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LETTER VII.: TO THE EDITOR OF THE SCOTS CHRONICLE. - John Millar, Letters of Sidney, on Inequality of Property. To which is added, a Treatise of the Effects of War on Commercial Prosperity 
Letters of Sidney, on Inequality of Property. To which is added, a Treatise of the Effects of War on Commercial Prsoperity (Edinburgh: the Office of the Scots Chronicle, 1796).
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TO THE EDITOR OF THE SCOTS CHRONICLE.
September 13, 1796.
When the evils of excessive inequality are presented to our view, it seems natural to wish at once to remove them, by taking from the rich what is really hurtful to themselves, and bestowing it on the poor, whose miseries it would relieve. Accordingly, it is the fear of this measure being adopted, which has united almost all men possessed of property against even the just claims of the lower people, which has reared up an alarm so general, as to produce an acquiescence in all the abuses which have crept into our Government, and to support the present ministry in a war unparalleled for disaster. The alarmists, if there are any such among your readers, will no doubt be surprised to learn, that their fears proceed altogether from their ignorance, and that an equal division of property has never been attempted in any age or country.
In Sparta, there undoubtedly existed more equality of property than in any other country with which we are at all acquainted; and this equality has usually been, in part, ascribed to an equal division of lands said to have been made by Lycurgus. With respect, however, to the institutions of this legislator, our information is extremely inaccurate. Every part of his history is involved in obscurity, and it is even uncertain at what time he lived, and in what country he died. The laws of Sparta were handed down by tradition, and there being about 300 years between the æra of Lycurgus and the earliest historian, it is obviously impossible to separate and distinguish his institutions, from those customs which were gradually introduced by the state of society and manners.
The Spartans seem to have passed rapidly from the savage to the agricultural state, without having either continued in the condition of shepherds a sufficient length of time to have procured extensive riches in cattle, or having made such conquests as might have enabled them, like the Gothic invaders of the Roman empire, to have at once assigned large tracts of country to individuals. When they first began to appropriate land, the different tribes and families, of which the nation was composed, would consist of numbers almost equal, and of people possessed of nearly the same degree of industry: Each family would therefore cultivate and appropriate nearly the same quantity of land; and, for a long time, there being neither inducements to extravagance, nor opportunities of amassing riches, this equality would naturally continue, and alienations would be almost unknown. We accordingly find, in the early law of all nations, that the transference of lands by sale has excited aversion, and has either been clogged with restrictions, or altogether prohibited. The Spartans, having never engaged in commerce, continued longer in this state of simplicity than any other people; and the dislike of alienation, being confirmed by long custom, became a striking feature in the national character; and this, in conjunction with the rudeness and simplicity of manners, proceeding from a state of almost constant warfare, and a total want of intercourse with foreign nations, seems fully to account for the long continuance of equality of landed possessions. At so early a period as that of Lycurgus, appropriation of lands had scarcely been introduced, and it seems impossible that such inequalities could have arisen as would have induced any legislator to apply a remedy so unjust in itself, and so contrary to the interests of all the leading men in the state. Accordingly, Xenophon, an enthusiastic admirer of the Spartans, makes no mention whatever of this pretended division of lands among the other institutions of Lycurgus, and those authors, on whose authority it is admitted, differ widely from each other, respecting the number of lots into which it was distributed* . Upon the whole, then, it appears to me, that we may justly conclude, that this regulation can, by no means, be placed among those facts ascertained by well authenticated history.
In the latter times of Sparta, an attempt was undoubtedly made, by Agis, to revive what were conceived to be the ancient laws of the commonwealth; but though that young patriot was one of the kings, though he was the most opulent man in the state, and joined to these advantages the influence of genius, and of morals bordering on austerity, though he had filled all the offices of the state with his own relations and dependents, and sought to introduce a regulation associated in the minds of the people, with the former glory and prosperity of their country; yet he was unable to prevail, or even to defend his life against the power of his exasperated enemies.
At the time of Solon, about 250 years after that of Lycurgus, very considerable inequality, the consequence of an extended commerce, prevailed at Athens; and the people, oppressed with debts which they were unable to pay, exposed to the unrelenting severity of their creditors, and contrasting their own situation with the equality of Sparta, demanded an equal partition of the lands. This claim, however, arose entirely from the oppressions to which they had been subjected: Almost as soon as Solon had cancelled the debts then owing, by a law similar to those acts of insolvency which have been so often passed in England, and had thus rescued many of the citizens from slavery and banishment, the people became satisfied; and the Agrarian Law, although very great inequality of property afterwards prevailed, and the people had the whole power of the state in their hands, was never again agitated.
Early in the Roman history we find great inequality of property, introduced by the conquest and seizure of the neighbouring lands; we find the people reduced to despair by the severities of their creditors, in consequence of debts contracted during the wars, while fortunes were accumulated by other individuals, so immense as to endanger the liberties of their country. This evil continued to increase, till, towards the end of the republic, it had arisen to a pitch far beyond what it has yet reached in modern times. During the whole of this period, the supreme power was possessed by the people, yet no law was promulgated which can justly be considered as an infringement of property. The Agrarian Law, however, which was so often proposed, has been sometimes represented as an attempt at equalization, and therefore it may be useful to inquire, shortly, into its origin and history.
After the expulsion of the kings, the patrician families acquired an almost uncontrolled authority in Rome, and were thence enabled to appropriate to their own use those lands which were conquered by the state. Accordingly, in the year of Rome 267, only 24 years after the establishment of the republic, this evil had proceeded so far as to attract the attention of the people, and to give rise to the demand of an Agrarian Law. Nothing could be more just; the demand extended no further than to a division of those lands which, though they had been lately acquired by the labour and blood of the citizens, had been most iniquitously monopolized by the patricians† . But when these estates had been long appropriated, the present proprietors seemed to hold them by a kind of prescriptive right, and the Agrarian Law was merely held out as a means of frightening the patricians into other just and reasonable concessions. At last, however, the lands in the vicinity of Rome were altogether engrossed by a few proprietors; who cultivating their estates by means of slaves, filled Italy with foreigners, and prevented the increase of the free citizens, on whose valour the safety and prosperity of the state depended. To remedy these evils, in the year of Rome 385, the Licinian Law was passed, prohibiting any individual from possessing more than 500 jugera, about 350 acres, in Italy, under the penalty of a fine, and ordaining the confiscation of all beyond the legal quantity. This law was extremely different from a division of property; it did not affect land in the provinces, nor any kind of moveable property; it did not restrict the acquisition of riches, but merely introduced a regulation, founded on general utility, respecting the way in which these riches should be employed; if the present proprietors were indemnified, which seems probable from confiscation being the punishment denounced against future infractions of the law, it was in no respect different in principle from the regulations respecting property and the forced sale of lands authorised by the road and canal bills of modern times.
This law was easily evaded, by holding lands under fictitious names; but, even in the time of Cato the Censor, it was considered as still in force‡ . By degrees the same accumulation of lands had again taken place, and Tiberius Gracchus seems to have judged wisely, in concluding that the Licinian Law was highly expedient in a warlike Republic, though perhaps he under-valued too much the obstacles which opposed its revival. The law which he first proposed was mild almost beyond example; it remitted all the fines incurred by the violation of the Licinian Law, and indemnified the present proprietors for the lands of which they were to be deprived§ . This moderate proposal being violently opposed by the patricians, the clause of indemnification was struck out, and the law, after a most obstinate struggle, was enacted. Although those who had violated the Licinian Law might still consider themselves as mercifully dealt with, yet such was their rancour against Tiberius Gracchus, that, soon after, this accomplished patriot, was, on the most frivolous pretences, murdered by the patricians. By this flagitious crime, the Agrarian Law was eluded, till, about ten years afterwards, it was again brought forward by Caius Gracchus, who added a clause, fixing a tribute to be paid to the state from the sequestrated lands∥ . The patricians having now experienced the advantages of murder, the fate of Caius Gracchus was similar to that of his brother; and from this time no further attempts were made to revive or enforce the Licinian Law. Such, Sir, is a short history of the famous Agrarian Law of Rome; and I may say with confidence, that it never had the least tendency to levelling or equalisation, but merely to restrict the monopoly of the lands in the immediate vicinity of Rome; that it was such a regulation of property, as it is competent for every state to enact; and that, by maintaining a large body of citizens untainted by the vices of the town, and sufficiently near to influence public measures, it might have had some effect in retarding the corruptions of the Government, and the downfal of the Republic. I am, Sir,
[* ]Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus.
[‡ ]Hooke’s Roman Hist. Book VI. Chap. VII.
[§ ]Plutarch’s Life of Tiberius Gracchus.
[∥ ]Plutarch’s Life of Caius Gracchus.