Front Page Titles (by Subject) 15.: Primogeniture 20 JANUARY, 1826 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I
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15.: Primogeniture 20 JANUARY, 1826 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I, ed. John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988).
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Typescript, Fabian Society, headed: “Speech intended to have been spoken, and in part actually spoken at the London Union, 20th January 1826.” The Laws and Transactions confirm the date of this, the third debate, “That the Law and Custom of Primogeniture are detrimental to Society,” proposed by Mill, who spoke third in the affirmative, which carried the vote, 16 to 12. As not published in Mill’s lifetime, not listed in his bibliography.
i do not intend, Sir, to trespass very long upon your patience. The merits of the question seem to be within a narrow compass. We have experienced this evening how obscure and intricate one of the simplest questions in ethics and legislation may be made. If we look at the subject of property with the eyes of commonsense, and without that kind of superstition which seems in this country to have stamped it as one of those subjects to which commonsense ought not to be applied, we shall see that there are two, and but two, great ends to be looked to by the legislator in regard to property; the greatest possible production and the best distribution. By establishing the laws of property, by securing to the possessor of it during his life, and to those to whom he chooses to give it at his death, the full and unmolested enjoyment of the advantages which it yields, the legislator gives encouragement to the production of wealth. This done his next consideration is what distribution conduces most to human happiness. This distribution it is his business to find out, and when found out, to encourage as far as is consistent with the other great object, the encouragement of production.
I suppose I may be permitted to assume that the distribution which conduces most to the general happiness is the distribution which the legislator ought to favour, not but that there are gentlemen in this room who would gladly dispute it, but because those gentlemen are probably not quite prepared to make answer to the question what other end it is the business of the legislator to look to.
Now the proposition on which I am content to rest my opposition to the law and custom of primogeniture is this; that the distribution of wealth which tends most to the general happiness is that which approximates the nearest to equality. If this proposition be true, it will follow as a consequence that the legislator ought to favour the equal distribution of wealth in every way not inconsistent with that security of property but for which there would be no wealth to distribute.
Everybody knows that the same sum of money is of much greater value to a poor man than to a rich one. Give £10 a year to the man who has but £10 a year, you double his income, and you nearly double his enjoyments. Add £10 more, you do not add to his enjoyments so much as you did by the first £10. The third £10 is less valuable than the second, and the fourth less valuable than the third. To the possessor of £1,000 a year the addition of £10 would be scarcely perceptible; to the possessor of £10,000 it would not be worth stooping for.
The richer a man is the less he is benefited by any further addition to his income. The man of £4,000 a year has four times the income of the man who has but £1,000; but does anybody suppose that he has four times the happiness?
Let us therefore put the case of a man who dies intestate leaving four sons and an estate of £4,000 a year. Divide it equally among the four sons, and whatever quantity of happiness a £1,000 a year are capable of yielding is produced four times over. Will it be pretended that the whole £4,000 in the hands of one of the brothers would produce anything like so great a sum of happiness? Where no undue power is annexed to the possessor of wealth, the difference in point of enjoyment between an income of £1,000 a year and an income of £4,000 is a trifle. That the eldest brother may add this trifle to his enjoyments, are the remaining three to be deprived of the whole of theirs? Not if the general happiness be the proper end of legislation. To produce inequality where without infringing any rights you might produce equality, to make one man rich where you might make four men comfortable, is bad economy; it is squandering the means of happiness, nor do you give the slightest additional stimulus to the production of wealth by thus vitiating its distribution.
It is probable that some gentlemen may not relish this pounds, shillings and pence mode of reasoning, this application of the rules of arithmetic to the computing of human feelings. They may think all such calculations very dull; I cannot help it. They will readily believe me when I declare that I should have been very glad if what I say had been at once amusing and useful. There are many persons I am aware whose zeal for truth is of that kind that they would rather at any time abandon the search than pursue it at the hazard of being tiresome. For my part I am very little accustomed to consider any means as dull which conduce to that great end. I cannot follow some of the speakers of this evening in their flights. I must go to work in my own way, and with my own instruments. With these instruments, such as they are, I have satisfied myself that equal distribution, failing special reasons to the contrary, is the one arrangement dictated by a regard for the general happiness. Nor is this principle any secret to ordinary persons on ordinary occasions.
A person who has ten loaves of bread to give away in charity, and ten persons starving at his door, never thinks of singling out one of the ten, giving him the whole, and leaving the other nine to perish. A father if he had a basket of oranges or sugarplums to bestow upon a family of five children would never imagine that he was best consulting the happiness of them all by giving the whole basket to one child and none to the other four. People in general are in the habit of thinking, or at least of saying, that when there is no difference in point of desert between two sons, to make any difference in favour between them is injustice. Under what limitations (if any) is this maxim to be taken true as applied to oranges, true as applied to sugarplums, but false as applied to estates?
“Oh, but,” say these gentlemen, “what would become of the large fortunes? Where would be our Devonshires, where our Fitzwilliams?1 But for the law and custom of primogeniture all these princely fortunes would be broken down.” So they would, and it is this idea of breaking down a large estate which imposes upon men’s minds; their attention is wholly fixed upon the diminished grandeur of one branch of the family, and the immense number of moderate fortunes which would be cut out of these gigantic ones is entirely overlooked.
The existence of immense fortunes, if it be good at all, must be good either as an end or as a means. If there be any person in this room who says that it is good as an end, I cannot argue with one with whom I have no principles in common, and must content myself with putting it to the Society whether they are content to assume any such end or any other end than the general happiness. I do in my conscience believe that there are persons in the higher ranks of society who think that law and government exist for the sole purpose of securing them in the possession of great masses of property. In their language, however, they are in general more moderate, and instead of holding up the preservation of large fortunes as the end, they are satisfied with representing it as an absolutely necessary means for the furtherance of a certain undefinable and undescribable end termed the good order of society. What is meant by the good order of society I never could find anybody who could tell, but one may guess the end from the sort of means which they represent as essential to its attainment.
If we confine our attention to the mere enjoyments of wealth, I have already observed that the keeping together of large fortunes by no means tends to increase the sum of those enjoyments. It augments them in degree to nothing like the extent to which it narrows their diffusion. I certainly do not desire that there should be no rich men. I heartily wish that there were no other sort of men. I by no means agree with that tribe of moralists who would have us believe that great riches are an evil. But we ought to look at both sides of the question: if the law and custom of primogeniture make a few rich, it ought not to be forgotten that they make many poor. The contrary practice, the practice of equal distribution, would not be equally favourable to the maintenance of large fortunes. Few men would then possess large fortunes except those who had earned them. But if there were few large fortunes, there would be many moderate ones: where we now see one man with £20,000 a year we should perhaps see twenty men with £1,000 a year each.
But we have been told that there is another use in large fortunes which is to maintain an aristocracy, by which is meant a body of rich men possessing power, or as it is called influence, more or less over the great body of the people. The existence of such a body, we are given to understand, is of the greatest possible moment, and some gentlemen have been very eloquent on the subject of the evils which they conceive we should suffer were no such body in existence.
I agree with these gentlemen thus far. I think it highly desirable that persons possessed of property should exercise considerable influence over the body of the people. My reason is that they are the only class which has the means, that is to say the money and the time, to acquire that degree of knowledge which is necessary for qualifying them to take the lead in public affairs. To have the means, however, of acquiring knowledge avails a man very little unless he has an adequate motive. The man of £1,000 a year has a motive. The man of twenty times that amount has none: with such an instrument of power in his hands as £20,000 a year, what need has he of intellect? Why should he take trouble? What has he to gain by it? Where is his inducement? There are exceptions doubtless to this rule, but without wishing to push it to any extravagant extent I think it must be allowed me that out of equal numbers of persons born to £1,000 and of persons born to £20,000 a year, we might expect a priori that the proportion of intellectual and instructed men would be much the greatest in the former class, a conclusion which it is almost unnecessary to say experience amply confirms. And if we add to this that every large fortune would break down into several of that moderate extent which affords the greatest possible combination of the means and the motives for the acquisition of intellectual eminence, we shall see that under a system of equal distribution the possessors of property, whether they would have more influence or not, would at any rate deserve it more.
But if it be answered that the men of small fortunes, though abler and better educated, would not carry with them that weight of influence which it is of absolute necessity that the possessors of property should have, I beg leave to ask what sort of influence it is that is meant. Since it is not the influence of superior education and talent, is it the mere influence of a longer purse? Since it is not the influence which works by reasoning and persuasion, is it the influence which works by bribery and terror? If this be the sort of influence that is meant I must in candour acknowledge that under bad institutions it is among the attributes of large fortunes to carry this sort of influence along with them. At the same time I must be permitted to doubt whether this be a sort of influence which deserves much encouragement, or whether it be saying much in favour of primogeniture to say that a sort of power of which bribes and threats are the instrument owes its existence to that institution. Where such are the means I look with some suspicion upon the end. I know we are taught to believe that we are greatly indebted to the rich for being so kind as to bribe us and intimidate us for our good, to the end that having by these means acquired a complete command over our acts they may with paternal solicitude force us to pursue our own happiness which we should otherwise be in danger of losing sight of. To expect any other than this disinterested line of conduct from men who have a large stake in the country,2 who are interested in keeping all establishments on their bottoms, and in maintaining the stability of the existing order of things; to expect anything but good from so efficient a drag chain so admirably fitted to obviate all danger of too rapid a movement on the part of the political machine would be jacobinism. A little election bribery and a little election terrorism are a small price to pay for so much stability.
It is certainly true that stability in a government is desirable, but it is first desirable that the government should be good. If it is not good, the more unstable it is, the better. If while you are making the government as stable as possible you at the same time take care that it shall be as bad as possible, here are two evils instead of one: and if it be the interest of the rich to make the government a bad one, it is small matter of congratulation that it is also their interest to keep it so.
But it is by no means true that men with large fortunes are for that reason interested in the stability of the existing order of things. If the existing order of things be of such a sort as to give to them all the power which they can possess or desire, i.e. power to dispose at their pleasure of all the rest of the community and of all that belongs to them, then indeed they have an interest in the stability of the existing order of things. But if their power falls short of this by one atom, they are interested in subverting the existing order of things the very moment that they think they have the least chance of succeeding in the attempt. That there should be a stable government therefore, which is so much better a thing than a good government, is their interest only so far forth as the government is bad.
There are then two kinds of influence, the one the source of all evil, the other of all good; the influence of will over will, and the influence of understanding over understanding. In regard to these two kinds of influences, what is the effect of the law and custom of primogeniture? Instead of a large number of moderate fortunes which would exercise the good sort of influence without the bad, it gives us a small number of large fortunes which exercise the bad sort of influence without the good. For a class of men who would be able to instruct, but who could not bribe or intimidate, it substitutes a class who are able to bribe, who are able to intimidate, but who simply because they can bribe and intimidate have never learned to instruct.
If it be good that men should be so raised above their fellowmen as to be almost wholly independent of the favourable or unfavourable sentiments which may be entertained towards them by those fellowmen; if it be good that great power should be entrusted to those who are the least capable of employing it well and who are under the strongest inducements to employ it ill; if the being born heir to a large fortune be talent and education, or if it be a better qualification for governing a state than talent and education; or if the possession of power independently of merit be an apt encouragement to the acquisition of merit, then it is good that there should be large fortunes, and that these large fortunes should be kept together by the law and custom of primogeniture. But if the reverse of all this be the case, and if besides this it be proved that moderate fortunes are more favourable to intellectual and moral excellence, and afford the enjoyments of wealth in a higher degree than those gigantic ones; then instead of the law and custom of primogeniture the law and custom of equal division ought to prevail.
[1 ]William George Spencer Cavendish (1790-1858), Duke of Devonshire, was known for his extensive collections and vast expenditures; he was to spend over £50,000 on a visit to Russia later in 1826. William Wentworth, Earl Fitzwilliam (1748-1833), who had inherited estates worth £40,000 per annum, kept a princely establishment, with famed stables.
[2 ]This commonly used phrase comes from William Windham (1750-1810), statesman, M.P. for various constituencies 1784-1810, Speech on the Defence of the Country (22 July, 1807), PD, 1st ser., Vol. 9, col. 897.