Chapter 2

The Discouragement of Agriculture after the Fall of the Roman Empire

by Adam Smith Icon

Engrossing of Land through the Law of Primogeniture and Entails

1 The confusions which followed the defeat of the Western Roman empire defeat to the Germans and Scythians lasted for many centuries.

The violence interrupted the commerce between the towns and the countryside. The towns were deserted and the countryside was left uncultivated. Western Europe, which enjoyed opulence under the Roman empire, sunk into the lowest state of poverty and barbarism. Its chiefs acquired or usurped most of the lands to themselves. Though most of the lands were uncultivated, all of them were engrossed by a few great proprietors.

2 This original great engrossing of uncultivated lands might have been just a transitory evil.

They might soon have been divided and broken into small parcels by= succession [inheritance], or But the law of primogeniture* hindered them from being divided by succession. alienation [transfer] Entails** prevented them from being broken up by alienation.

  • [ The eldest son gets the inheritance. ]

** [ The inheritance stays within the family. ]

3 When land, like movables, is the only means subsistence and enjoyment, the natural law of succession divides it among all the children.

All of the children’s enjoyments are supposed equally dear to the father. This natural law of succession took place among the Romans. They made no distinction between elder and younger and between male and female in the inheritance of lands, just as we currently do not make distinction in the distribution of movables. But when land was considered as a means for subsistence, power and protection, it was thought better that it should descend undivided to one. In those disorderly times, every great landlord was a petty prince.

His tenants were his subjects. He was their judge and legislator in peace and their leader in war. He made war according to his own discretion. The security of a landed estate depended on its size.

To divide it was to ruin and allow it to be swallowed up by its neighbours. The law of primogeniture came to take place in the succession of landed estates. In the same way, the succession of monarchies came about gradually. This succession did not always happen at their first institution. The power and security of the monarchy must descend entirely to one of the children so that it would not be weakened by division. Some general rule must determine which child will be preferred. This rule is not based on doubtful personal merit, but on some plain and indisputable difference. The only indisputable difference is sex and age. The male is universally preferred to the female. The elder everywhere takes place of the younger. Hence the origin of the right of primogeniture and lineal succession.

4 Laws frequently continue enforced long after the reasonable circumstances which created them have passed.

Presently in Europe, a proprietor of a single acre is as secure of his possession as a proprietor of 100,000 acres. The right of primogeniture still continues to be respected. Of all institutions, it is the fittest to support the pride of family distinctions. It is still likely to endure for many centuries. However, it runs most contrary to the real interest of a big family because it grants a right which beggars all the other children to enrich one child.

How Entails Prevented Alienation

5 Entails are the natural consequences of the law of primogeniture.

They were introduced to preserve a lineal succession established by the law of primogeniture. Entails hinder any part of the original estate from being carried out of the line by gift, devise, or alienation by the folly or misfortune of its successive owners. They were unknown to the Romans. Neither their substitutions nor the original fideicommisses* resemble entails, but some French lawyers used such ancient language in the modern institution.

  • [An estate that may only be passed on to lineal descendants.]

6 When great landed estates were principalities, entails might be reasonable.

Like the fundamental laws of some monarchies, they aim to prevent one man from endangering the security of thousands. But this is most absurd in present-day Europe where all estates are secured by national laws. Entails are founded on the most absurd of all suppositions= That every successive generation does not have an equal right to the earth and its possessions. That the property of the present generation should be regulated according to the fancy of those who died 500 years ago. Entails, however, are still respected in most of Europe, particularly in countries where noble birth is a necessary qualification for civil or military honours. Entails are thought necessary to maintain the nobility’s exclusive privilege and honour. The nobility usurped this unjust advantage over other citizens. It is thought reasonable that the nobility should have another advantage called entails to prevent their poverty. Their poverty would render the country’s honour ridiculous. English common law abhors perpetuities. Perpetuities are more restricted in England than in any other European monarchy. In Scotland, more than 1/5, perhaps more than 1/3 of its lands are under strict entail.

Land Cultivation by the Great Proprietors

7 Great tracts of uncultivated land were engrossed by particular families in this way.

Such lands were prevented from being divided again forever as much as possible. A great proprietor is seldom a great improver. In the disorderly times which created those barbarous institutions, the great proprietor was employed in= defending his own territories, and extending his authority over his neighbours. He did not have time to cultivate nor improve the land. When law and order was established and afforded him this leisure, he often did not have= the inclination, nor the needed abilities. He frequently had no stock to improve his lands because his expences frequently exceeded his revenue. If he was an economist, he found it more profitable to use his savings on new purchases than in improving his old estate. Like all other commercial projects, improving land with profit requires an exact attention to small savings and small gains.

A man born to a great fortune is seldom capable of this attention, even though he may be naturally frugal. He would rather focus on ornaments which please his fancy than on profits which he has little need for. Since infancy, he has been anxious about the elegance of his dress, equipage, house, and furniture. This habit naturally follows him when he thinks of improving land. He embellishes perhaps 400-500 acres near his house, at 10 times the cost of the land after all his improvements. He finds that if he improved his whole estate in the same way, he would be bankrupt before he finished 10% of it. There are still some great estates in the United Kingdom which have continued with the same family since feudal times.

Compare the present condition of those estates with the possessions of the small proprietors near them, and you will see how unfavourable such extensive property is to improvement. Land Cultivation by Slaves 8 If little improvement was to be expected from such great proprietors, still less was to be hoped for from those who occupied their land.

In ancient Europe, the occupiers of land were all tenants at will*. They were almost all slaves.

  • [A tenant that can be evicted without notice.]

But their slavery was milder than that of the ancient Greeks and Romans, or even of our West Indian colonies. They belonged more directly to the land than to their master. They could be sold with it, but not separately. They could marry, provided it was with the consent of their master. The master could not 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 small penalty. They could not acquire property. Whatever they acquired was acquired to their master. He could take it from them at pleasure. The cultivation and improvement done by such slaves was done at their master’s expence and for his benefit. The seed, the cattle, and the instruments of husbandry were all his. Such slaves could acquire only their daily maintenance. This kind of slavery still exists in Russia, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Germany. It was only abolished in western and south-western Europe. 9 But if great improvements are seldom expected from great proprietors, they are the least expected from slaves.

All ages and nations demonstrate that the work done by slaves the dearest of any, although it appears to cost only their maintenance. A person who cannot own property can be only interested in eating as much and working as little as possible. Any work beyond what is sufficient for his own maintenance can be squeezed out of him by violence only, and not by his own interest. Wheat cultivation degenerated in ancient Italy.

Pliny and Columella remarked that it became unprofitable when it was managed by slaves. In ancient Greece in the time of Aristotle, it was not much better.

The ideal republic in the laws of Plato requires a territory of boundless extent and fertility, like the plains of Babylon. It needs to maintain 5,000 idle men, which is the number of warriors supposedly needed for its defence, together with their women and servants. 10 The pride of man makes him love to domineer.

Nothing mortifies him than to be obliged to condescend to persuade his inferiors. He will prefer the service of slaves to that of freemen, wherever it is allowed by the law and the nature of the work. Tobacco and sugar planting can afford the cost of slave-cultivation. Wheat-planting currently cannot afford slaves. In the English colonies which principally grow wheat, most of the work is done by freemen.

Recently, the Quakers in Pennsylvania adopted a resolution to free all their negro slaves. It shows that their slaves were not very numerous. If slaves made any big part of their property, such a resolution could never have been accepted. In our sugar colonies, on the contrary, all the work is done by slaves.

In our tobacco colonies, much of the work is done by slaves. The profits of a sugar plantation in our West Indian colonies are much greater than the profits of any other cultivation in Europe or America.

The profits of a tobacco plantation are inferior to those of sugar but superior to those of wheat. Both sugar and tobacco can afford slave-cultivation. But sugar can afford it better than tobacco. There are more negroes in our sugar colonies than in our tobacco colonies.


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