PRIMOGENITURE.• THE principle of Primogeniture is one of the many
examples of anomalies which, though indefensible on abstract grounds, work much better in actual practice than any system which human ingenuity can devise when proceeding on the recom- mendations of a priori reasoning. The apparently absurd system, under which the son who happens to be born first succeeds to the titles and lands of his father, has been of enormous benefit in conferring social stability on those com- munities in which it obtained, and in checking family jealousy and the intrigues of designing younger sons and stepmothers. 'Unless property is to be rigidly subdivided among the members of a family, a regulation which is attended by various drawbacks which will be noted later, some such hard- and-fast rule as is supplied by primogeniture becomes absolutely necessary, however anomalous it may seem. For the question of succession to be left to the parents would be a public misfortune, not only because the children would thus be tempted to degenerate into eaptaloree, but also because parents are the very worst judges of their offspring's qualities. And the only other alternative appears to be competitive examination.
The question is one which is of much less importance in these days when, owing to the development of banking and the joint-stock system, real property has fallen from its position as the best and safest investment. But the history of the matter is well worth tracing, and Mr. Cecil has opened up an interesting subject with plenty of appreciative en- thusiasm, and though a good many of his pages are covered with purely technical information, his book may be read to good purpose by the general student. He traces his subject from the earliest dawn of recorded history. We learn that the wording of Isaac's blessing upon Jacob shows that this ceremony was practically the nomination of an eldest son. So that the want of a hard-and-fast system even then was the cause of intrigue and fraud. It appears that up to the time of Moses, "a father with a plurality of wives often nominated the eldest son of his favourite wife to enjoy the privileges of the eldest for purposes of succession." The heartburnings and domestic friction that must have been the result of such a custom are appalling even to the imagination, and it is not surprising to find that it was prohibited by the Mosaic law. An interesting account is given of the various principles of succession which ruled in barbarous and semi-civilised peoples. Youngest sons will perhaps be surprised to hear that according to some codes they would have been entitled to the lion's share. For instance, a certain Rowel Dda, who reigned in Wales in the tenth century, enacted that brothers were to share the land between them, but also that "the youngest brother is to possess the principal homestead, with all his father's stock, the boiler, the fuel-hatchet, and the coulter or plough." Mr. Cecil considers that this law was made because the youngest son was the least able to provide for • Primogeniture: a Short History of its Development in Various Countries, and its Practical Effects. By Evelyn Cecil, M.A., Barrister-at-Law, and a Member of the London School Board. London: John Murray. himself, and, from this point of view, Ultimogeniture —sit venia verbo—seems as reasonable a system as any
other. But in the Dark Ages, the custom which gave the property to the man who was best able to keep it was most likely to survive, and, other things being equal, the eldest son would, as a role, be best fitted to wield his dead father's sword. So we find primogeniture and feudalism growing up together in Europe. In Germany, how- ever, it did not take root as early as elsewhere, chiefly because of the weakness of the central authority, which caused the feudal princelets to parade their independence by assuming the right to divide the principalities among their sons. This custom was indeed a reaction against the in- vidious bickerings which had resulted from a recognition of indivisibility of property, but not of primogeniture. In the thirteenth century the succession was decided on all sorts of hap-hazard systems ; an amusing case is recorded of an in- divisible property descending to three brothers, who "pre- ferred, as the best of friends, to agree upon a kind of sportive State-lottery. They settled that whichever of them was fortunate enough to win the fair hand of the daughter of the Landgrave of Hesse " should succeed to the ancestral lands and title. To make the fairy-tale complete, the youngest son was the lady's choice ; and his two brothers " consoled them- selves by taking Holy Orders." The reaction in favour of subdivision which followed this state of things produced results which show how much those more favoured countries which adopted and adhered to primogeniture owe to the system. After a long list of divisions, by which German geography and history have been made as confused and in- consequent as a nightmare, Mr. Cecil continues :-
" It is not difficult to realise from such data into what an abyss of helplessness, confusion, and political spite the whole of the great German-speaking nation was being speedily hurled. The princes had succeeded in converting their official territories into hereditary ones, and now they were courting the suicidal epidemic of per- fectly reckless subdivision. In the middle ages especially, when the history of countries and States was the history of the per- sonal quarrels of their rulers, this increase in the number of independent rulers was an indefinite multiplication of the possi- bilities of war. And when doctrines of political economy were unknown, and it was believed that the trade of any country could only be prosperous in proportion as it could spite and hinder that of its neighbour, the creation of every new State was the erection of a new barrier against prosperity. Even at the present day this feeling is not altogether extinct. The Princes, in fact, had obtained ' Home-rule ; ' the event proved that it was the curse of Germany ; and it was the political destruction of the German nation for centuries."
After some three centuries of this destructive confusion, the tide turned, and the German lawyers were at their wits' end to discover precedents in favour of primogeniture. They un- earthed a treatise written on the subject in 1559 by one, Andreas Tiraquellns, who had discovered that the birthright of the firstborn had been recognised among all sorts of peoples in all ages, and " had acutely observed that the mothers of elephants, swine, and dogs, endeavour to suckle
their firstborn first," and so was able to insist on primogeni- ture as a law of Nature.
Coming down to later days, Mr. Cecil rather complicates his subject by entangling primogeniture with the question of hereditary succession. The two problems, however, are so closely connected that this complication was almost inevit- able; and it enables our writer to trace the disadvantages of electoral sovereignty in a few interesting sentences :-
" Electoral corruptness in the despotic ages took the form of family murder ; in the nineteenth century it asserts itself in the milder guise of jobbery. That is a vast improvement ; but it is misleading to look at the comparatively roseate colours of a Republic like the United States without glancing towards the Republics of South America, where the elective system of the most recent patent reigns in unchecked glory. A second glance is scarcely needed ; and it conveys to the mind by contrast some advantages of a fixed rule of primogeniture."
The question of large estates as contrasted with petite culture is the most directly practical problem that comes up in connection with our subject. Mr. Cecil gives some interesting figures bearing on this matter; he shows once
more that the English system of large farms reaps a much higher productive result than is gained by the peasant- proprietor, with all his untiring industry and all his advan-
tages in the matter of sunshine and climate. And the effects of morcellement must often be decidedly adverse to adequate tillage. For instance, we hear of " cases where, in a single
French commune, some two thousand acres were divided into 5,248 separate parcels belonging to one hundred and seventy proprietors ; " and it seems that in a debate in the House of Commons an instance was cited of a walnut-tree in France which belonged to thirty-two owners. Mr. Cecil contends that the ideal to be aimed at is variety in the size of pro- perties, certain crops being best grown on a large, and some on a small, scale. But he points out that the crops best suited for large treatment—corn and pasture—" comprise the chief agricultural industries of England." They also, it must be added, are those in which foreign competition is most deadly, seeing that the Argentine farmers can land wheat in London at 16s. a quarter, and cattle can be sent alive and in good condition from Australia.
In reviewing a treatise of this sort, it is perhaps hyper- critical to dwell on literary blemishes ; but even a legal expert, and a member of the London School Board, might know that " unlike " is not an adverb ; and as one instance of many astounding mixtures of metaphor, we may quote the following sentence about feudalism :—" It was a framework and though it was afterwards clogged by parasites it was born under a favourable star it was a basis of public security, and its progress was assured."