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The Land and its Lords; or, The New Cry.
THE British people, regarded in the mass, have no country which they can call properly their own. They live as tenants on a land which belongs to about two hundred thousand of their brethren. These are the real owners of the British islands. All the rest of us, to the number of thirty-three millions, have no more possession in the soil of Old England than have the rooks and sparrows that fly over its surface. If it were their interest, it would be the right of this small band of landlords to refuse sites' to all the remainder of the nation, and thus to drive us as invaders into the sea. How they do drive us into the mud at elections is well known to many. The French, the Dutch, the Belgians, the Prussians, the Norwegians, the Germans, the Italians, on the contrary, may be said to live upon land which is their own. France belongs to the French in literal truth. It is only by a figure of speech that England can be said to belong to the English. In one case there are much less than a quarter of a million of land proprietors; in the other there are nearly seven millions of landowners. How is this? What are the causes of so wide a diversity in the fortunes of the two nations? and what are the consequences of the two opposite systems?
The causes of the difference are readily told. At the Norman Conquest England was distributed by the Conqueror in large estates among his vassals and companions. The laws of primogeniture and entail, supported by the pride of old families, maintained in a few hands the soil once acquired in possession; and ever since the wealth of the aristocracy, and of the successful few among the commercial and professional classes, has aggravated the monopoly by competition and
by an incessant clearing of the market; so that poorer men have never had the chance of succeeding to the soil. In France, since the Revolution, an absolute law requires the equal division of a man's estate at his death among his children. Hence the land is divided and subdivided, until a vast national proprietary have become the lords of the soil.
On the side of the general and popular diffusion of property in land, the following arguments are advanced: It is held to be unnatural that the soil of a country should be monopolized by a handful of proprietors; Nature herself dictating that the land of any country should be widely distributed among the nation that inhabits it. The passion for property is one of the strongest springs of action, and of all kinds of property, that which consists in land affords the deepest enjoy
If I have a few acres, my land gives me the healthiest of all occupations. I drink in health from the earth and sky. No labour is lost. Every stroke tells. I gather up the fragments in basketfuls; the waste of one year becomes the fruitfulness of the next. The land is a bank which always pays compound interest, and never breaks. I am a peasent proprietor if you will, but I have ease, security, and confidence in the future, and these are the best outward guarantee of happiness. With my children I cultivate my own little farm. I pay no rent and no wages. I regulate my production by my consumption,— eat, drink, and dress from the culture of my own estate. I have little to sell and little to buy, and shall not be ruined by your great commercial revolutions.
This is no imaginary picture. The reality is found in many parts of Europe, not as the exception, but as the general character of the population. The case of millions in France, in Prussia, in Belgium, Holland, Norway, is exactly this. As Mr. Howitt describes the peasantry of the Rhenish Palatinate: 'The peasant harrows and clears his land till it is in the nicest order, and it is admirable to see the crops he obtains. The peasants are the great and ever-present objects of country life. They are the great population of the country, because they themselves are the possessors. The country is, in fact, for the most part in the hands of the people. It is parcelled out among the multitude.' Mr. Laing's description of Norway is precisely similar.
Such, too, is the state of things in many of our colonies. In Canada, in South Australia, the land is divided among an infinity of freeholders. It is not, as in England, where the country districts contain, beyond the precincts of the towns, little else than a few landlords and a great many dependent labourers. The soil, and the feeling of dignity and independence which the possession of it imparts, are distributed and diffused among the whole population. The universality of property in land generates in the multitude a sentiment of personal respectability. They are freemen, because freeholders. If their estates are unincumbered, they are the servants of no man under the sun; and it must contribute to the healthy condition of a nation to possess a
large number of such independent yeomanry. The cultivation of the soil profits as much as the cultivator. In the English counties, if a few acres are advertised to let, there is an immediate violent competition among the smallest farmers for the occupation of them. Having no interest in the soil beyond a short, and perhaps uncertain, tenancy, the object is to rack the land to the utmost, and in order that the peasant farmer may eat, the fields must starve, until at last both starve together. Give a peasant or small farmer a rock in fee simple, or even under a long lease with the benefit of his own improvements, and he will convert it into a garden: give him a garden under a rack rent, and he will scrape it till, like Tyre, it becomes like the 'top of a rock and a place for the spreading of nets. As long, therefore, as land can be obtained in some parts of England by small farmers only in minute portions under uncertain holdings, or with short leases to be ended by the sacrifice of improvements, the soil will there be cultivated by such occupiers at a serious disadvantage. The few stray acres had better be purchased by the next great landholder, to be let with a large farm under better conditions and under adequate security for the use of capital in culture. The race of small cultivators is sure to impoverish the land when the tenure is uncertain. They cannot afford to feed the ever hungry acres. They drive the plough and strike the spade into land which they do not love.
The advantages of a wide distribution of the territory, however, are attained in France under disastrous conditions, which render it very doubtful whether the English monopoly of land is not a far preferable evil. The French law enforces the division of the land between all the children, and it is clear that in a few generations the operation of this system would go far to illustrate the problem of the infinite divisibility of matter. Indeed, in some districts the length and breadth of one furrow is the limit of many a landed property. No space can be wasted in roads and paths among such Lilliputian plots, and it is certain that very often more than the value of the annual produce is squandered in actions for trespass. The system again tends to produce a desire among the peasantry to live wholly off their own little farms-partly a respectable desire when the farms are of moderate magnitude, but a degrading influence when they are exceedingly minute for it is by the interchange of commodities that communities are raised to wealth and civilization. There are at least two million families of peasant proprietors who feed themselves altogether on their own productions, but to produce this food each must have a bit of vineyard for drink, a bit of arable for bread, a bit of garden for potatoes, a bit of pasture for the goat, and those bits can hardly ever lie together: the vine must be on the hill, and the grass on the valley, and so
Thus society is being driven back to its first rude elements, that is a common possession, and no profitable use of the soil; in short, a a state of savage life. Nearly one-third of the French people are feeding themselves in this rude but yet expensive way. The poverty of each freeholder ensures the gradual destruction of the land. There is
not sufficient capital among the myriads of starving democrats to assist the forces of nature. One remarkable result of the system is, the clear tendency to the abolition of sheep-farming and of stock-feeding generally. Flocks require wide pastures. The larger animals demand extensive provision for their maintenance. The breaking up of the ground into infinite morsels entirely prevents the general diffusion of this kind of property. Hence follows the small provision of animal food for the population, and the deterioration of its quality. Even the cattle for work are scantily fed, and worked so young and so injudiciously as to impede their growth. The French army imports 40,000 horses annually for the cavalry alone.
If the French were abandoned to the uninterrupted influence of their law of division there is no doubt that it must before long reduce their magnificent country to material ruin. The vain pursuit of equality has already cost them, as was foretold by De Tocqueville, their political liberty. No power in the state being strong enough to resist the will of the central authority, their delightful fraternity has ended in a Chinese despotism. They enjoy an equality of servitude. An immense coffie of slaves walks in step at the word of command given by their imperial driver, and now there is no remedy but another sanguinary revolution.
This equality of conditions has deceived the expectations of the revolutionary lawgivers; and the land would be ruined along with the people were it not for the merciful intervention of forces which partially oppose the action of the law of portage. The smallness of French families retards, in some degree, the rate of division; but the chief element of resistance is capital already existing at the revolution, or since accumulated by manufacturers or commerce. France is still a rich country, and money buys up and consolidates the land which the law of division is ever reducing to fractions. In the middle and northern parts of the country, capital proves to be a power equal to the effectual counteraction of this law. The union of properties by marriage, the purchase of parcels by individuals, by companies, and even by Government, and the fewness of the heirs who are usually to divide the estate, are the causes which operate to the partial salvation of France. A middle class of sufficient substance is maintained by trade and commerce, to prevent the country from sinking wholly under the influence of millions of pauper proprietors; wholly, but not in great part, for the elevation of Louis Napoleon is the work of the starving proletaires, who trust to a central despotism to assist them in maintaining their hold on the bits of land which they love, by eking out a subsistence through artificial restrictions on trade, through heavy taxation of the bourgeoisie, and through the distribution among the peasantry of small employments in the civil or military departments. Mr. Laing and Mr. Sidney Smith are
Notes on France and on Norway.
The Mother Country.