ePub 版

loud in their praises of the general operation of the French land law; but in their zealous applause of its working in the North, where capital so materially qualifies its evil effects, they hide from view the poverty-stricken South; and the baleful effect of the peasantry in assisting the progress of that political equality which is the sure precursor of governmental despotism in large, populous, and ignorant countries. And, even in the North they forget to tell how this accursed law of incessant division defeats one of the main objects of the general distribution of land, by ensuring its speedy alienation and sale, and the consequent dispersion of families. The conservative romance of old family possessions becomes a sheer impossibility for the multitude. Nearly the whole population is in fluctuation, and a piece of land is valued neither for its past nor its future; but, like the coinage of the day, for what it will fetch at the moment of transference. Instead of becoming an element of stability, it becomes the very symbol of change. One-half of the landed property of France changes hands every ten years. Such is the testimony of M. Mounier, the commissioner appointed to inquire by King Louis Philippe. In spite, then, of our prepossessions in favour of popular landholding, it appears that there is something to be said for the feudal territorial system of England, which confines the possession of the soil to a small body of freeholders; if that be the only practicable alternative from the French plan of forcible division, here at least the descent of wide territories in the lines of great families secure the permanence of a powerful aristocracy where prestige of blood and ancestry gather strength from age to age; and where wealth is guarded against the uncertainties and mutations of commercial fortune. This is an element of perpetuity diffused through all the institutions of the nation. It is, perhaps, a very selfish interest; but it is a powerful preservative against the effects of the varying passions of the multitude in a free country, from generation to generation. It is almost an impassable barrier between the Crown and the population, guarding the one against the license of liberty, and the other against the bold or insidious advances of authority in the executive government. An ancient and powerful aristocracy, if it be but of average intelligence and virtue, is an incalculable blessing to a country devoted to freedom. A tolerable House of Lords is the best security for the continuance of a tolerable House of Commons. When France destroyed her nobility, bad as it was, she rendered a National Assembly impossible, and a despotism inevitable; for the Parisian system of centralization is a despotism, whether worked by the Bourbons or the Bonapartes. It is a sad choice between the rule of the Mob or of a third-rate Napoleon; but to this choice France has reduced herself at length. Let England be thankful for her landed families; they constitute a power in the state too strong for any central authority to crush, and they thus form a defence for the rest of the kingdom. The Lords may sometimes prove obstinate in a contest with the Commons: but an Englisman who knows the whole story will be thankful that there is a contest before the multitude can gain their will. Heaven keep far off the day when the law shall divide the estates of the landed proprietors equally between their heirs; and still further the day when the State shall confiscate and disintegrate any portion of the territory. Abolish, if you will, the laws of primogeniture and entail, in virtue of which the principle of consolidation is favoured and maintained in relation to the land of intestates, but leave the land to the free disposal of its possessors. Interfere not with the arrangements of its holders; let them keep it if they can; let them sell it if they like; let them divide it as they will among their heirs; let Parliament do its work in multiplying titles, in regulating the expenses of transference, in reducing the harpy charges of the present system of conveyancing; but abate somewhat of your zeal, O radical reformer I for the disintegration of the estates of the nobility and gentry, since on those broad acres rest the broad and deep foundations of English freedom. London and Manchester, and Glasgow and Birmingham, are great and mighty forces in the State, to be much considered in legislating for the British empire, but so are the interests which gather around Woburn, and Alton Towers, and Inverary, and Taymouth; and the durable freedom of the one depends more than Mr. Bright seems willing to admit upon the durable influence of the other. Considerations on the condition and prosperity of agriculture, also, not less than on the political interests of free nations, furnish more arguments in favour of large proprietorships. It is of some consequence to a numerous nation that the land, in whosesoever hands the titles may remain, should produce as much food as is possible to the support of the population and of the cattle, which are essential to industry and commerce. Now, although, as we have seen, there is a tendency in the fractional distribution of the soil to nice and careful cultivation, it is evident that, when that division is carried beyond a certain degree, there is an equally manifest tendency to the starvation of the ground through deficiency of capital, and to methods of culture which are unfavourable to the general interests of the State. On the other hand, while land remains in large masses it attracts capital sufficient to ensure its most profitable cultivation, when it is not hampered by entails and accidental charges, which sometimes operate in the opposite direction. Life interests and incumbrances act too frequently like rack-rents, in hindering the investment of capital in improved and scientific agriculture; but, speaking generally, it may be affirmed that a country where the land is broken only into large portions, and where wealth derived from all sources exceedingly abounds, will enjoy, through the union of capital and land, the results of the most profitable cultivation in the largest possible produce; a produce incomparably larger, in all important particulars of food for man and beast, than could result from a system of small farms held by poor freeholders. England, though so much smaller than France, contains many millions more of sheep, oxen, and horses, and produces a far larger harvest for the support of the people than that pattern land of democracy. Still, it may be asked, conceding the clear preponderance of advantage, both political and commercial, to be on the side of the English system, in comparison with the French, is there no method of honourable procedure by which the body of English landholders might be largely increased, and increased so as to include a considerable multitude of yeoman freeholders ? It is much to be feared that there is more of poetry than of practical profit in any such scheme of policy; and it is very certain that, as long as England retains its enormous wealth, and as long as wealth lives to invest itself in land, the soil will remain in the hands of those alone who can buy it at a good price in the market. Money has been buying out the small freeholders of this country for many years past, and capital has been consolidating farms on which science may work her marvels of modern agriculture. There is, then, absolutely no hope of the mass of the English people becoming landed proprietors, except through a revolution, and a scheme of spoliation, which Heaven avert. But, even if Parliament should to-morrow parcel out England into ten millions of properties, and divide them among the people, if the country retained its enormous wealth accumulated by trade and manufactures, those ten millions of properties would be bought up before the end of one generation, and be consolidated into the wide-spreading territorial estates of a commercial aristocracy. You would have a landed nobility of Manchester and Birmingham manufacturers, and rich Quakers, instead of the present Rutlands, and Bedfords, and Sutherlands. Nothing can resist the power of money, except a law of Jubilee, like that of the Jews, or an absolute law of perpetual division of the land, like that “enjoyed” by our neighbour; and even there, happily, the money power offers a solid resistance to the law. Dismiss, then, the dreams of a restoration of the yeomanry; they belong to the days of the heptarchy and of the dark ages. In Norway, in Belgium, in Switzerland, in Prussia, it is the absence of wealth which secures the small freeholders. There is nobody rich enough to buy up the country, and, therefore, the small holdings remain and can be worked at a profit; but here the accumulated wealth of ages is a power which overshadows all interests, and capital will conquer both in land and in trade. The great landlord will buy up his little yeoman neighbour, just as the great shopkeeper in Tottenham-court-road will swamp the little linendraper in Oxford-street. The protection of popular freedom is transferred from the country yeoman to the inhabitants of the great cities and towns; and the occupation of the little farmer gradually but steadily disappears before the function of the wealthy tenant and the hired labourer. We may mourn and lament over the departure of the age of small landlords and freeholders, but it is gone for the present. We may envy the present proprietors of the Rhine or the Loire; but the price that the English people pay for the manifold advantages of their wealth is, that they must sell the birthright of their land to the highest bidder, and be only his tenant for ever. Perhaps there is something hateful in a nation being thus bought out of its territory by the wealth produced by its own industry, but such is the fact, and there is no available remedy which is not worse than the disease. Meantime let us be thankful that we have been bought up by native gentry, nobility, and capitalists, and not by a Pharaoh, who joins the power of supreme landholder to the authority of the Crown. We find ourselves now reduced to the conclusion that all practical enterprises for the reformation of the land system in Great Britain must limit themselves to the abolition of the laws of entail and primogeniture in the case of intestates; to the conferring of a Parliamentary right of sale on encumbered estates; to the simplification of conveyancing; and to the improvement of the conditions of tenancy. The first three of these objects can be attained only by the intervention of the Legislature, and, if attained, the result would be improved cultivation by the closer union of actual capital and land. The last object is to be attained chiefly by the spread of intelligence among landlords and tenants. There has been, both in England and Scotland, a signal advance of late years upon the old barbarous tenures, under which the tenant was called to sacrifice at the close of his lease all his improvements to his landlord. Every year witnesses a fairer adjustment of their respective claims, since the tenant obtains a consideration for his enterprise and skill. These arrangements embody the spirit of all that is worth defending in the Metayer system which prevails in the North of Italy and elsewhere. Under that arrangement a sort of partnership exists between the proprietor and the cultivator, which renders it the interest of both that the land should produce as much as possible. The proprietor generally finds the land, the buildings, the utensils and machinery, the cost of management, the seed, and half the manure; and, after deducting the seed required for the next year, the food necessary for the farmer, his labourers and cattle, the produce is divided between the two parties. But since the proprietor furnishes the working capital this arrangement leaves him barely one-third of the income of the estate. The advantage of the Metayer system is, that it offers a high premium to the industry of the farmer, while it induces a considerate behaviour on the part of the landlord. High and low families are thus bound together by a common interest from generation to generation. The disadvantage of the system is, that the isolation of the peasantry keeps them in a state of ignorance which is unfavourable to the progress of scientific farming. The inferior partner possesses a voice in the management of the concern, and his voice is seldom favourable to modern improvements. Under the best aspects of the English relations between landlord and tenant, a long lease secures the fruits of his industry and enterprise to the farmer, and the interests of the landlord induce him to furnish some of the capital which is requisite for the attainment of a larger produce. The written agreement fixes the conditions of culture, and there is no material difference of opinion between the two parties to the covenant. In those parts of England where science has not yet succeeded in explaining their mutual interests to the proprietor and the tenant, the land suffers accordingly. The holding is short and uncertain; the ground is starved; and each party endeavours to extract the last farthing of profit from the other, without giving heed to the conditions under which alone fertility can ensue. The remedy for these evils is not in any legislative scheme of spoliation, under the name of tenant-right, but in a more general diffusion of that knowledge which will teach the proprietors that they must either find capital themselves, or oblige their tenants to find it, demanding a proportionably diminished rent, or evict the incompetent occupiers, or abandon their land to ruin, or part with estates which they are too poor to maintain. Dr. Bowring's ‘Report on the Statistics of Tuscany’ is a book which might profitably occupy the attention of many of our English and Irish landlords. It is a fearful thing for the peasantry when the land is in the possession of an ignorant, poor, and obstinate proprietary. Insurrections, assassinations, and such like infernal craft, are the only arguments which appear to move the alarms of territorial blockheads. If there are any of our lack-land fellow-countrymen in comparatively humble circumstances who earnestly desire to cultivate on a small scale a portion of their native country as freeholders, almost their sole chance is through the operation of the land societies. Estates now and then come into the market which may be bought by monied companies and divided among their shareholders. There may a British shopman or hewer of wood obtain a patch of ground on which he can grow his own cabbages or build his own ugly cottage, surrounded by a hundred other patches covered with similar cabbages and similar cottages. If this does not exactly answer his notion of landholding, he must wait until he is rich enough to bid vigorously in the market, or he must depart to the Colonies, where the genuine article is to be obtained. The preceding reflections may serve to exhibit the divine beauty of the Jewish land-law in contrast with the systems both of England and France. When the Israelites entered into the inheritance which God gave to Abraham by promise (the type and prophecy of that within the veil), the whole territory was divided by the Supreme Legislature into six hundred thousand freeholds, of various dimensions, to be occupied by the nobles and yeomanry of the stock of Jacob. Here was a sufficiently wide distribution of the land to gratify the desire of the most enthusiastic advocate of popular proprietorship. But to ensure the durability of families dwelling upon their paternal estates, and to prevent the natural tendency of an aristocracy and of commercial wealth to buy up the whole of a country into freeholds, it was provided that at the fiftieth year every man should return to the inheritance of his fathers. The land could not be sold for ever, and its price in the market was equivalent only to the produce of a lease. A great territorial aristocracy could by no possibility arise to overshadow by an undue influence the rest of the nation. More than half a million of sturdy freeholders held in their own hands the property of the state and the weapons which were needful to defend it. The full

« 上一頁繼續 »