Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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INHERITANCE. The right of inheritance is the right by virtue of which goods of every kind are transmitted, after the death of those who possessed them, to their heirs or descendants. The person who succeeds to another's goods is called his heir; heritage is either the fact of transmission, or the thing transmitted, the right of inheritance is the principle by virtue of which the transmission is made. We shall here treat only of the right of inheritance.


—The right of inheritance flows naturally from the right of property itself. "The right to dispose of what one owns," Charles Comte justly remarks, "is one of the essential elements of property." In fact, the owner's right over what he possesses is absolute, so that no one else can have any pretension thereto, either in the present or in the future, so long as he has not transferred it by his own act. This is a consequence of the very nature of property, and of the original causes of the institution of property. Hence the owner has the right to dispose of his goods in favor of whomsoever he pleases in the present, and, for the same reason, to dispose of them also after his death. This is a natural and simple conclusion, so simple and so natural that it has been sanctioned by the unanimous consent of all nations.


—Nevertheless this conclusion has been contested at different times by certain adventurous and frivolous spirits, who have pretended to oppose the rights of nature, such as they understood them, to what they have been pleased to style a mere social convention. "Can a man who is dead," asks Raynal, "have any rights? By ceasing to exist has he not lost all his powers? Did not the great Being, in depriving him of life, deprive him also of everything that was dependent on his last wishes? Can these wishes have any influence over succeeding generations? They can not. As long as he lived, he enjoyed, and rightly, the land he cultivated. Upon his death it belongs to the first person who takes possession of it and chooses to cultivate it. Such is nature."


—It will be noticed, and is evident from the words which we have underscored, that Raynal here refers only to landed property, apparently not suspecting that there is any other kind of property. It is scarcely necessary to say that we give to the word property a much larger scope, applying it to goods of any kind that men can possess. If Raynal had taken it in this sense, which is the only one in which it should be taken, he would perhaps have realized, from the first, the injustice of his proposition. But what must we think of the singular plan which this writer proposes, even considering it from his own standpoint? After the death of a landowner, the first comer takes up his land, and cultivates it in his place; but he probably would not do this, without taking at the same time his plow, his oxen, his barn, his farm house, the unharvested crops, and those already gathered; for men do not labor with their hands alone, nor do they sow without seed, nor live upon air from seed-time to harvest. It is plain from the inconsistency and frivolousness of his proposition that Raynal did not even ask himself, if a landowner or farmer would take much pains to gather together all these things upon his place, when he knew that they would become, after his death, the booty of the first comer. Would he not, in this case, rather consume in his lifetime all he possessed, and leave after him but the bare land? Our author did not stop to inquire whether there would not always be, on his hypothesis, a number of new comers every ready to quarrel over the dead man's spoils; he did not think of informing us how their rival pretensions could be reconciled. It is truly astonishing to find so much inconsistency in a man who, in the last century enjoyed considerable reputation as a philosopher and writer.


—The plan which he afterward proposed seems not quite so thoughtless. He says: "Among the different possible methods of inheritance to citizens after their death, there is one which might perhaps find some supporters: it is that the possessions of the dead man should form part of the mass of public goods, to be employed first in relieving the indigent; next in continually restoring an approximate equality in private fortunes; and, these two important points accomplished, in rewarding virtue and encouraging talent."


—This plan, which is not quite so absurd as the former one, has found supporters. It has been adopted, with some modifications, by a certain number of modern sectarians, who believed they were making a discovery in bringing it to light, and were astonished at the fertility of their own brains. Although it has become utterly impossible of application to landed property in modern society in its present state of civilization, this was not always the case, nor is it equally the case in all nations even at the present day. In fact, we find an institution somewhat similar to this in many barbarous nations, among whom the possession of the land is only for life, and this land, after the death of the titular owner, reverts to the public domain. This was the case in France, at least for certain landed estates, under the first French dynasty; and it is the case to-day in some very remote countries of the east. Applied to landed property, therefore, this system is not impossible of realization. The only strange feature about it is, that any one should dare to propose to us as progress, this practice, borrowed from barbarous countries and times, beyond which we have, most happily, so far advanced. As to personal property, which is by far the most important in our times, this system has been found impracticable in all countries and at all times. It would be, in the first place, a revolting injustice. Personal property, which constitutes what is called capital in political economy, is essentially the fruit of the possessors' labor. It has in some sort been created by them. By what right, therefore, can it be disposed of, even after their death, without their approval? To whom would the right of thus disposing of it belong? Do not our natural feelings tell us that property of this kind can legitimately go only to the natural heirs of those who produced it, or to those whom they themselves designated? Besides, even if we should refuse to recognize the force of these considerations, the system must inevitably fail, through the obstinate resistance of those interested, who would easily find means of saving their personal property from the hands of the usurpers. We may remark, moreover, that the most violent enemies of the right of inheritance have been themselves so strongly impressed by the evidence of this right, when considering the question, that they have rarely attacked the right of inheritance to personal property. They almost always limit the application of their system to landed property.


—But within these limits, it is evident that the system is applicable only as long as the land remains unimproved, that is to say, as long as the owner has not collected and placed there the capital necessary to improve it: barns, stables, cattle, farming implements, etc., not to speak of the innumerable works of improvement which all lands require. This capital once collected and these improvements made, as both are almost always inseparably connected with the land itself, the same difficulties of fact and right arise as in the case of capital. The truth is, therefore, that this system is applicable only in the infancy of nations, when men content themselves with performing on their land the transitory work of to-day, without establishing anything permanent thereon. The country which would undertake to perpetuate such a system would remain forever in that infant state in which alone it is possible.—"If I wished," says Charles Comte, "to refute the errors, borrowed from the Abbé Raynal, concerning the right of children to enjoy the goods left by their parents when dying, I could not help calling attention to the fact that the family spirit is one of the principal causes of the production and preservation of wealth; that a man, to insure his children a living, performs labor and undergoes privations, to which no other consideration would induce him to submit. I would point out to my readers that families conform their manner of living to their means, while, if the wealth of a man were not to pass to his descendants, he should accustom his children to the severest privations, and himself set them the example; that, consequently, he could derive scarcely any real advantage from his property, even during his lifetime. I would show to them, finally, that a nation in which children were excluded from succeeding to their parents, would, in a very few years, fall a great deal lower than the inhabitants of Egypt under the domination of the mamelukes, or the Greeks under the domination of the Turks."


—We will not here insist too strongly upon these considerations, which will naturally recur under the word PROPERTY, where they more properly belong. But we must add a few words upon another phase of the question.


—Although the right of inheritance, like the right of property itself, is absolute, it can and ought to be equally regulated by law. The provisions of the law are not, however, more arbitrary in this matter than they are on many other points. Their general object should be, in the first place, in some sort to force the dying man to fulfill the formal or moral obligations contracted in his lifetime; next, to avoid possible embarrassments and litigation.


—Since every man can dispose of his own goods, it is an undoubted principle that a dying man has the power to determine by will what division he will make of the fortune which he leaves after him. But if this man leaves children, shall he have the right to dispose of this fortune to the exclusion of his children? This does not appear to us as a logical consequence of the right which he enjoys. By bringing into the world beings who depend upon him, he has contracted toward these beings and toward society itself, the obligation to support them, to educate them, and to leave them, after his death, as far as his means will allow, in a position corresponding to that which he assured them in his lifetime. His right, therefore, here finds a natural limit in the obligations which he may have contracted. There are others of a different nature, equally deserving of notice, but which we shall not enumerate here, because it is the principle alone that we have here undertaken to lay down.


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