Monday, August 6, 2012

Primogeniture - Part 2

Primogeniture Part 2

                        Primogeniture had been a part of Europe’s history long before England felt its pull. Truthfully the eldest son of the Celts had held a special position simply because they had been oldest first and had been able to test themselves before the younger siblings. This had not been the case of the ancient Britons. All children of the Britons had held equal privilege and authority. In fact, many times the youngest son received special treatment and had received the principal household, titles, and belongings of his father.[1] The laws of equal treatment had also been true of the Saxons and Danes, with the exception of royal inheritances. The favoritism of the eldest son came to the Englishmen with the Norman Law and William the Conqueror.[2]

                        The eighteenth century Englishman held his public identity by his birth and social rank.[3] Traditionally English gentility went as far back into antiquity as was recorded for each family.[4] The eldest had been esteemed “to the great delight of mother”.[5] Social rank of the parent fell directly upon the children, especially the eldest son. However, a man could have created his own destiny and further his own position within society. It was part of the Englishman’s repertoire to continually dream of a greater destiny than that of his parent.[6]

                        Englishmen of the 18th century not only thought of their social rank as being part of destiny, it had also been the fashion. Fashion, then as now, was a way to impress others. Conforming to contemporary trends of society would have been used as a fa├žade to either “find or assume an identity by belonging or by the necessity of following the requirements of … a role.”[7] The follower did this to try to fit within the noble groups rather than expressing him or herself independently by allowing any child to inherit.[8] While this had certainly been law by this time, there still had been allowances legally that would have permitted other children to inherit property had fashion allowed it.       

                        Fashion had been (and still is) a very powerful regulator. Social norms, individual self-expression, and even technology had influenced fashion. It was simply an outward sign to display to society they had been worthy enough, to be a part of their group.[9] Even the Prince Regent, the later King George IV, fell to its power. He had been virtually loved by no one until he became the fashion puppet of Beau Brummell. Under the ultimate man of style he felt that he had become the epitome of British manhood. What the king followed, others did also. It had only been after years of flattery by others that George IV’s self-esteem grew great enough that he could get rid of Brummel and replace himself as the fashion scene’s new leader.[10]

                        Another fashion of the day had been to think the women just were not bright enough to take control of the family, let alone the management of the great estates. They could not be in charge because they were just too reckless. Women were the fairer sex, and just did not have what it took to have any responsibility.[11] That may have been the official view, but that did not necessarily mean that there were not girls that were loved, enough to become powerful women, or that there were not women that actually did inherit.


Background on Why Primogeniture Was Instated

            Inheriting property has been a very important consideration for the British. The idea of very expensive property falling into the hands of another person would have been distressing for anyone. Property was the main point of pride for the English. The pride of the societal rise of one family being owned by someone less worthy was just one point of contention that precipitated the law of primogeniture. Land had been important not just for mere agricultural production, but also for independence, honor, riches, and even power.[12]

            Fertile property created a nation that coveted ground for themselves and their families. The British believed it was “agriculture that gave a nation title to its territory.”[13] Having as much property as possible allowed for the growth of more produce that not only fed the owner’s family, it also created a surplus to sell to others. So, if a man had wanted to be greater than he currently was, he simply gained more land.[14]

            Acquiring more land was not necessarily easy. Gifts of estates were also given as gifts by the monarch. To receive such a great reward, many people wanted to be as close to their sovereign as was possible with the guise of showing their loyalty to their liege and lord.[15] Cash alone, if purchased, procured acreage. Mortgages from banks were not in existence for the purchase of property at this time in history. There were loans to purchase realty, but friends and/or family gave them.[16] These kindred did hold mortgage to the property, and if the borrower defaulted, the estate went to the lien holder.[17]

Other ways of acquiring estates had been by nefarious means. Because holding title to profitable properties would allow the lien holder to gain property at only the remainder of what was owed, there were many that lent out small sums with the sole expectation of receiving said property at the earliest possible opportunity.[18] There had even been men, and women, that had prayed upon the weak in pocket book, yet rich in real estate. Many a deed had been won at games of cards or loans to card addicts.[19] An easier way of getting access to greater lands was to marry the woman that had what was wanted.

Not all unacceptable transfers of ownership were completed by dubious manner. Women marrying down the social ladder brought men that ancestors would not have approved of. These ancestors could be as close in relation as a parent or grandparent, but they also may have been further back in time. Or, the property could have been sold to someone that just rose up the social ladder himself. The idea of ascending socially certainly was agreeable. Pride was worth acquiring, after all.[20]

            Men gained wealth and pride through many means. Merchants grew to be rich in the city, and then moved purchased country estates to make themselves into a type of pseudo-gentry.[21] Legionaries were given farms in return for service to their country. They would also trade treasures in for funding additional acreage.[22] Jealousy of station of life, as well as inheritance of such, perpetuated the accumulation of gentleman farms by those of lower birth.[23]

            Lower men wanted to raise himself, and his family higher. Englishmen dreamt of destiny. The rules of society insisted that gentlemen had a sense of personal honor that included an “active concern for the welfare of those beneath him.”[24] This, however, did not include allowing that man to move up to a station of equality. The nobility “dreaded the ignorance and especially the selfishness and brutality of the mass.”[25]

            Gaining a foothold within the nobility was the first step because Peerages were not for sale.[26] Then each man wanted to move up the social sphere to higher position of the aristocracy. It was difficult to begin at the higher levels, but men wanted to be there. It was only landed-men that had the rights to become magistrates and members of the burgess. Higher political aspirations had to come after long periods of time and acquisitions of property.[27] The higher up the peer, the less appreciative he was of the lower accumulating positions of grandeur.

            Delusions of grandeur had also been observed in younger siblings. The eldest son believed himself of higher worth than that of his brothers, and especially his sisters. Women were obviously of lower quality and should never have tried to receive the equal stature of her eldest brother. However, to have a younger brother receive equal, more, or in some cases the entirety of the parental estate, had become a point of contention in England.[28] The oldest son then made his case that the special treatment he had received since birth should be continued, so that he received the entire property of his father.

            Claims held by illegitimate children also became a problem. Churchmen wanted to bring bastard sons into the flock by having them legitimized.[29] If this were the case, then valuable property, titles and honor would go to the natural son of any number of unacceptable women. Having children out of wedlock was considered a necessary evil. However, that evil should not allow the fruits of such a liaison to participate in the circumstances, or property, of his father.

            Love of property was not only for the men. Women, too, held a strong connection to their domiciles. Women loved their home because they felt safe, as well for its intrinsic worth. Beauty was thought to have feminine value. Women wanted their children to feel the same safety within their beautiful haven that they had felt.[30] So much of the lives of women had been centered in the great house, much more than those of men.[31] Keeping their refuge in the ownership of their children, in perpetuity, would have been an intoxicating thought for a woman who most likely was treated as less worthy than her husband.

Background of the Law of the Eldest Son

            Ancient peoples generally believed the woman had the right of ownership. After all, it was the woman that gave birth. Paternity of the child could not always be guaranteed. However, the mother’s position could never be doubted. Therefore, positions of the mother fell to the daughter.[32] Then there were cultures that allowed for the land and positions of the patriarch to follow the son’s of their female relatives. Again, the role of the man was not always confirmed. So, moving effects to the sibling’s offspring assured that they stayed within the family line.[33]

The eldest son always displayed his own worth by following in his father’s footsteps from the ancient sub-continental Asians.  The prominence of primogeniture possibly had its origin from the Hindu religion. This practice was that the eldest son inherited not only the estate, but was also the only man that had the right to bear his father’s name. If a man only had a daughter but that woman bore a son, that boy would then be adopted by the mother’s father as his own child to carry the name. All contentions were required to be set-aside after formal adoption proceedings, because the law of adoption was final.[34]

            Many ancient societies believed the necessity of having a son outstripped that of having daughters. If one did not produce a male by procreation, then one was adopted. Because of marauding enemies, and difficult farm labor, the males became higher sought after. A man had to have an acknowledged son not only as a religious duty but also to provide for him in his old age.[35] Not having a male son was “equivalent to eternal damnation.”[36] It was at the moment of birth that a discharge of debt to ancestors occurred.

            The eldest son then became the man to say prayers at the funeral pyre of his father. Slowly, the family unit moved to incorporate that son into the position that his father held in the family. He then became the patriarch, acting not only as a member of the family, but having the same final say that his father held. When the whole became individuals, the value of property moved to the firstborn male instead of splitting between the masses. By the time of ancient Greece, the oldest began to inherit the domicile as well as the family honor, solely by tradition of position of birth.[37]

Originally written for class at American Military University.

[1] Cecil, 26.
[2] Ibid, 29.
[3] Roy Porter, English Society in the 18th Century. (London: Penguin Books, 1990.), 48.
[4] Ibid, 49.
[5] King George IV, “Christ Church, Oxford, October 1811”, 1811 in Bury, Charlotte Campbell, ed. The Court of England under George IV.: Founded on a Diary Interspersed with Letters Written by Queen Caroline and Various Other Distinguished Persons. (London: Hastings House, 1896), 55. (accessed June 26, 2012).
[6] Ibid, 51.
[7] Harriet McJimsey,  Art and Fashion in Clothing Selection. 2nd. Ed. (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State
University Press, 1973.), 7.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Michael Solomon. The Psychology of Fashion. (Washington D.C.: Lexington Books, 1985.), 4-5.
[10] Ian Kelly, Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Man of Style. (New York: Free Press, 2006.)165-223.
[11] DeAnna Croft Stevens, personal communication with author, July 1, 2012.
[12] Charles Sellers. The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.), 4.
[13] Frank G. Clarke, The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations: The History of Australia. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.), 20.
[14] Roy Porter, English Society in the 18th Century. (London: Penguin Books, 1990. ), 52.
[15] Taylor Speer-Sims.. “Rewards of Trust and Closeness.” Research paper for class (APUS/AMU, February 26, 2012).
[16] Taylor Speer-Sims. “The Land Belongs to the People, Or Does it?” Research paper for class (APUS/AMU, January 21, 2012.)
[17] Porter, 62.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Mary Lovell. Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder. (New York: Norton, 2006.), 522.
[20] Porter, 62.
[21] Ibid, 46.
[22] Lawrence James,  The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin,
1994.), 255.
[23] Porter, 47.
[24] Ibid, 161.
[25] John Stuart Mill. “Liberalism Evaluated”. 1873. in “Modern History Sourcebook”, Fordham University. Last modified August 1998. (accessed July 8, 2012).
[26] Porter, 51.
[27] Ibid, 50.
[28] Cecil, 20.
[29] John Hudson. “Common Law – Henry II and the Birth of a State” in BBC History. . (accessed June 23, 2012).
[30] Nancy Hiller,  “Women and Their (Sp)Houses”, Old-House Interiors, October 2011, 24.
[31] Cartwright-Hignett, Elizabeth. Lili at Aynhoe. (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1989.), 8.
[32] Cecil, 5.
[33] Richard Hines. Personal communication with author via notations on research paper for APUS/AMU.
[34] Cecil, 5.
[35] Ibid, 7.
[36] Ibid, 8.
[37] Ibid.

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