[Volume 1, Page 552]

CHAPTER 15 | Document 44

Noah Webster, Miscellaneous Remarks on Divizions of Property . . . in the United States

Feb. 1790Collection 326--32

In attending to the principles of guvernment, the leeding idea that strikes the mind, iz, that political power depends mostly on property; consequently guvernment will take its complection from the divisions of property in the state.

In despotic states, the subjects must not possess property in fee; for an exclusiv possession of lands inspires ideas of independence, fatal to despotism. To support such guvernments, it iz necessary that the laws should giv the prince a sovereign control over the property az wel az the lives of hiz subjects. There are however very few countries, where the guvernment iz so purely arbitrary, that the peeple [Volume 1, Page 553] can be deprived of life and estate, without some legal formalities. Even when the first possession waz the voluntary gift of the prince, grants or concessions, sanctioned by prescription, haz often established rights in the subject, of which he cannot be deprived without a judicial process.

In Europe the feudal system of tenures haz given rise to a singular species of guvernment. Most of the countries are said to be guverned by monarkies; but many of the guvernments might, with propriety, be called aristocratic republics. The barons, who possess the lands, hav most of the power in their own hands. Formerly the kings were but lords of a superior rank, primi inter pares; and they were originally electiv. This iz stil the case in Poland, which continues to be what other states in Europe were, an aristocratic republic. But from the twelfth to the sixteenth century, the princes, in many countries, were struggling to circumscribe the power of the barons, and their attempts, which often desolated their dominions, were attended with various success. What they could not accomplish by force, they sometimes obtained by stratagem. In some countries the commons were called in to support the royal prerogativs, and thus obtained a share in legislation, which haz since been augmented by vast accessions of power and influence, from a distribution and encreese of welth. This haz been the case in England. In other countries, the prince haz combined with the barons to depress the peeple. Where the prince holds the privilege of disposing of civil, military and ecclesiastical offices, it haz been eezy to attach the nobility to hiz interest, and by this coalition, peece haz often been secured in a kingdom; but the peeple hav been kept in vassalage. Thus by the laws of the feudal system, most of the commons in Europe are kept in a state of dependence on the great landholders.

But commerce haz been favorable to mankind. Az the rules of succession to estates, every where established in Europe, are calculated to aggrandize the few at the expense of the many, commerce, by creating and accumulating personal estate, haz introduced a new species of power to ballance the influence of the landed property. Commerce found its way from Italy and the eest, to Germany and England, diffusing in its progress freedom, knowledge and independence. Commerce iz favorable to freedom; it flurishes most in republics; indeed a free intercourse by trade iz almost fatal to despotism; for which reezon, some princes lay it under severe restrictions: In other countries it iz discuraged by public opinion, which renders trade disreputable. This iz more fatal to it, than the edicts of tyrants.

The basis of a democratic and a republican form of government, iz, a fundamental law, favoring an equal or rather a general distribution of property. It iz not necessary nor possible that every citizen should hav exactly an equal portion of land and goods, but the laws of such a state should require an equal distribution of intestate estates, and bar all perpetuities. Such laws occasion constant revolutions of property, and thus hold out to all men equal motivs to vigilance and industry. They excite emulation, by giving every citizen an equal change of being rich and respectable.

In no one particular do the American states differ from European nations more widely, than in the rules which regulate the tenure and distribution of lands. This circumstance alone wil, for ages at leest, prezerve a government in the united states, very different from any which now exists or can arize in Europe.

In New England, intestate estates desend to all the children or other heirs in equal portions, except to the oldest son, who haz two shares. This exception in favor of the oldest son, waz copied from the levitical code, which waz made the basis of the first New England institutions. The legislature of Massachusetts, at their May session, 1789, abolished that absurd exception; and nothing but inveterate habit keeps it alive in the other states.1

In consequence of theze laws, the peeple of New England enjoy an equality of condition, unknown in any other part of the world. To the same cause may be ascribed the rapid population of theze states; for estates by division are kept small, by which meens every man iz obliged to labor, and labor iz the direct cause of population. For the same reezon, the peeple of theze states, feel and exert the pride of independence. Their equality makes them mild and condesending, capable of being convinced and guverned by persuasion; but their independence renders them irritable and obstinate in resisting force and oppression. A man by associating familiarly with them, may eezily coax them into hiz views, but if he assumes any airs of superiority, he iz treeted with az little respect az a servant. The principal inconvenience arizing from theze dispositions iz, that a man who happens to be a little distinguished for hiz property or superior education iz ever exposed to their envy, and the tung of slander iz bizzy in backbiting him. In this manner, they oppoze distinctions of rank, with great success. This however iz a private inconvenience; but there iz an evil, arising from this jealousy, which deeply affects their guvernment. Averse to distinctions, and reddy to humble superiority, they become the dupes of a set of artful men, who, with small talents for business and no regard for the public interest, are always familiar with every class of peeple, slyly hinting something to the disadvantage of great and honest men, and pretending to be frends to the public welfare. The peeple are thus guverned at times by the most unqualified men among them. If a man wil shake hands with every one he meets, attend church constantly, and assume a goodly countenance; if he wil not swear or play cards, he may arrive to the first offices in the guvernment, without one single talent for the proper discharge of hiz duty; he may even defraud the public revenu and be accused of it on the most indubitable evidence, yet by laying hiz hand on hiz brest, casting hiz eyes to heaven, and calling God to witness hiz innocence, he may wipe away the popular suspicions, and be a fairer candidate for preferment than before [Volume 1, Page 554] hiz accusation. So far az the harts of the peeple are concerned, the disposition here mentioned iz a high recommendation, for it proves them mild, unsuspecting and humane: But guvernment suffers a material injury from this turn of mind; and were it not for a few men who are boldly honest, and indefatigable in detecting impositions on the public, the guvernment of theze states would always be, az it often iz, in the hands of the weekest, or wickedest of the citizens.

. . . . .

Altho the principle iz tru that a general distribution of lands iz the basis of a republican form of guvernment, yet there iz an evil arising out of this distribution, which the New England states now feel, and which wil increase with the population of the country. The tracts of land first taken up by the settlers, were not very considerable; and theze having been repeetedly divided among a number of heirs, hav left the present proprietors almost without subsistence for their families. Vast numbers of men do not possess more than thirty or forty akers eech, and many not half the quantity. It iz with difficulty that such men can support families and pay taxes. Indeed most of them are unable to do it; they involve themselves in det; the creditors take the little land they possess, and the peeple are driven, poor and helpless, into an uncultivated wilderness. Such are the effects of an equal division of lands among heirs; and such the causes of emigration to the western territories. Emigration indeed iz a present remedy for the evil; but when settlements hav raized the valu of the western lands neerly to that on the Atlantic coast, emigrations wil mostly ceese. They wil not entirely ceese, until the continent iz peepled to the Pacific ocean; and that period iz distant; but whenever they ceese, our republican inhabitants, unable to subsist on the small portions of land, assigned them by the laws of division, must hav recourse to manufactures. The holders of land wil be fewer in number, because monied men wil hav the advantage of purchasing lands very low of the necessitous inhabitants, who wil be multiplied by the very laws of the state, respecting landed property. Other laws however could not be tolerated in theze states. In Europe, provision iz made for younger sons, in the army, the church, the navy, or in the numerous manufactures of the countries. But in America, such provision cannot be made; and therefore our laws eezely provide for all the children, where they are not provided for by the parents.

By extending our views to futurity, we see considerable changes in the condition of theze republican states. The laws, by barring entailments, prevent the establishment of families in permanent affluence; we are therefore in little danger of a hereditary aristocracy. But the same laws, by dividing inheritances, tho their first effect iz to create equality, ultimately tend to impoverish a great number of citizens, and thus giv a few men, who commanded money, an advantage in procuring lands at less than their real valu. The evil iz increased in a state, where there iz a scarcity of cash, occasioned by the course of trade, or by laws limiting the interest on money loaned: Such iz the case in Connecticut. A man who haz money may purchase wel cultivated farms in that state for seventy, and sometimes for fifty per cent. of the real valu. Such a situation iz favorable to the accumulation of great estates, and the creation of distinctions; but while alienations of real estates are rendered necessary by the laws, the genius of the guvernment will not be materially changed.

The causes which destroyed the ancient republics were numerous; but in Rome, one principal cause waz, the vast inequality of fortunes, occasioned partly by the strategems of the patricians and partly by the spoils of their enemies, or the exactions of tribute in their conquered provinces. Rome, with the name of a republic, waz several ages loozing the spirit and principle. The Gracchi endevored to check the growing evil by an agrarian law; but were not successful. In Cesar's time, the Romans were ripened for a change of guvernment; the spirit of a commonwelth waz lost, and Cesar waz but an instrument of altering the form, when it could no longer exist. Cesar iz execrated az the tyrant of hiz country; and Brutus, who stabbed him, iz applauded az a Roman. But such waz the state of things in Rome, that Cesar waz a better ruler than Brutus would hav been; for when the spirit of a guvernment iz lost, the form must change.

Brutus would hav been a tyrannical demagogue, or hiz zeel to restore the commonwelth would hav protracted the civil war and factions which raged in Rome and which finally must hav subsided in monarky. Cesar waz absolute, but hiz guvernment waz moderate, and hiz name waz sufficient to repress faction and prezerve tranquillity. The zeel of Brutus waz intemperate and rash; for when abuses hav acquired a certain degree of strength; when they are interwoven with every part of government, it iz prudence to suffer many evils, rather than risk the application of a violent remedy.

How far the Roman history furnishes the data, on which the politicians of America may calculate the future changes in our form of guvernment, iz left to every man's own opinion. Our citizens now hold lands in fee; this renders them bold in independence: They all labor, and therefore make hardy soldiers; they all reed, and of course understand their rights; they rove uncontrolled in the forest; therefore they know the use of arms. But wil not poor peeple multiply, and the possessions of real estates be diminished in number, and increesed in size? Must not a great proportion of our citizens becum manufacturers and thus looz the bodies and the spirit of soldiers? While the mass of knowlege wil be increesed by discuveries and experience, wil it not be confined to fewer men? In short, wil not our forests be levelled, or confined to a few proprietors? and when our peeple ceese to hunt, will not the body of them neglect the use of arms? Theze are questions of magnitude; but the present generation can answer them only in prospect and speculation. At any rate, the genius of every guvernment must addapt itself to the peculiar state and spirit of the peeple who compose the state, and when the Americans looz the principles of a free guvernment, it follows that they will speedily looz the form. Such a change would, az in Rome, be ascribed to bad men; but it is more rational to ascribe it to an imperceptible progress of corruption, or thoze insensible changes which steel into the best constitutions of government.

  1. Lands in Connecticut desend to the heirs in the following manner: First to children, and if none, then to brothers and sisters or their legal representativs of the whole blud; then to parents; then to brothers and sisters of the half blud; then to next of kin, the whole blud taking the preference when of equal degree with the half blud.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 1, Chapter 15, Document 44
The University of Chicago Press

Webster, Noah. A Collection of Essays and Fugitiv Writings on Moral, Historical, Political and Literary Subjects. Boston, 1790. Reprint. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1977.

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