Front Page Titles (by Subject) 154.: Land Tenure Reform  15 MAY, 1871 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIX - Public and Parliamentary Speeches Part II July 1869 - March 1873
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154.: Land Tenure Reform  15 MAY, 1871 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIX - Public and Parliamentary Speeches Part II July 1869 - March 1873 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIX - Public and Parliamentary Speeches Part II July 1869 - March 1873, ed. John M. Robson and Bruce L. Kinzer (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988).
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Land Tenure Reform 
Land Tenure Reform Association. Report of the Inaugural Public Meeting, Held at the Freemason’s Hall, London, Monday, 15th May, 1871 (London: Higginbottom, 1871), pp. 3-11. Reported on 16 May in The Times, the Daily Telegraph, and more briefly in the Daily News. Reprinted in the posthumous fourth volume of Dissertations and Discussions (London: Longmans, 1875), pp. 251-65. Some of the audience’s responses are taken from the newspaper reports. The evening meeting, “densely crowded,” with “all classes of reformers” filling “the great body” of the hall, was chaired by Mill, the President of the Association, who spoke first, and “was received with loud and long-continued applause”
after the great changes that have been made in our political constitution it is impossible that the laws relating to landed property should not come up for revision. (Cheers.) It is a rule, to which history as yet furnishes few exceptions, that nations are governed by their landed proprietors. (Hear.) At all events, they have ruled this country; not despotically, for the people, in the last five centuries, have always had some share in the government; but the landlords, and those who looked forward to being landlords, have had the command of Parliament up to the last Reform Act, and still wield enormous power. (Hear.) The making of the laws which concern themselves has been in their own hands; and they have used the power as people generally do use power, for the promotion chiefly of their own objects. (Laughter and cheers.) I do not charge them with any special perversity, or with being worse in any respect than people usually are. They shared the common infirmity of human nature, which it requires a rare strength of character to overcome. (Hear.) It must be said also of our landed classes of the present and of recent times, that they did not make these selfish laws, but inherited them. Their own minds were enslaved by traditional notions handed down from ancestors more overbearing, more tyrannical, less capable of understanding the rights of other people, than any one is now. We ought to feel the greatest indulgence for the difficulty they have in freeing themselves from these mental trammels; and we should make our appeal, not only to the public, but to the more high-minded and open-minded of the landowners themselves, of whom there are a great number, to use their minds on these questions, and help us to get rid of the effects of past injustice. (Cheers.)
For the injustice, truly, was great. I pass over the original title by which landed property was acquired, which we know, in this country, was for the most part foreign conquest. Nor need I expatiate on the slavery, or serfdom, in which the rural population were kept for so many centuries; for that has long been at an end. I confine myself to evils which are still unremedied, and I remark that the land was formerly held subject to the obligation of personal service in time of war, and many burdensome dues of the Crown in time of peace, from all of which, in the reign of Charles II, the landlords relieved themselves; and what did they grant to the Crown instead? An excise on beer!1 (Laughter.) Soon after this came the Revolution of 1688, which, among other characteristics, had one not sufficiently noticed by historians; it was a revolution made by the towns against the country gentlemen. One of the fruits of it was a tax on the land, of 4s. in the pound,2 which at that time may have been considered an equivalent for the burdens which had been taken off the landlords. But the lands were rated to the tax at a fixed valuation, made by the landlords to begin with, and which, in spite of the enormous increase in the value of land, has never since been raised; so that the nominal 4s. does not now exceed a real 1s., while on the vast town properties which have been created by the extension of building it is often only a fraction of a penny.
That is the first great wrong done to the nation by the landed interest. The second is this:—The rights of landed proprietors were in many cases legally limited by rights of common enjoyed by the neighbouring inhabitants. These rights the landlords have been gradually absorbing; formerly, often by downright usurpation; latterly, by the machinery of private Acts of Parliament and the Enclosure Commissioners; and they are even now pursuing the same course, dividing among themselves every year thousands of acres which ought to be left open for the enjoyment or cultivated for the benefit of the people. While this process of absorption has been going on, a set of laws have been in force, made by the landlords, and intended to make sure that no land which once got within their grip should ever get out of it. The laws of landed tenure have been contrived for the purpose of keeping together the largest possible landed possessions in the families which already hold the land; and though these laws have been considerably relaxed in the progress of improvement, such is still their practical effect. So much are the power and dignity of the class the first object, that to it are sacrificed the interests and wishes of the very persons who for the time being represent the class. When land is in settlement, as most land is, the landowner has only a life interest in what is called his property; he can neither sell it, nor bequeath it, nor even grant leases exceeding, I believe, 21 years.3 The landlord himself is denied the full use of the land, for fear that some of it should go out of the family into other hands. (Cheers.)
It is time that this mode of dealing with landed property, as if it existed for the power and dignity of the proprietary class and not for the general good, should henceforth cease. This Association acknowledges no other legitimate end of landed property than the interest we all have in the proper application of the land to the wants of the human race. The Association recognizes no rights to land that are not subordinate to this: and they have inscribed in their programme a series of measures intended to bring back landed property to this its rightful purpose.4 (Cheers.)
Some of the articles of our programme it is sufficient just to mention, because, though very important, they are of so moderate a character that they hardly need any justification. For example, it is quite unnecessary that I should say anything against the law of primogeniture, for that is sure to go. The present Government have taken that task upon themselves.5 (Hear.) Something must be said about the laws of settlement and entail, by which land can be settled on a series of persons one after another, ending with one who is perhaps unborn, and until this unborn child comes of age the land cannot be sold, nor any change be made in the order of descent. Now, whether any other kind of property, in the funds for instance, should be allowed to be bequeathed in this manner, need not now be considered; but the land is too precious to the whole community to be detained by legal fetters in the hands of those who cannot make the best use of it. Land tied up from alienation stagnates in the hands of the idler, the spendthrift, the incapable; allow it to be sold, and they are soon obliged to part with it to the askilfula , the energetic, the enterprising. (Cheers.) If the law allows land to be private property, it should be as marketable a commodity, sold and bought with as little restriction, as any article of commerce. This was an object very dear to Mr. Cobden, who thought that free trade in land would end by bringing a great part of the land into the hands of the people:6 and many excellent persons, of strong popular sympathies, go thus far, who have not yet been able to reconcile themselves to going with us any further. I will say no more on this point, as I have to speak of others which require explanation much more.
We hold that all property in land is subject to the will of the State. This is the broad principle on which our claims are founded, and which, as long as it is confined to theory, few will dispute. Land—and by land I mean the whole material of the earth, underground as well as above—not having been made by man, but being the gift of nature to the whole human race, could only be appropriated by the consent, either express or tacit, of society: and society remains the interpreter of its own permission; with power to make conditions, with power even to revoke its consent, on giving due compensation to the interests that it has allowed to grow up. There is an Association, known as the Land and Labour League, which maintains that society ought to exert this bextremeb right.7 According to them, all the land of the country should be nationalized, and the rents paid into the Exchequer, compensation being made to the proprietors. This opinion the Land Tenure Reform Association does not as a body adopt. Many members of the Land and Labour League, waiving differences of opinion, are members also of this Association, but it contains many other members who are of a contrary opinion. Speaking for myself individually, I should say that the thing might rightfully be done, if it were expedient to do it, and I do not know that it may not be reserved for us in the future; but at present I decidedly do not think it expedient. I have so poor an opinion of State management (cheers), or municipal management either (hear, and laughter) that I am afraid many years would elapse before the revenue realized for the State would be sufficient to pay the indemnity which would be justly claimed by the dispossessed proprietors. It requires, I fear, a greater degree of public virtue and public intelligence than has yet been attained (laughter) to administer all the land of a country like this on the public account. (Cheers.) The administration of the waste lands is as much, I think, as we are at present equal to. At all events, I think we had better make a beginning with that, and give a thorough trial to collective before we substitute it for individual management. And since I have been led to speak of the waste lands, I will next explain that part of the Society’s programme which concerns them.
The greatest stickler for the rights of property will hardly deny that if cland, the gift of nature to us all, is allowed to be the private property ofc some of us, it is in order that it may be cultivated. Every defence of the institution of landed property that I have met with, declares that to be its object. Why, then, should any land be appropriated that is not cultivated? Observe, by cultivated, I do not mean ploughed up. Pasturage is as necessary, in this country even more necessary, than corn land; and woodland is necessary too. I do not make war against parks; they are already very productive pasturage, almost the best sheep pastures we have; and the extreme beauty of many of them, a kind of beauty found in no country but this, and which is our chief compensation for the paleness of our sun and sky, should make us prize them as a national benefit. I should be sorry to see the trees cut down, and the ground laid out as farms are laid out now, in ugly squares of cornfield, without even hedgerows to separate them. I own, however, that I do not think the possessors should have power to bar out the public from the sight and enjoyment of this beauty. With reasonable reservation for privacy, I think that parks should be open to the public, as, to the credit of the owners, many are now. But what we are at present concerned with is the wastes,—the really wild lands, which are still as nature left them, producing nothing except wild animals and spontaneous vegetation. Now, I don’t say that it was wrong not to cultivate these lands. I don’t say that all of them ought to be cultivated now; but I say that, cultivated or not, they ought to belong to the nation. If a common is not to be cultivated, why should any man be allowed to put a fence round it and exclude the rest of the world? If it is to be cultivated, what excuse is there for dividing it among the landowners, instead of keeping it for the people? Even if some landlord had a legal right to cultivate it, a right not used for so many centuries has fairly lapsed by disuse. But in general nobody has the right, and whoever wishes to cultivate must ask permission from Parliament. What has kept some good lands uncultivated is that a great many persons have rights of common, entitling them to use the spontaneous produce. When the lord of the manor and all the commoners agree, they can divide the land among themselves and enclose it.8 Fortunately, a single public-spirited commoner, refusing his consent, can frustrate this beautiful arrangement; and in this way, quite recently, Berkhampstead and Plumstead and other commons have been saved. When the commoners do not all consent, or when there are too many of them to be bought out one by one, application is made to the Enclosure Commissioners, who put the common into their annual Bill and divide it among the landholders. As the 30,000 persons who share among them the cultivated soil of this island have not yet, as it appears, got land enough, Parliament throws in every year many thousand acres more, to which it is not even pretended that they have a right.
And observe at whose cost this has been done. The rural labourers had once (it was a long time ago) a very substantial benefit from the waste lands. Most of them occupied cottages on or near some common or green, and could feed a cow or a few geese upon it. The cottager had then something, though it was but little, that he could call his own; he did not absolutely depend for daily food on daily wages or parish assistance: when the common was taken away he had to sell his cow or his geese, and sink into the dependent, degraded condition of an English agricultural labourer. He often got no compensation: when he did, if it was even a little bit of the land, he was soon cheated out of it or persuaded to sell it, the money was quickly spent, and his children were no better for it. They would have been much better for the cow and the geese. In modern Enclosure Bills there are sometimes, though by no means always, a few wretched acres reserved for recreation ground and garden allotments; by which last phrase are meant small patches of ground, not given to the labourers, but which they are allowed to hire at enormous rents. There is now before the House of Commons a Bill brought in by the Government, which professes to be a reform of this system. And what does the Bill say? It says that in future, when a common is enclosed, a tenth part of it shall be reserved for recreation and allotments—provided that this tenth does not exceed 50 acres9 (laughter). More than 50 acres are not to be reserved on any account, not even if the Enclosure Commissioners should do so unheard-of a thing as to propose it. Fifty acres, out of sometimes 1,500 or 2,000! Fifty acres for the people; all the rest for the 30,000! What a state of things it must be when such a proposal as this is called, and really is, an improvement! (Loud cheers.)
The Land Tenure Reform Association invite the public to join in uncompromising opposition to this system. We demand, not fewer enclosures or larger reservations, but no more enclosures at all, unless for the benefit of the people. Let lords of manors and commoners receive a money equivalent for the profits they now derive from their rights in the land, and let the land itself be vested in some public authority in trust for the nation. The first thing to be done is what was proposed in the House of Commons by Mr. Winterbotham—let us hope that, now when he is in the Government, he will endeavour to obtain it for us—a general survey of the waste lands.10 When it has been made known what they are, their quantity, their quality, and their situation, then appoint a Commission to consider and report what portion of them should be kept open for the enjoyment of the lovers of natural freedom and beauty, and what part should be cultivated for the benefit, not of the rich, but of the poor. And let the first thought be for the most depressed part of our working population, the wretchedly paid, downtrodden, semi-pauperised, agricultural labourers. The experience of allotments has shown how much the occupation of land, even on the most extortionate terms, can do for these neglected creatures. The allotments are generally the worst land in the parish, but the produce they raise from it is prodigious, and enables them to pay exorbitant rents. Let them have it at rents that are not exorbitant: and when they have had it long enough to show that they are capable of managing it properly, let them have long leases at fixed rents; and when a labourer has shown that he knows how to make good use of a little land, give him more. (Cheers.) When possible, make the engagements with associations of labourers, combining their labour, that the great principle of co-operative industry may have a fair trial on the land. By these improvements, honestly conducted by persons who desire their success, a new life may be breathed into our unfortunate agricultural population, while a fair share of the value given to the lands by reclamation would go in relief of the general taxation of the country. (Loud cheers.)
But the commons are not the only lands in the kingdom which have as yet been kept out of private hands. There are also the great estates of public bodies and endowed institutions. (Cheers.) Of all the abuses and malversations in the management of public matters in this country, the abuses of endowments are the most flagrant. (Hear, hear.) It begins to be felt that the whole of them ought to be taken in hand by the nation and thoroughly reformed; and a thorough reform in most cases means that their lands should either be managed for them by the State, or taken away altogether, such of them as are fit to be continued receiving money endowments instead. If this were done, a great extent of landed possessions would be at the disposal of the nation; and with all the defects of State management, management by endowed institutions is generally so much worse, that even after giving them full compensation, to which many of them are by no means entitled, a considerable surplus would probably be realised for the State. Much of this is town property; a distinguished member of this Association, who knows the subject officially, can tell you, that one may walk for several miles across London without once taking his foot off the property of some endowed institution.11 I have seen it estimated that a fifth part of London belongs to them. It is well known how great a hindrance the obstinate selfishness of the owners of house property opposes to that most urgent reform, the improvement of the dwellings of the working classes. If those lands were resumed, what facilities would be afforded for that, as well as for open spaces, public gardens, co-operative buildings, useful public institutions, sanitary measures, and generally for all improvements that are beneficial to the poorer classes. (Cheers.)
These are our purposes with regard to the lands which are not yet swallowed up in the possessions of private individuals. It remains to tell you what we propose respecting lands which belong to private owners.12
The Association does not propose to resume these lands, nor to take from the holders by a forced sale any part of the value which they have already acquired. We leave undisturbed present possessions. But there is an incident of landed property which goes beyond present possession, and which we do not feel bound to respect. Land is limited in quantity, while the demand for it, in a prosperous country, is constantly increasing. The rent, therefore, and the price, which depends on the rent, progressively rises, not through the exertion or expenditure of the owners, to which we should not object, but by the mere growth of wealth and population. The incomes of landowners are rising while they are sleeping, through the general prosperity produced by the labour and outlay of other people. Some people ask—But why single out the land? Does not all property rise in value with the increase of prosperity? I answer, no. All other property fluctuates in value, now up, now down. I defy anyone to show any kind of property, not partaking of the soil, and sufficiently important to be worth considering, which tends steadily upward, without anything being done by the owners to give it increased value. So far from it, that the other of the two kinds of property that yield income, namely capital, instead of increasing, actually diminishes in value as society advances; the poorer the country, or the further back we go in history, the higher we find the interest of money to be. Land alone—using land as a general term for the whole material of the earth—has the privilege of steadily rising in value from natural causes; and the reason is that land is strictly limited in quantity: the supply does not increase to meet the constant increase of demand. The Land Tenure Reform Association see no grounds of justice upon which this surplus value, the creation of society itself, should be abandoned to the landholders. We think it, for example, consummately unreasonable that because certain families, or their progenitors two or three generations ago, happened to own land over which this great capital, or other large towns, have since extended themselves, the estates of these families should now be worth millions of money, to which they have contributed nothing either in work or expenditure except signing leases. Well would it have been if this diversion of the public wealth had been foreseen and guarded against long ago: let us at least prevent any more gigantic fortunes from being built up in a similar manner. The Association claims for the State the right to impose special taxation upon the land, equivalent to its special advantage. Some writers and others, who do not know the meaning of words, call this confiscation; although we tell them that if any landlord objects to it, we are ready to hold him harmless, by taking the land off his hands at its present selling price. This is all he would have been entitled to if his land had been taken for a railroad; and if this is confiscation, every Railway Act is confiscation too. For my part, I am well convinced that landlords will prefer to retain their land even on the altered conditions. But if any landlord finds that the State does him an injustice, by laying on a tax more than equivalent to the natural increase of his rent, we leave the original offer still open; he may at any time avail himself of it, by accepting the sum first tendered, with the addition of compensation for any improvement made in the meantime by himself. (Cheers.)
By this reform, if the country remains prosperous, a considerable revenue will in time be obtained by the State from the increased value of land. It would not begin to come in immediately, because time must be allowed for the increased value to accrue. But I see no reason why the State should not grant, to any landlord who desires it, a lease of its prospective rights; allowing him to free himself for life, or for a term of years, from the claim of the State on the increase of his rental, by paying during that period a fixed annual sum; whereby the State would obtain a part of the pecuniary benefit at once. Or he might commute the claim for an extra succession duty on any vacancy that occurred within the term.
These are the principles and the proposals of the Land Tenure Reform Association. There are persons to whom these measures appear extremely audacious and subversive. I expect rather that those who come after us may think our proposals very moderate and timid. For it is easy to foresee that this country, and all Europe, are entering upon an era in which they will have to discuss novelties far more alarming, and which will kindle much fiercer passions than these. To confine myself to the subject of land, the idea of an entire abolition of landed property is taking a strong hold on an active and stirring portion of the working classes. Ours is an honest attempt to find a middle ground of compromise, which, avoiding individual injustice, and sparing past acquisitions, shall maintain the right of the entire community to all that it has not yet parted with, and finally close the door to any further private appropriation of what should belong to the public. It does not seem to me that this is too much for the landed interest to concede; and less than this there is not the smallest chance that the working classes will long accept. Even those who take the most unfavourable view of the changes in our social arrangements which are demanded with increasing energy in behalf of the working classes, would be wise to consider that when claims are made which are partly just and partly beyond the bounds of justice, it is no less politic than honest to concede with a good will all that is just, and take their defensive stand on the line, if they are able to find it, which separates justice from injustice. (Loud cheers.)
[The first resolution asserted that the laws relating to landed tenure should be altered so as to serve the general interest rather than that of a class; an amendment by M.J. (“Citizen”) Boon (Brook in the Daily Telegraph), seconded by J. Johnson (“a rough-looking fellow,” who said he was called “Johnson the Second” [The Times]), that the Land Tenure Reform Association was not worthy of working-class support because it did not favour land nationalization, was rejected by a large majority, and the resolution was carried. A second motion was moved that the meeting approved the formation of the Land Tenure Reform Association. It was announced by Mill that Odger, who was to have supported it, though present was too indisposed to speak; an amendment by John Cunnington, a farmer, opposing minute subdivisions of land in cooperative ventures, failed to find a seconder, and the motion passed. Then Weston moved thanks to Mill, emphasizing that it was no mere formality, but came from the heart, and saying: “Not only is the Chairman entitled to our thanks for the able and enlightened address to which we have listened this evening, and for the thoroughly impartial manner in which he has performed the duties of Chairman, but . . . he is still more entitled to our thanks for placing himself at the head of an Association, which, though it does not go in exactly for nationalization, goes a very long way in that direction. . . .” The resolution was carried by acclamation, and the meeting concluded.]
[1 ]By 12 Charles II, c. 24 (1660).
[2 ]By 4 William and Mary, c. 1 (1692).
[3 ]By 19 & 20 Victoria, c. 120 (1856).
[4 ]Mill himself drew up the Programme of the Land Tenure Reform Association (London: Longmans, et al., 1871); see CW, Vol. V, pp. 687-95.
[5 ]A bill had been promised by Gladstone, Speech on Real Estate Intestacy (16 Feb., 1871), PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 204, col. 322, but in the event no bill was introduced. Article II of the Programme of the Land Tenure Reform Association called for the abolition of primogeniture (CW, Vol. V, p. 689).
[6 ]Speech at Rochdale (23 Nov., 1864), in Speeches on Questions of Public Policy, ed. John Bright and James E. Thorold Rogers, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1870), Vol. II, p. 367.
[7 ]See the Address of the Land and Labour League to the Working Men and Women of Great Britain and Ireland (London: printed Higginbottom, ).
[c-c]DT the land be given by nature and was taken from
[8 ]8 & 9 Victoria, c. 118 (1845).
[9 ]Clause 3 of “A Bill to Amend the Law Relating to Inclosures of Commons, and to Provide for the Management of Commons Situate near Towns,” 34 Victoria (14 Feb., 1871), PP, 1871, II, 377-96 (not enacted).
[10 ]Henry Selfe Page Winterbotham (1837-73), M.P. for Stroud, appointed Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department in March 1871, Speech on the Inclosure Law Amendment Bill (23 Feb., 1871), PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 204, col. 825.
[11 ]Thomas Hare, experienced as an Inspector of Charities, gave this information in a reply to Mill before the Select Committee on Metropolitan Local Government, PP, 1866, Vol. XIII, p. 387 (see App. B, Question 2811, below).
[12 ]See especially Art. IV of the Programme, CW, Vol. V, p. 690.