Friday, March 9, 2012

Laws of Inheritance

Many a younger child thinks that the eldest in the family is the favorite and believes that the first-born gets special privileges. In the 19th century, in England, the eldest son may or may not have been the favorite child, but he was certainly the favored one. The system was called primogeniture -- which means first-born -- and it was set up largely to preserve property rights in an era when land was the main source of income and wealth.

The reasoning went like this: The relatively small islands which comprise the United Kingdom had been fully settled for hundreds of years, with all the land claimed. By 1800, there was no room left for expansion, no new acres to be claimed and developed. If  a man's property was divided between several sons at the time of his death, then each of them had less land to till or to rent -- and therefore a lower income. If each of those sons also had several sons, and so on, within a very few generations each individual would be reduced to a tiny parcel, inadequate to maintain a family.

The system of primogeniture means that the oldest son (first-born daughters were bypassed by their younger brothers) inherited the vast majority of his father's holdings, while younger sons had to find other ways to make a living.  During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the second son often went into the armed services while a third son took orders in the church.

In the western hemisphere, the situation was much different. President Thomas Jefferson had just purchased more than five million acres from France in the Louisiana Purchase, which would eventually become all or part of 15 of the United States. With plenty of space for expansion and settlement, primogeniture never became the standard in the United States.

In England the rise of manufacturing meant that land was no longer the main repository of wealth. Families could make their livings from other sources than agriculture, and gradually primogeniture died out -- except for royalty and the aristocracy, where it remains in effect. The eldest son is the heir apparent, inheriting his father's title and most of his property.

Even there, however, modern sensibilities have created changes. When Queen Elizabeth's third child -- Prince Andrew -- was born in 1960, he moved ahead of his older sister Anne in the line of succession. In 2011, however, new legislation provided for succession of the British crown to follow a strict line of birth order. That means that if the first child born to Prince William and Kate Middleton is a girl, she'll be the queen someday -- even if she has half a dozen younger brothers.

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