Front Page Titles (by Subject) Subsection IV.—: Primogeniture in England and Ireland.—Necessity of abolishing it in the latter country.—General summary. - Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 2
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Subsection IV.—: Primogeniture in England and Ireland.—Necessity of abolishing it in the latter country.—General summary. - Gustave de Beaumont, Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 2 
Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, ed. W.C. Taylor (London: Richard Bentley, 1839). Vol. 2.
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Primogeniture in England and Ireland.—Necessity of abolishing it in the latter country.—General summary.
Land must, doubtless, be rendered alienable, in order that the people should acquire it; it is a necessary condition, for that cannot be purchased which is not an article of commerce. The abolition of entails is the first thing to be done, but it will not be enough. The people cannot become proprietors if the lands to be sold are of great extent, and they will preserve this great extent in a country where primogeniture prevails.
If the English system of legislation respecting inheritance is open to any reproach, it is that of excessive freedom; the owner of an unentailed estate may leave it to whichever of his children he pleases, or he may disinherit his family altogether, and leave the property to an entire stranger. Hence, the English frequently fall into the error of supposing that their law of primogeniture has no force of itself, and that the system is maintained by the habits and inclinations of the country.
Englishmen who employ such language are right to a certain extent. It is very clear, that if the law of primogeniture was contrary to the opinions and habits of the country, it would cease to exist wherever it is not obligatory. Still it has its roots in the law. What is the legal principle?—Simply this: if the father does not make a will, the eldest son inherits all, to the exclusion of his brothers and sisters, who inherit absolutely nothing. Now what is the consequence?—When the father keeps silence, the law speaks, and its voice is always in favour of the eldest son. You may, if you please, say that the law is not tyrannical, since resistance is permitted, but do not say that it is powerless, for if a man dies intestate, it acts with absolute sway. . . . . . This right is indisputably the most important privilege of the English aristocracy; we may add, that it is also the most national. The beauty and richness of England, and the conservation of the splendid demesnes along every line of road, depend upon keeping estates together, and hence a sort of popularity is attached to the law of primogeniture, without which those splendid groves and plantations would fall beneath the axe, when the principle of equality divided and broke up inheritances.
Primogeniture is as strong a legal principle in England as in Ireland; but it does not find the same support there in the condition of the land, in the prejudices and the national passions. It is true that in Ireland, as in England, all those who possess large estates have the same aristocratic feelings for the conservation of their property as the English proprietors, and exhibit the same attachment to the principle which prevents their being divided. It is also true, that those who purchase estates with recently acquired wealth, are, as in England, at once seized with the same desire of founding a family and preserving the estate entire.
But, in Ireland, the respect and love for aristocracy end with those who are, or suppose themselves, members of the body; and this number is very limited. In England, by the side of every old fortune, there are a thousand new ones springing into existence. It is not the same in Ireland, where misery is almost as immovable as the land. Few hope to attain the object, and those who succeed are hated. I have never, in Ireland, heard the people evince for the vast possessions of the aristocracy the same indulgent and even enthusiastic sentiments with which I have been often surprised, in England, from the mouth of a poor man. Primogeniture may consequently be abolished in Ireland without at all offending the national feelings. On the contrary, it would be the best means of reconeiling the law with public opinion. If the civil laws of a country are the expression of its habits, may it not be said, that so long as an antinational aristocracy will preserve its privileges, there will be in that country a flagrant opposition between the manners and the laws?
The abolition of primogeniture would not cause the same ruin in Ireland which it might produce in England. There are magnificent demesnes and splendid mansions in Ireland, but they are like oases in the desert. The rich Irish proprietor is accustomed to surround his residence with a certain extent of reserved land, on which he accumulates all his cares, all his luxury, and all his pride. Whilst our view is restricted to this narrow space, we might almost suppose ourselves in England; but when we look beyond, we are struck with the most lamentable spectacle; the land seems as poor as its inhabitants, and appears to reflect their misery: filthy hovels, unenclosed fields, naked land entirely destitute of trees, present a sad prospect of desolation.
In England the farm is so rich, that it may be confounded with the demesne of the landlord. In Ireland there is a sudden break where the demesne ends; it appears almost incredible that the hideous form which displays so much indigence and misery, should belong to the superb palace containing such enormous opulence.
Now, does any one suppose that there will be matter for much regret, when, by a new system of legislation, these immense estates so shocking to the sight will be divided? Would there be any cause to lament the mutilation of vast inheritances, if, instead of exhibiting barbarous hovels and filthy tenants, they were covered with neat houses and small proprietors? Here, then, we see that it is for the interest of Ireland, it is necessary, to subvert an institution which may be allowed to stand in England.
The abolition of the right of primogeniture in Ireland is absolutely necessary to the objects which must be attained. In the first instance, it would be sufficient to enact, that in case of a father’s dying intestate, the property should be equally divided, and thus render an express declaration necessary to enrich the young son at the expense of the elder branches.
Doubtless, for a long time such a law would have little efficacy, because the habits and manners of the rich would struggle against it; but would it not be the surest and most equitable means to form new habits? In the first place, it would be imperative on every occasion that the father of a family died intestate; and how many are taken by surprise in their last hour! It would also remove from the selfishness of pride the excesses under which it finds shelter. Out of five children four are destitute, and one is rich;—this, at present, is the work of the law. But hereafter they might say to their father, “This revolting inequality in the condition of those who had an equal right to your tenderness is your work: it results not from an omission on your part, but from a positive act of which you are the author.”
I cannot believe but that in the long-run such a law would be fruitful in results, and would cause the division of a great number of estates. A glance at France will show with what rapidity such a division takes place, when once the principle of equal partition is admitted. When once primogeniture is abolished, the division of estates would afford the rising middle class in Ireland lands of an extent suited to their means, and, as it continued, would end by rendering landed property accessible to the lower classes themselves.
In fine, to attain the proposed end, the chains which fetter the feudal soil must be broken, entails abolished, the law of gavelkind substituted for that of primogeniture, landed property delivered from its trammels, the uncertainty of title removed, publicity given to all sales and transfers of land; the registry of mortgages and all engagements relative to land freely opened to the public, security and guarantees given to those who lend money on land; and the form of the deeds of sale must be simplified, so as to render the purchase of small and great estates equally possible.
I do not pretend to point out the legislative means by which the evils I have enumerated may be cured, and I limit myself to saying to those persons on whom the fate of Ireland depends, “Hasten to make laws which will render land a matter of easy traffic; divide and partition the soil as much as you can, for it is the only means, in overthrowing an aristocracy which must fall, of elevating the lower classes; it is the only means of placing the land within the reach of the people, and it is absolutely necessary that the Irish people should become landed proprietors.”
What must be done to abolish the Religious Privileges of the Aristocracy.