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LETTER XII.: 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.
November 8. 1796.
The law of primogeniture forms the most important exception, of which we have any experience, to the natural rules of succession according to consanguinity. It naturally takes place in that rude disorderly state of society, when each tribe, being engaged in constant hostilities with some of its neighbours, requires a military chief to conduct the public affairs, and to lead his relations and dependants to war; when each proprietor may be considered as an independent prince, and the division of the estate might expose the whole family to the malice or rapacious injustice of their enemies. So far the introduction of the law of primogeniture may be satisfactorily accounted for; and lawyers, when they can show from what circumstances a rule originated, are too apt to think that they have proved it to be just; forgetting, that, when these circumstances no longer exist, it must be defended on other principles, or adapted to the new situation of the country* . That the eldest son should inherit the whole estate, is now as unnecessary for the purposes of defence, as it is unjust and hurtful.
No possible reason can be assigned why the firstborn should succeed to a greater portion than his brothers, far less why he should altogether exclude them from the inheritance. The relation which all the members of a family bear to their father, and the support which they have derived from his property, are exactly the same; and the circumstance of one of them having been brought into the world a year sooner than the others, can make no difference whatever on their just claims. There is not a single natural sentiment on which any preference can be supported. But family pride is more powerful than reason or justice: the consequence of a family would be annihilated by the partition of the estate, and even younger brothers are taught to feel more for the dignity of their representative than for their own comforts, or the welfare of their children. This effect of the law of primogeniture, to encourage and perpetuate inequality of property, is, however, the strongest argument for its instant abolition. It may justly be charged with many of those evils which excessive inequality inevitably produces: while it puts one member of a family into a situation unfavourable for happiness, and destructive of all energy and activity, it accumulates immense estates, which, being uncultivated, are lost to production; it deprives the younger children of that capital which is requisite in all commercial undertakings; it gives them a taste for expences which soon reduce them to beggary; and, by instilling into them early prejudices against the useful professions, it almost precludes the means of their afterwards becoming respectable members of society. “It tends not,” says a judicious author* , “to the improvement of merchandise, that there be some who have no need of their trading, and others who are not able to follow it.”
Nor are these the only evils of the law of primogeniture; it loosens all the bands of family attachment; and, in place of the sentiment of brotherly affection, which, to exist, must be equal and reciprocal, it substitutes haughty protection on the one part, and slavish dependance on the other. If the younger children have too much spirit to brook this condition, they are obliged to live in a stile so inferior to that of their brother; their acquaintances, associates, and friends are so different, that their intercourse with him is gradually reduced to formal and ceremonious visits; and a complete estrangement too often ensues. Thus, are the best feelings of the heart sacrificed to a false show, a contemptible vanity.
The preference of agnati, or relations by the father, to cognati, or relations by the mother, is objectionable, precisely on the same grounds with the law of primogeniture. Being founded on no natural feelings, it is essentially unjust; and having a direct tendency to prevent that diffusion of property, which, at the death of the rich, would often take place, it is highly impolitic. Were all relations, in the same degree of consanguinity, to succeed equally, every large estate would be divided at the death of the person who had acquired it, and there would scarcely be an individual in the nation who would not inherit property, which might enable him to educate his children, and, by showing him a possibility of laying up a decent provision for his age, prompt him to industry and economy.
The total exclusion of ascendants, of those who have given us birth, who have reared us in infancy, who have educated us in youth, who have laid the foundations of our future welfare, is so palpably unjust, that it is unnecessary to expose its absurdity. It is admirably defended by lawyers from the analogy, equally obvious and convincing, between the laws of succession and those of gravitation. “Property descends,” say those profound reasoners, “like a heavy body, which falls downwards in a right line, and never reascends* .”
Here then, Sir, is a way, equally simple and effectual, of remedying an inequality, not founded in nature, but arising from positive institution; an inequality attended with the most flagrant injustice, and productive of peculiar misery to a great portion of the people. This proposal can neither be deemed rash nor inflamatory; it deprives no man of his possessions, it can be the source neither of hardship nor oppression; it merely corrects irregularities which disfigure our civil code, and assimilates our laws to the eternal rules of justice.—I am, Sir,
[* ]The discussion concerning legal succession, in Blackstone’s Commentaries, Book II. Chap. xiv. is a very curious example of the reasoning of a lawyer.
[* ]Harrington’s Oceana.
[* ]“Descendit itaque jus, quasi ponderosum quid cadens deorsum recta linea, et nunquam reascendit.”