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Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, No. 424 Volume 17, New Series, February 14, 1852   By:

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No. 424. NEW SERIES. SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 1852. PRICE 1 1/2 d .


It seems to be the destiny of France to work out all sorts of problems in state and social policy. It may be said to volunteer experiments in government for the benefit of mankind. All kinds of forms it tries, one after the other: each, in turn, is supposed to be the right thing; and when found to be wrong, an effort, fair or unfair, is made to try something else. It would surely be the height of ingratitude not to thank our versatile neighbour for this apparently endless series of experiments.

Unfortunately, the novel projects extemporised by the French are not on all occasions easily laid aside. What they have laid hold on, they cannot get rid of. We have a striking instance of this in the practice of subdividing lands. Forms of state administration may be altered, and after all not much harm done; it is only changing one variety of power at the Tuileries for another. A very different thing is a revolution in the method of holding landed property. Few things are more dangerous than to meddle with laws of inheritance: if care be not taken, the whole fabric of society may be overthrown. The unpleasant predicament which the French have got into on this account is most alarming far more terrible than the wildest of their revolutions. How they are to get out of it, no man can tell.

Latterly, the world has heard much of Socialism. This is the term applied to certain new and untried schemes of social organisation, by which, among other things, it is proposed to supersede the ordinary rights of property and laws of inheritance the latter, as is observed, having, after due experience, failed to realise that happiness of condition which was anticipated sixty years ago at their institution. As it is always instructive to look back on the first departure from rectitude, let us say a few words as to how the French fell into their present unhappy position.

At the Revolution of 1789 93, it will be recollected that the laws of primogeniture were overthrown, and it was ordained that in future every man's property should be divided equally among his children at his death: there can be no doubt that considerations of justice and humanity were at the foundation of this new law of inheritance. Hitherto, there had been a great disparity in the condition of high and low: certain properties, descending from eldest son to eldest son, had become enormously large, and were generally ill managed; while prodigious numbers of people had no property at all, and were dependents on feudal superiors. The country was undoubtedly in a bad condition, and some modification of the law was desirable. Reckless of consequences, the system as it stood was utterly swept away, and that of equal partition took its place. About the same period, vast domains belonging to the crown, the clergy, and the nobility, were sequestrated and sold in small parcels; so that there sprang up almost at once a proprietary of quite a new description. Had the law of equal partition been extended only to cases in which there was no testamentary provision, it could not have inflicted serious damage, and would at all events have been consistent with reason and expediency: but it went the length of depriving a parent of the right to distribute his property in the manner he judged best, and handed over every tittle of his earnings in equal shares to his children. One child might be worthless, and another the reverse; no matter all were to be treated alike. No preference could be shewn, no posthumous reward could be given for general good conduct or filial respect. In all this, there was something so revolting to common sense, that one feels a degree of wonder that so acute a people as the French should have failed to observe the error into which they were plunging... Continue reading book >>

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