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Chapter 2



When the German and Scythian nations overran the western provinces of the
Roman empire, the confusions which followed so great a revolution lasted for
several centuries. The rapine and violence which the barbarians exercised
against the ancient inhabitants, interrupted the commerce between the towns
and the country. The towns were deserted, and the country was left
uncultivated; and the western provinces of Europe, which had enjoyed a
considerable degree of opulence under the Roman empire, sunk into the lowest
state of poverty and barbarism. During the continuance of those confusions,
the chiefs and principal leaders of those nations acquired, or usurped to
themselves, the greater part of the lands of those countries. A great part
of them was uncultivated; but no part of them, whether cultivated or
uncultivated, was left without a proprietor. All of them were engrossed, and
the greater part by a few great proprietors.

This original engrossing of uncultivated lands, though a great, might have
been but a transitory evil. They might soon have been divided again, and
broke into small parcels, either by succession or by alienation. The law of
primogeniture hindered them from being divided by succession; the
introduction of entails prevented their being broke into small parcels by

When land, like moveables, is considered as the means only of subsistence
and enjoyment, the natural law of succession divides it, like them, among
all the children of the family ; of all of whom the subsistence and
enjoyment may be supposed equally dear to the father. This natural law of
succession, accordingly, took place among the Romans who made no more
distinction between elder and younger, between male and female, in the
inheritance of lands, than we do in the distribution of moveables. But when
land was considered as the means, not of subsistence merely, but of power
and protection, it was thought better that it should descend undivided to
one. In those disorderly times, every great landlord was a sort of petty
prince. His tenants were his subjects. He was their judge, and in some
respects their legislator in peace and their leader in war. He made war
according to his own discretion, frequently against his neighbours, and
sometimes against his sovereign. The security of a landed estate, therefore,
the protection which its owner could afford to those who dwelt on it,
depended upon its greatness. To divide it was to ruin it, and to expose
every part of it to be oppressed and swallowed up by the incursions of its
neighbours. The law of primogeniture, therefore, came to take place, not
immediately indeed, but in process of time, in the succession of landed
estates, for the same reason that it has generally taken place in that of
monarchies, though not always at their first institution. That the power,
and consequently the security of the monarchy, may not be weakened by
division, it must descend entire to one of the children. To which of them so
important a preference shall be given, must be determined by some general
rule, founded not upon the doubtful distinctions of personal merit, but upon
some plain and evident difference which can admit of no dispute. Among the
children of the same family there can be no indisputable difference but that
of sex, and that of age. The male sex is universally preferred to the
female; and when all other things are equal, the elder everywhere takes
place of the younger. Hence the origin of the right of primogeniture, and of
what is called lineal succession.

Laws frequently continue in force long after the circumstances which first
gave occasion to them, and which could alone render them reasonable, are no
more. In the present state of Europe, the proprietor of a single acre of
land is as perfectly secure in his possession as the proprietor of 100,000.
The right of primogeniture, however, still continues to be respected ; and
as of all institutions it is the fittest to support the pride of family
distinctions, it is still likely to endure for many centuries. In every
other respect, nothing can be more contrary to the real interest of a
numerous family, than a right which, in order to enrich one, beggars all the
rest of the children.

Entails are the natural consequences of the law of primogeniture. They were
introduced to preserve a certain lineal succession, of which the law of
primogeniture first gave the idea, and to hinder any part of the original
estate from being carried out of the proposed line, either by gift, or
device, or alienation; either by the folly, or by the misfortune of any of
its successive owners. They were altogether unknown to the Romans. Neither
their substitutions, nor fidei commisses, bear any resemblance to entails,
though some French lawyers have thought proper to dress the modern
institution in the language and garb of those ancient ones.

When great landed estates were a sort of principalities, entails might not
be unreasonable. Like what are called the fundamental laws of some
monarchies, they might frequently hinder the security of thousands from
being endangered by the caprice or extravagance of one man. But in the
present state of Europe, when small as well as great estates derive their
security from the laws of their country, nothing can be more completely
absurd. They are founded upon the most absurd of all suppositions, the
supposition that every successive generation of men have not an equal right
to the earth, and to all that it possesses ; but that the property of the
present generation should be restrained and regulated according to the fancy
of those who died, perhaps five hundred years ago. Entails, however,
are still respected, through the greater part of Europe ; In those
countries, particularly, in which noble birth is a necessary qualification
for the enjoyment either of civil or military honours. Entails are thought
necessary for maintaining this exclusive privilege of the nobility to the
great offices and honours of their country; and that order having usurped
one unjust advantage over the rest of their fellow-citizens, lest their
poverty should render it ridiculous, it is thought reasonable that they
should have another. The common law of England, indeed, is said to abhor
perpetuities, and they are accordingly more restricted there than in any
other European monarchy ; though even England is not altogether without
them. In Scotland, more than one fifth, perhaps more than one third part of
the whole lands in the country, are at present supposed to be under strict

Great tracts of uncultivated land were in this manner not only engrossed by
particular families, but the possibility of their being divided again was as
much as possible precluded for ever. It seldom happens, however, that a
great proprietor is a great improver. In the disorderly times which gave
birth to those barbarous institutions, the great proprietor was sufficiently
employed in defending his own territories, or in extending his jurisdiction
and authority over those of his neighbours. He had no leisure to attend to
the cultivation and improvement of land. When the establishment of law and
order afforded him this leisure, he often wanted the inclination, and almost
always the requisite abilities. If the expense of his house and person
either equalled or exceeded his revenue, as it did very frequently, he had
no stock to employ in this manner. If he was an economist, he generally
found it more profitable to employ his annual savings in new purchases than
in the improvement of his old estate. To improve land with profit, like all
other commercial projects, requires an exact attention to small savings and
small gains, of which a man born to a great fortune, even though naturally
frugal, is very seldom capable. The situation of such a person naturally
disposes him to attend rather to ornament, which pleases his fancy, than to
profit, for which he has so little occasion. The elegance of his dress, of
his equipage, of his house and household furniture, are objects which, from
his infancy, he has been accustomed to have some anxiety about. The turn of
mind which this habit naturally forms, follows him when he comes to think of
the improvement of land. He embellishes, perhaps, four or five hundred acres
in the neighbourhood of his house, at ten times the expense which the land
is worth after all his improvements; and finds, that if he was to improve
his whole estate in the same manner, and he has little taste for any other,
he would be a bankrupt before he had finished the tenth part of it. There
still remain, in both parts of the united kingdom, some great estates which
have continued, without interruption, in the hands of the same family since
the times of feudal anarchy. Compare the present condition of those estates
with the possessions of the small proprietors in their neighbourhood, and
you will require no other argument to convince you how unfavourable such
extensive property is to improvement.

If little improvement was to be expected from such great proprietors, still
less was to be hoped for from those who occupied the land under them. In the
ancient state of Europe, the occupiers of land were all tenants at will.
They were all, or almost all, slaves, but their slavery was of a milder kind
than that known among the ancient Greeks and Romans, or even in our West
Indian colonies. They were supposed to belong more directly to the land than
to their master. They could, therefore, be sold with it, but not separately.
They could marry, provided it was with the consent of their master; and he
could not afterwards dissolve the marriage by selling the man and wife to
different persons. If he maimed or murdered any of them, he was liable to
some penalty, though generally but to a small one. They were not, however,
capable of acquiring property. Whatever they acquired was acquired to their
master, and he could take it from them at pleasure. Whatever cultivation and
improvement could be carried on by means of such slaves, was properly
carried on by their master. It was at his expense. The seed, the cattle, and
the instruments of husbandry, were all his. It was for his benefit. Such
slaves could acquire nothing but their daily maintenance. It was properly
the proprietor himself, therefore, that in this case occupied his own lands,
and cultivated them by his own bondmen. This species of slavery still
subsists in Russia, Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, and other parts of
Germany. It is only in the western and south-western provinces of Europe
that it has gradually been abolished altogether.

But if great improvements are seldom to be expected from great proprietors,
they are least of all to be expected when they employ slaves for their
workmen. The experience of all ages and nations, I believe, demonstrates
that the work done by slaves, though it appears to cost only their
maintenance, is in the end the dearest of any. A person who can acquire no
property can have no other interest but to eat as much and to labour as
little as possible. Whatever work he does beyond what is sufficient to
purchase his own maintenance, can be squeezed out of him by violence only,
and not by any interest of his own. In ancient Italy, how much the
cultivation of corn degenerated, how unprofitable it became to the master,
when it fell under the management of slaves, is remarked both by Pliny and
Columella. In the time of Aristotle, it had not been much better in ancient
Greece. Speaking of the ideal republic described in the laws of Plato, to
maintain 5000 idle men (the number of warriors supposed necessary for its
defence), together with their women and servants, would require, he says, a
territory of boundless extent and fertility, like the plains of Babylon.

The pride of man makes him love to domineer, and nothing mortifies him so
much as to be obliged to condescend to persuade his inferiors. Wherever the
law allows it, and the nature of the work can afford it, therefore, he will
generally prefer the service of slaves to that of freemen. The planting of
sugar and tobacco can afford the expense of slave cultivation. The raising
of corn, it seems, in the present times, cannot. In the English colonies, of
which the principal produce is corn, the far greater part of the work is
done by freemen. The late resolution of the Quakers in Pennsylvania, to set
at liberty all their negro slaves, may satisfy us that their number cannot
be very great. Had they made any considerable part of their property, such a
resolution could never have been agreed to. In our sugar colonies., on the
contrary, the whole work is done by slaves, and in our tobacco colonies a
very great part of it. The profits of a sugar plantation in any of our West
Indian colonies, are generally much greater than those of any other
cultivation that is known either in Europe or America ; and the profits of a
tobacco plantation, though inferior to those of sugar, are superior to
those of corn, as has already been observed. Both can afford the expense of
slave cultivation but sugar can afford it still better than tobacco. The
number of negroes, accordingly, is much greater, in proportion to that of
whites, in our sugar than in our tobacco colonies.

To the slave cultivators of ancient times. gradually succeeded a species of
farmers, known at present in France by the name of metayers. They are called
in Latin Coloni Partiarii. They have been so long in disuse in England, that
at present I know no English name for them. The proprietor furnished them
with the seed, cattle, and instruments of husbandry, the whole stock, in
short, necessary for cultivating the farm. The produce was divided equally
between the proprietor and the farmer, after setting aside what was judged
necessary for keeping up the stock, which was restored to the proprietor,
when the farmer either quitted or was turned out of the farm.

Land occupied by such tenants is properly cultivated at the expense of the
proprietors, as much as that occupied by slaves. There is, however, one very
essential difference between them. Such tenants, being freemen, are capable
of acquiring property; and having a certain proportion of the produce of the
land, they have a plain interest that the whole produce should be as great
as possible, in order that their own proportion may be so. A slave, on the
contrary, who can acquire nothing but his maintenance, consults his own
ease, by making the land produce as little as possible over and above that
maintenance. It is probable that it was partly upon account of this
advantage, and partly upon account of the encroachments which the
sovereigns, always jealous of the great lords, gradually encouraged their
villains to make upon their authority, and which seem, at least, to have
been such as rendered this species of servitude altogether inconvenient,
that tenure in villanage gradually wore out through the greater part of
Europe. The time and manner, however, in which so important a revolution was
brought about, is one of the most obscure points in modern history. The
church of Rome claims great merit in it ; and it is certain, that so early
as the twelfth century, Alexander III. published a bull for the general
emancipation of slaves. It seems, however, to have been rather a pious
exhortation, than a law to which exact obedience was required from the
faithful. Slavery continued to take place almost universally for several
centuries afterwards, till it was gradually abolished by the joint operation
of the two interests above mentioned ; that of the proprietor on the one
hand, and that of the sovereign on the other. A villain, enfranchised, and
at the same time allowed to continue in possession of the land, having no
stock of his own, could cultivate it only by means of what the landlord
advanced to him, and must therefore have been what the French call a

It could never, however, be the interest even of this last species of
cultivators, to lay out, in the further improvement of the land, any part of
the little stock which they might save from their own share of the produce ;
because the landlord, who laid out nothing, was to get one half of whatever
it produced. The tithe, which is but a tenth of the produce, is found to be
a very great hindrance to improvement. A tax, therefore, which amounted to
one half, must have been an effectual bar to it. It might be the interest of
a metayer to make the land produce as much as could be brought out of it by
means of the stock furnished by the proprietor ; but it could never be his
interest to mix any part of his own with it. In France, where five parts out
of six of the whole kingdom are said to be still occupied by this species of
cultivators, the proprietors complain, that their metayers take every
opportunity of employing their master's cattle rather in carriage than in
cultivation ; because, in the one case, they get the whole profits to
themselves, in the other they share them with their landlord. This species
of tenants still subsists in some parts of Scotland. They are called
steel-bow tenants. Those ancient English tenants, who are said by
Chief-Baron Gilbert and Dr Blackstone to have been rather bailiffs of the
landlord than farmers, properly so called, were probably of the same kind.

To this species of tenantry succeeded, though by very slow degrees, farmers,
properly so called, who cultivated the land with their own stock, paying a
rent certain to the landlord. When such farmers have a lease for a term of
years, they may sometimes find it for their interest to lay out part of
their capital in the further improvement of the farm; because they may
sometimes expect to recover it, with a large profit, before the expiration
of the lease. The possession, even of such farmers, however, was long
extremely precarious, and still is so in many parts of Europe. They could,
before the expiration of their term, be legally ousted of their leases by a
new purchaser; in England, even, by the fictitious action of a common
recovery. If they were turned out illegally by the violence of their master,
the action by which they obtained redress was extremely imperfect. It did
not always reinstate them in the possession of the land, but gave them
damages, which never amounted to a real loss. Even in England, the country,
perhaps of Europe, where the yeomanry has always been most respected, it was
not till about the 14th of Henry VII. that the action of ejectment was
invented, by which the tenant recovers, not damages only, but possession,
and in which his claim is not necessarily concluded by the uncertain
decision of a single assize. This action has been found so effectual a
remedy, that, in the modern practice, when the landlord has occasion to sue
for the possession of the land, he seldom makes use of the actions which
properly belong to him as a landlord, the writ of right or the writ of
entry, but sues in the name of his tenant, by the writ of ejectment. In
England, therefore the security of the tenant is equal to that of the
proprietor. In England, besides, a lease for life of forty shillings a-year
value is a freehold, and entitles the lessee to a vote for a member of
parliament ; and as a great part of the yeomanry have freeholds of this
kind, the whole order becomes respectable to their landlords, on account of
the political consideration which this gives them. There is, I believe,
nowhere in Europe, except in England, any instance of the tenant building
upon the land of which he had no lease, and trusting that the honour of his
landlord would take no advantage of so important an improvement. Those laws
and customs, so favourable to the yeomanry, have perhaps contributed more to
the present grandeur of England, than all their boasted regulations of
commerce taken together.

The law which secures the longest leases against successors of every kind,
is, so far as I know, peculiar to Great Britain. It was introduced into
Scotland so early as 1449, by a law of James II. Its beneficial influence,
however, has been much obstructed by entails ; the heirs of entail being
generally restrained from letting leases for any long term of years,
frequently for more than one year. A late act of parliament has, in this
respect, somewhat slackened their fetters, though they are still by much too
strait. In Scotland, besides, as no leasehold gives a vote for a member of
parliament, the yeomanry are upon this account less respectable to their
landlords than in England.

In other parts of Europe, after it was found convenient to secure tenants
both against heirs and purchasers, the term of their security was still
limited to a very short period ; in France, for example, to nine years from
the commencement of the lease. It has in that country, indeed, been lately
extended to twentyseven, a period still too short to encourage the tenant to
make the most important improvements. The proprietors of land were
anciently the legislators of every part of Europe. The laws relating to
land, therefore, were all calculated for what they supposed the interest of
the proprietor. It was for his interest, they had imagined, that no lease
granted by any of his predecessors should hinder him from enjoying, during a
long term of years, the full value of his land. Avarice and injustice are
always short-sighted, and they did not foresee how much this regulation must
obstruct improvement, and thereby hurt, in the long-run, the real interest
of the landlord.

The farmers, too, besides paying the rent, were anciently, it was supposed,
bound to perform a great number of services to the landlord, which were
seldom either specified in the lease, or regulated by any precise rule, but
by the use and wont of the manor or barony. These services, therefore. being
almost entirely arbitrary, subjected the tenant to many vexations. In
Scotland the abolition of all services not precisely stipulated in the
lease, has, in the course of a few years, very much altered for the better
the condition of the yeomanry of that country.

The public services to which the yeomanry were bound, were not less
arbitrary than the private ones. To make and maintain the high roads, a
servitude which still subsists, I believe, everywhere, though with different
degrees of oppression in different countries, was not the only one. When the
king's troops, when his household, or his officers of any kind, passed
through any part of the country, the yeomanry were bound to provide them
with horses, carriages, and provisions, at a price regulated by the
purveyor. Great Britain is, I believe, the only monarchy in Europe where the
oppression of purveyance has been entirely abolished. It still subsists in
France and Germany.

The public taxes, to which they were subject, were as irregular and
oppressive as the services The ancient lords, though extremely unwilling to
grant, themselves, any pecuniary aid to their sovereign, easily allowed him
to tallage, as they called it, their tenants, and had not knowledge enough
to foresee how much this must, in the end, affect their own revenue. The
taille, as it still subsists in France. may serve as an example of those
ancient tallages. It is a tax upon the supposed profits of the farmer, which
they estimate by the stock that he has upon the farm. It is his interest,
therefore, to appear to have as little as possible, and consequently to
employ as little as possible in its cultivation, and none in its
improvement. Should any stock happen to accumulate in the hands of a
French farmer, the taille is almost equal to a prohibition of its ever being
employed upon the land. This tax, besides, is supposed to dishonour whoever
is subject to it, and to degrade him below, not only the rank of a
gentleman, but that of a burgher ; and whoever rents the lands of another
becomes subject to it. No gentleman, nor even any burgher, who has stock,
will submit to this degradation. This tax, therefore, not only hinders the
stock which accumulates upon the land from being employed in its
improvement, but drives away all other stock from it. The ancient tenths and
fifteenths, so usual in England in former times, seem, so far as they
affected the land, to have been taxes of the same nature with the taille.

Under all these discouragements, little improvement could he expected from
the occupiers of land. That order of people, with all the liberty and
security which law can give, must always improve under great disadvantage.
The farmer, compared with the proprietor, is as a merchant who trades with
burrowed money, compared with one who trades with his own. The stock of both
may improve; but that of the one, with only equal good conduct, must always
improve more slowly than that of the other, on account of the large share
of the profits which is consumed by the interest of the loan. The lands
cultivated by the farmer must, in the same manner, with only equal good
conduct, be improved more slowly than those cultivated by the proprietor,
on account of the large share of the produce which is consumed in the rent,
and which, had the farmer been proprietor, he might have employed in the
further improvement of the land. The station of a farmer, besides, is, from
the nature of things, inferior to that of a proprietor. Through the greater
part of Europe, the yeomanry are regarded as an inferior rank of people,
even to the better sort of tradesmen and mechanics, and in all parts of
Europe to the great merchants and master manufacturers. It can seldom
happen, therefore, that a man of any considerable stock should quit the
superior, in order to place himself in an inferior station. Even in the
present state of Europe, therefore, little stock is likely to go from any
other profession to the improvement of land in the way of farming. More
does, perhaps, in Great Britain than in any other country, though even there
the great stocks which are in some places employed in farming, have
generally been acquired by fanning, the trade, perhaps, in which, of all
others, stock is commonly acquired most slowly. After small proprietors,
however, rich and great farmers are in every country the principal
improvers. There are more such, perhaps, in England than in any other
European monarchy. In the republican governments of Holland, and of Berne
in Switzerland, the farmers are said to be not inferior to those of England.

The ancient policy of Europe was, over and above all this, unfavourable to
the improvement and cultivation of land, whether carried on by the
proprietor or by the farmer ; first, by the general prohibition of the
exportation of corn, without a special licence, which seems to have been a
very universal regulation ; and, secondly, by the restraints which were laid
upon the inland commerce, not only of corn, but of almost every other part
of the produce of the farm, by the absurd laws against engrossers,
regraters, and forestallers, and by the privileges of fairs and markets. It
has already been observed in what manner the prohibition of the exportation
of corn, together with some encouragement given to the importation of
foreign corn, obstructed the cultivation of ancient Italy, naturally the most
fertile country in Europe, and at that time the seat of the greatest empire
in the world. To what degree such restraints upon the inland commerce of
this commodity, joined to the general prohibition of exportation, must have
discouraged the cultivation of countries less fertile, and less favourably
circumstanced, it is not, perhaps, very easy to imagine.

Adam Smith

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