1902 Encyclopedia > Agriculture > Peasant Proprietors

(Part 105)


Peasant Proprietors

IV. And while so much can be said for small leaseholders, it is obvious that every one of the arguments adduced in favour of that class applies with redoubled force to small freeholders cultivating their own freeholds. A peasant proprietor, whose whole produce belongs to himself, is of course richer than he would be if he had to pay rent --- can more easily bear the expenses of cultivation, of procuring proper implements and manure, of drainage and irrigation, and of the keep of live stock. Small leaseholders, as a class, lay out more money on their land, in proportion to its extent, than large occupiers; but a small freeholder has more money to lay out than a leaseholder of the same degree, and has besides stronger motives for laying it out on improvements. "A small proprietor,," says Adam Smith, "who knows every part of his little territory, who views it with all the affection which property, especially small property, naturally inspires, and who, upon that account, takes pleasure not only in cultivating but in adorning it, is generally of all improvers the most industrious, the most intelligent, and the most successful." It might have been added, that he is likewise the most enterprising. He need not carefully calculate whether his outlay will be fully recovered by him within a certain term of years; he has only to consider whether the increased value of his land will be equal to fair interest on the sum which the improvements will cost. He does not require that the principal should ever be returned. He is satisfied to sink it for ever in his own land, provided that, in that safest of all investments, it promise to yield a perpetual annuity equal to what would be its annual increase in another employment.

Again, the peasant proprietor has the strongest possible incentives to diligence. A man never works so well as when paid by the piece; but even then, the more he is paid, the better he works. The small leaseholders, not less than the small proprietor, is paid in proportion to his labour; but the latter is paid at a higher rate, for he takes to himself the whole fruit of his labour, while the former must content himself with part. The proprietor, too, knows that, so long as his labour continues equally productive, his remuneration will remain the same; while that of the tenant, though augmented solely by his own exertions, may be diminished at the expiration of his lease. Besides, many rural operations yield no profit until after a long lapse of time; and the annual profit of others is so small that the enjoyment of it in perpetuity is requisite to recompense the labour expended. Such operations are seldom undertaken except by proprietors. No tenant would think of planting an orchard such as Arthur Young saw near Sauve on a tract consisting "seemingly of nothing but bare rocks;" or, as in the mountains of Languedoc, would "carry earth in baskets on the back to form a garden where nature had denied it;" or would enclose and till fields and gardens on a "wretched blowing sand naturally as white as snow." But, as Young exclaims, "give a man the secure possession of a bleak rock, and he will turn it into a garden!" There is "no way so sure of carrying tillage to a mountain-top as by permitting the neighboring villagers to acquire it in property. The magic of property turns sand to gold." It may perhaps be objected that the gold does not repay the cost of transmutation, and that therefore the labour expended upon it has been wasted; and no doubt a monied speculator, who should engaged in such alchemy with hired labour, might never recover the amount of his outlay. But --- and here comes a conclusive answer to those who, instead of admiring such achievements, condemn them as a mere waste of power --- the peasant who performs them on his own account performs them with labour which would otherwise be valueless at that particular time. When the hired journeyman has earned his day’s wages, and gives himself up to rest or amusement, the little landowner is content to recreate himself by turning to some lighter work. It is sufficient amusement for him to weed or water his cabbages, or to train or prune his fruit-trees; and, in wet or wintry weather, hen outdoor work is scarcely worth paying for, and when the day-labourer must often remain idle because no one will employ him, then it is that the independent cottager builds up terraces on the steep hillside, or lays the site of a garden among rocks. It is, in short, one prime excellence of peasant proprietorship that it stirs into activity labour which otherwise would not have been exerted --- in other words, would not have existed, and the fruits of which, consequently, however insignificant, are at any rate all pure gain.

The pastoral tribes, by which most civilized countries were originally occupied, have almost invariably been followed, either immediately or after a certain interval, by a race of peasant proprietors. The revolution has taken place at different stages of national progress, but scarcely an instance can be mentioned in which it has not occurred sooner or later. In territories of very small extent, very barren or much intersected by mountains, rivers, or other natural barriers, it has commonly been coeval with the first appropriation of land by individuals. In such situations, the original tribes of nomad herdsmen must necessarily have been small for want of pasture; and the same causes must have prevented any individual from acquiring very great numbers of cattle, and from very greatly surpassing his companions in wealth and power. All must have been nearly equal in rank; and, whenever a partition of their common territory was resolved upon, every one, no doubt, made good his claim to a share. On the other hand, in countries containing abundance of good pasture, separate tribes might expand indefinitely, and the cattle of single proprietors be counted by thousands and tens of thousands. Great wealth would then imply great disparity of rank, and rich herdsmen would have many poor retainers entirely indebted to their bounty, and consequently entirely devoted to their service. Such dependants, when the community passed from a migratory and pastoral to a stationary and agricultural condition, could put forward no pretensions on their own behalf. Their relation to their masters would remain the same as before, or rather would be exchanged for a more stringent form of bondage. From servants they would become serfs, and the duty assigned to them would be that of tilling their masters’ fields, as they had previously tended his herds. In the course of ages, however, they would imperceptibly acquire some important privileges. Residing for many successive generations on the lands allotted to them for their own subsistence, and paying to their lord always the same, or nearly the same, portion of the produce, they would come at length to be regarded as conditional proprietors of their respective holdings, or as perpetual lessees at a quit and almost nominal rent. Their propriety title, although at first merely prescriptive, would be eventually legalized; and thus it is that from villains and serfs has descended a progeny no less respectable than English copy-holders and German bauers.

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