which of them so
    important a preference shall be given, must be determined by some general
    rule, founded not upon the doubtful distinctions of personal merit, but upon
    some plain and evident difference which can admit of no dispute. Among the
    children of the same family there can be no indisputable difference but that
    of sex, and that of age. The male sex is universally preferred to the
    female; and when all other things are equal, the elder everywhere takes
    place of the younger. Hence the origin of the right of primogeniture, and of
    what is called lineal succession.

    Laws frequently continue in force long after the circumstances which first
    gave occasion to them, and which could alone render them reasonable, are no
    more. In the present state of Europe, the proprietor of a single acre of
    land is as perfectly secure in his possession as the proprietor of 100,000.
    The right of primogeniture, however, still continues to be respected ; and
    as of all institutions it is the fittest to support the pride of family
    distinctions, it is still likely to endure for many centuries. In every
    other respect, nothing can be more contrary to the real interest of a
    numerous family, than a right which, in order to enrich one, beggars all the
    rest of the children.

    Entails are the natural consequences of the law of primogeniture. They were
    introduced to preserve a certain lineal succession, of which the law of
    primogeniture first gave the idea, and to hinder any part of the original
    estate from being carried out of the proposed line, either by gift, or
    device, or alienation; either by the folly, or by the misfortune of any of
    its successive owners. They were altogether unknown to the Romans. Neither
    their substitutions, nor fidei commisses, bear any resemblance to entails,
    though some French lawyers have thought proper to dress the modern
    institution in the language and garb of those ancient ones.

    When great landed estates were a sort of principalities, entails might not
    be unreasonable. Like what are called the fundamental laws of some
    monarchies, they might frequently hinder the security of thousands from
    being endangered by the caprice or extravagance of one man. But in the
    present state of Europe, when small as well as great estates derive their
    security from the laws of their country, nothing can be more completely
    absurd. They are founded upon the most absurd of all suppositions, the
    supposition that every successive generation of men have not an equal right
    to the earth, and to all that it possesses ; but that the property of the
    present generation should be restrained and regulated according to the fancy
    of those who died, perhaps five hundred years ago. Entails, however,
    are still respected, through the greater part of Europe ; In those
    countries, particularly, in which noble birth is a necessary qualification
    for the enjoyment either of civil or military honours. Entails are thought
    necessary for maintaining this exclusive privilege of the nobility to the
    great offices and honours of their country; and that order having usurped
    one unjust advantage over the rest of their fellow-citizens, lest their
    poverty should render it ridiculous, it is thought reasonable that they
    should have another. The common law of England, indeed, is said to abhor
    perpetuities, and they are accordingly more restricted there than in any
    other European monarchy ; though even England is not altogether without
    them. In Scotland, more than one fifth, perhaps more than one third part of
    the whole lands in the country, are at present supposed to be under strict

    Great tracts of uncultivated land were in this manner not only engrossed by
    particular families, but the possibility of their being divided again was as
    much as possible precluded for ever. It seldom happens, however, that a
    great proprietor is a great improver. In the disorderly times which gave
    birth to those barbarous institutions, the great proprietor was sufficiently
    employed in defending his own territories, or in extending his jurisdiction
    and authority over those of his neighbours. He had no leisure to attend to
    the cultivation and improvement of land. When the establishment of law and
    order afforded him this leisure, he often wanted the inclination, and almost
    always the requisite abilities. If the expense of his house and person
    either equalled or exceeded his revenue, as it did very frequently, he had
    no stock to employ in this manner. If he was an economist, he generally
    found it more profitable to employ his annual savings in new purchases than
    in the improvement of his old estate. To improve land with profit, like all
    other commercial projects, requires an exact attention to small savings and
    small gains, of which a man born to a great fortune, even though naturally
    frugal, is very seldom capable. The situation of such a person naturally
    disposes him to attend rather to ornament, which pleases his fancy, than to
    profit, for which he has so little occasion. The elegance of his dress, of
    his equipage, of his house and household furniture, are objects which, from
    his infancy, he has been accustomed to have some anxiety about. The turn of
    mind which this habit naturally forms, follows him when he comes to think of
    the improvement of land. He embellishes, perhaps, four or five hundred acres
    in the neighbourhood of his house, at ten times the expense which the land
    is worth after all his improvements; and finds, that if he was to improve
    his whole estate in the same manner, and he has little taste for any other,
    he would be a bankrupt before he had finished the tenth part of it. There
    still remain, in both parts of the united kingdom, some great estates which
    have continued, without interruption, in the hands of the same family since
    the times of feudal anarchy. Compare the present condition of those estates
    with the possessions of the small proprietors in their neighbourhood, and
    you will require no other argument to convince you how unfavourable such
    extensive property is to improvement.

    If little improvement was to be expected from such great proprietors, still
    less was to be hoped for from those who occupied the land under them. In the
    ancient state of Europe, the occupiers of land were all tenants at will.
    They were all, or almost all, slaves, but their slavery was of a milder kind
    than that known among the ancient Greeks and Romans, or even in our West
    Indian colonies. They were supposed to belong more directly to the land than
    to their master. They could, therefore, be sold with it, but not separately.
    They could marry, provided it was with the consent of their master; and he
    could not afterwards dissolve the marriage by selling the man and wife to
    different persons. If he maimed or murdered any of them, he was liable to
    some penalty, though generally but to a small one. They were not, however,
    capable of acquiring property. Whatever they acquired was acquired to their
    master, and he could take it from them at pleasure. Whatever cultivation and
    improvement could be carried on by means of such slaves, was properly
    carried on by their master. It was at his expense. The seed, the cattle, and
    the instruments of husbandry, were all his. It was for his benefit. Such
    slaves could acquire nothing but their daily maintenance. It was properly
    the proprietor himself, therefore, that in this case occupied his own lands,
    and cultivated them by his own bondmen. This species of slavery still
    subsists in Russia, Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, and other parts of
    Germany. It is only in the western and south-western provinces of Europe
    that it has gradually been abolished altogether.

    But if great improvements are seldom to be expected from great proprietors,
    they are least of all to be expected when they employ slaves for their
    workmen. The experience of all ages and nations, I believe, demonstrates
    that the work done by slaves, though it appears to cost only their
    maintenance, is in the end the dearest of any. A person who can acquire no
    property can have no other interest but to eat as much and to labour as
    little as possible. Whatever work he does beyond what is sufficient to
    purchase his own maintenance, can be squeezed out of him by violence only,
    and not by any interest of his own. In ancient Italy, how much the
    cultivation of corn degenerated, how unprofitable it became to the master,
    when it fell under the management of slaves, is remarked both by Pliny and
    Columella. In the time of Aristotle, it had not been much better in ancient
    Greece. Speaking of the ideal republic described in the laws of Plato, to
    maintain 5000 idle men (the number of warriors supposed necessary for its
    defence), together with their women and servants, would require, he says, a
    territory of boundless extent and fertility, like the plains of Babylon.

    The pride of man makes him love to domineer, and nothing mortifies him so
    much as to be obliged to condescend to persuade his inferiors. Wherever the
    law allows it, and the nature of the work can afford it, therefore, he will
    generally prefer the service of slaves to that of freemen. The planting of
    sugar and tobacco can afford the expense of slave cultivation. The raising
    of corn, it seems, in the present times, cannot. In the English colonies, of
    which the principal produce is corn, the far greater part of the work is
    done by freemen. The late resolution of the Quakers in Pennsylvania, to set
    at liberty all their negro slaves, may satisfy us that their number cannot
    be very great. Had they made any considerable part of their property, such a
    resolution could never have been agreed to. In our sugar colonies., on the
    contrary, the whole work is done by slaves, and in our tobacco colonies a
    very great part of it. The profits of a sugar plantation in any of our West
    Indian colonies, are generally much greater than those of any other
    cultivation that is known either in Europe or America ; and the profits of a
    tobacco plantation, though inferior to those of sugar, are superior to
    those of corn, as has already been observed. Both can afford the expense of
    slave cultivation but sugar can afford it still better than tobacco. The
    number of negroes, accordingly, is much greater, in proportion to that of
    whites, in our sugar than in our tobacco colonies.

    To the slave cultivators of ancient times. gradually succeeded a species of
    farmers, known at present in France by the name of metayers. They are called
    in Latin Coloni Partiarii. They have been so long in disuse in England, that
    at present I know no English name for them. The proprietor furnished them
    with the seed, cattle, and instruments of husbandry, the whole stock, in
    short, necessary for cultivating the farm. The produce was divided equally
    between the proprietor and the farmer, after setting aside what was judged
    necessary for keeping up the stock, which was restored to the proprietor,
    when the farmer either quitted or was turned out of the farm.

    Land occupied by such tenants is properly cultivated at the expense of the
    proprietors, as much as that occupied by slaves. There is, however, one very
    essential difference between them. Such tenants, being freemen, are capable
    of acquiring property; and having a certain proportion of the produce of the
    land, they have a plain interest that the whole produce should be as great
    as possible, in order that their own proportion may be so. A slave, on the
    contrary, who can acquire nothing but his maintenance, consults his own
    ease, by making the land produce as little as possible over and above that
    maintenance. It is probable that it was partly upon account of this
    advantage, and partly upon account of the encroachments which the
    sovereigns, always jealous of the great lords, gradually encouraged their
    villains to make upon their authority, and which seem, at least, to have
    been such as rendered this species of servitude altogether inconvenient,
    that tenure in villanage gradually wore out through the greater part of
    Europe. The time and manner, however, in which so important a revolution was
    brought about, is one of the most obscure points in modern history. The
    church of Rome claims great merit in it ; and it is certain, that so early
    as the twelfth century, Alexander III. published a bull for the general
    emancipation of slaves. It seems, however, to have been rather a pious
    exhortation, than a law to which exact obedience was required from the
    faithful. Slavery continued to take place almost universally for several
    centuries afterwards, till it was gradually abolished by the joint operation
    of the two interests above mentioned ; that of the proprietor on the one
    hand, and that of the sovereign on the other. A villain, enfranchised, and
    at the same time allowed to continue in possession of the land, having no
    stock of his own, could cultivate it only by means of what the landlord
    advanced to him, and must therefore have been what the French call a

    It could never, however, be the interest even of this last species of
    cultivators, to lay out, in the further improvement of the land, any part of
    the little stock which they might save from their own share of the produce ;
    because the landlord, who laid out nothing, was to get one half of whatever
    it produced. The tithe, which is but a tenth of the produce, is found to be
    a very great hindrance to improvement. A tax, therefore, which amounted to
    one half, must have been an effectual bar to it. It might be the interest of
    a metayer to make the land produce as much as could be brought out of it by
    means of the stock furnished by the proprietor ; but it could never be his
    interest to mix any part of his own with it. In France, where five parts out
    of six of the whole kingdom are said to be still occupied by this species of
    cultivators, the proprietors complain, that their metayers take every
    opportunity of employing their master's cattle rather in carriage than in
    cultivation ; because, in the one case, they get the whole profits to
    themselves, in the other they share them with their landlord. This species
    of tenants still subsists in some parts of Scotland. They are called
    steel-bow tenants. Those ancient English tenants, who are said by
    Chief-Baron Gilbert and Dr Blackstone to have been rather bailiffs of the
    landlord than farmers, properly so called, were probably of the same kind.

    To this species of tenantry succeeded, though by very slow degrees, farmers,
    properly so called, who cultivated the land with their own stock, paying a
    rent certain to the landlord. When such farmers have a lease for a term of
    years, they may sometimes find it for their interest to lay out part of
    their capital in the further improvement of the farm; because they may
    sometimes expect to recover it, with a large profit, before the expiration
    of the lease. The possession, even of such farmers, however, was long
    extremely precarious, and still is so in many parts of Europe. They could,
    before the expiration of their term, be legally ousted of their leases by a
    new purchaser; in England, even, by the fictitious action of a common
    recovery. If they were turned out illegally by the violence of their master,
    the action by which they obtained redress was extremely imperfect. It did
    not always reinstate them in the possession of the land, but gave them
    damages, which never amounted to a real loss. Even in England, the country,
    perhaps of Europe, where the yeomanry has always been most respected, it was
    not till about the 14th of Henry VII. that the action of ejectment was
    invented, by which the tenant recovers, not damages only, but possession,
    and in which his claim is not necessarily concluded by the uncertain
    decision of a single assize. This action has been found so effectual a
    remedy, that, in the modern practice, when the landlord has occasion to sue
    for the possession of the land, he seldom makes use of the actions which
    properly belong to him as a landlord, the writ of right or the writ of
    entry, but sues in the name of his tenant, by the writ of ejectment. In
    England, therefore the security of the tenant is equal to that of the
    proprietor. In England, besides, a lease for life of forty shillings a-year
    value is a freehold, and entitles the lessee to a vote for a member of
    parliament ; and as a great part of the yeomanry have freeholds of this
    kind, the whole order becomes respectable to their landlords, on account of
    the political consideration which this gives them. There is, I believe,
    nowhere in Europe, except in England, any instance of the tenant building
    upon the land of which he had no lease, and trusting that the honour of his
    landlord would take no advantage of so important an improvement. Those laws
    and customs, so favourable to the yeomanry, have perhaps contributed more to
    the present grandeur of England, than all their boasted regulations of
    commerce taken together.

    The law which secures the longest leases against successors of every kind,
    is, so far as I know, peculiar to Great Britain. It was introduced into
    Scotland so early as 1449, by a law of James II. Its beneficial influence,
    however, has been much obstructed by entails ; the heirs of entail being
    generally restrained from letting leases for any long term of years,
    frequently for more than one year. A late act of parliament has, in this
    respect, somewhat slackened their fetters, though they are still by much too
    strait. In Scotland, besides, as no leasehold gives a vote for a member of
    parliament, the yeomanry are upon this account less respectable to their
    landlords than in England.

    In other parts of Europe, after it was found convenient to secure tenants
    both against heirs and purchasers, the term of their security was still
    limited to a very short period ; in France, for example, to nine years from
    the commencement of the lease. It has in that country, indeed, been lately
    extended to twentyseven, a period still too short to encourage the tenant to
    make the most important improvements. The proprietors of land were
    anciently the legislators of every part of Europe. The laws relating to
    land, therefore, were all calculated for what they supposed the interest of
    the proprietor. It was for his interest, they had imagined, that no lease
    granted by any of his predecessors should hinder him from enjoying, during a
    long term of years, the full value of his land. Avarice and injustice are
    always short-sighted, and they did not foresee how much this regulation must
    obstruct improvement, and thereby hurt, in the long-run, the real interest
    of the landlord.

    The farmers, too, besides paying the rent, were anciently, it was supposed,
    bound to perform a great number of services to the landlord, which were
    seldom either specified in the lease, or regulated by any precise rule, but
    by the use and wont of the manor or barony. These services, therefore. being
    almost entirely arbitrary, subjected the tenant to many vexations. In
    Scotland the abolition of all services not precisely stipulated in the
    lease, has, in the course of a few years, very much altered for the better
    the condition of the yeomanry of that country.

    The public services to which the yeomanry were bound, were not less
    arbitrary than the private ones. To make and maintain the high roads, a
    servitude which still subsists, I believe, everywhere, though with different
    degrees of oppression in different countries, was not the only one. When the
    king's troops, when his household, or his officers of any kind, passed
    through any part of the country, the yeomanry were bound to provide them
    with horses, carriages, and provisions, at a price regulated by the
    purveyor. Great Britain is, I believe, the only monarchy in Europe where the
    oppression of purveyance has been entirely abolished. It still subsists in
    France and Germany.

    The public taxes, to which they were subject, were as irregular and
    oppressive as the services The ancient lords, though extremely unwilling to
    grant, themselves, any pecuniary aid to their sovereign, easily allowed him
    to tallage, as they called it, their tenants, and had not knowledge enough
    to foresee how much this must, in the end, affect their own revenue. The
    taille, as it still subsists in France. may serve as an example of those
    ancient tallages. It is a tax upon the supposed profits of the farmer, which
    they estimate by the stock that he has upon the farm. It is his interest,
    therefore, to appear to have as little as possible, and consequently to
    employ as little as possible in its cultivation, and none in its
    improvement. Should any stock happen to accumulate in the hands of a
    French farmer, the taille is almost equal to a prohibition of its ever being
    employed upon the land. This tax, besides, is supposed to dishonour whoever
    is subject to it, and to degrade him below, not only the rank of a
    gentleman, but that of a burgher ; and whoever rents the lands of another
    becomes subject to it. No gentleman, nor even any burgher, who has stock,
    will submit to this degradation. This tax, therefore, not only hinders the
    stock which accumulates upon the land from being employed in its
    improvement, but drives away all other stock from it. The ancient tenths and
    fifteenths, so usual in England in former times, seem, so far as they
    affected the land, to have been taxes of the same nature with the taille.

    Under all these discouragements, little improvement could he expected from
    the occupiers of land. That order of people, with all the liberty and
    security which law can give, must always improve under great disadvantage.
    The farmer, compared with the proprietor, is as a merchant who trades with
    burrowed money, compared with one who trades with his own. The stock of both
    may improve; but that of the one, with only equal good conduct, must always
    improve more slowly than that of the other, on account of the large share
    of the profits which is consumed by the interest of the loan. The lands
    cultivated by the farmer must, in the same manner, with only equal good
    conduct, be improved more slowly than those cultivated by the proprietor,
    on account of the large share of the produce which is consumed in the rent,
    and which, had the farmer been proprietor, he might have employed in the
    further improvement of the land. The station of a farmer, besides, is, from
    the nature of things, inferior to that of a proprietor. Through the greater
    part of Europe, the yeomanry are regarded as an inferior rank of people,
    even to the better sort of tradesmen and mechanics, and in all parts of
    Europe to the great merchants and master manufacturers. It can seldom
    happen, therefore, that a man of any considerable stock should quit the
    superior, in order to place himself in an inferior station. Even in the
    present state of Europe, therefore, little stock is likely to go from any
    other profession to the improvement of land in the way of farming. More
    does, perhaps, in Great Britain than in any other country, though even there
    the great stocks which are in some places employed in farming, have
    generally been acquired by fanning, the trade, perhaps, in which, of all
    others, stock is commonly acquired most slowly. After small proprietors,
    however, rich and great farmers are in every country the principal
    improvers. There are more such, perhaps, in England than in any other
    European monarchy. In the republican governments of Holland, and of Berne
    in Switzerland, the farmers are said to be not inferior to those of England.

    The ancient policy of Europe was, over and above all this, unfavourable to
    the improvement and cultivation of land, whether carried on by the
    proprietor or by the farmer ; first, by the general prohibition of the
    exportation of corn, without a special licence, which seems to have been a
    very universal regulation ; and, secondly, by the restraints which were laid
    upon the inland commerce, not only of corn, but of almost every other part
    of the produce of the farm, by the absurd laws against engrossers,
    regraters, and forestallers, and by the privileges of fairs and markets. It
    has already been observed in what manner the prohibition of the exportation
    of corn, together with some encouragement given to the importation of
    foreign corn, obstructed the cultivation of ancient Italy, naturally the most
    fertile country in Europe, and at that time the seat of the greatest empire
    in the world. To what degree such restraints upon the inland commerce of
    this commodity, joined to the general prohibition of exportation, must have
    discouraged the cultivation of countries less fertile, and less favourably
    circumstanced, it is not, perhaps, very easy to imagine.
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