This work is an expansion of a paper read at the meeting of the Royal Historical Society in May, 1875, and will be published in the volume of the Transactions of that body. But as it is an expensive work, and only accessible to the Fellows of that Society, and as the subject is one which is now engaging a good deal of public consideration, I have thought it desirable to place it within the reach of those who may not have access to the larger and more expensive work.
I am aware that much might be added to the information it contains, and I possess materials which would have more than doubled its size, but I have endeavored to seize upon the salient points, and to express my views as concisely as possible.
I have also preferred giving the exact words of important Acts of Parliament to any description of their objects.
If this little essay adds any information upon a subject of much public interest, and contributes to the just settlement of a very important question, I shall consider my labor has not been in vain.
WATERFORD, November 3, 1875.
I do not propose to enter upon the system of landholding in Scotland or Ireland, which appears to me to bear the stamp of the Celtic origin of the people, and which was preserved in Ireland long after it had disappeared in other European countries formerly inhabited by the Celts. That ancient race may be regarded as the original settlers of a large portion of the European continent, and its land system possesses a remarkable affinity to that of the Slavonic, the Hindoo, and even the New Zealand races. It was originally Patriarchal, and then Tribal, and was communistic in its character.
I do not pretend to great originality in my views. My efforts have been to collect the scattered rays of light, and to bring them to bear upon one interesting topic. The present is the child of the past. The ideas of bygone races affect the practices of living people. We form but parts of a whole; we are influenced by those who preceded us, and we shall influence those who come after us. Men cannot disassociate themselves either from the past or the future.
In looking at this question there is, I think, a vast difference which has not been sufficiently recognized. It is the broad distinction between the system arising out of the original occupation of land, and that proceeding out of the necessities of conquest; perhaps I should add a third - the complex system proceeding from an amalgamation, or from the existence of both systems in the same nation. Some countries have been so repeatedly swept over by the tide of conquest that but little of the aboriginal ideas or systems have survived the flood. Others have submitted to a change of governors and preserved their customary laws; while in some there has been such a fusion of the two systems that we cannot decide which of the ingredients was the older, except by a process of analysis and a comparison of the several products of the alembic with the recognized institutions of the class of original or of invading peoples.
Efforts have been made, and not with very great success, to define the principle which governed the more ancient races with regard to the possession of land. While unoccupied or unappropriated, it was common to every settler. It existed for the use of the whole human race. The process by which that which was common to all became the possession of the individual has not been clearly stated. The earlier settlers were either individuals, families, tribes, or nations. In some cases they were nomadic, and used the natural products without taking possession of the land; in others they occupied districts differently defined. The individual was the unit of the family, the patriarch of the tribe. The commune was formed to afford mutual protection. Each sept or tribe in the early enjoyment of the products of the district it selected was governed by its own customary laws. The cohesion of these tribes into states was a slow process; the adoption of a general system of government still slower. The disintegration of the tribal system, and dissolution of the commune, was not evolved out of the original elements of the system itself, but was the effect of conquest; and, as far as I can discover, the appropriation to individuals of land which was common to all, was mainly brought about by conquest, and was guided by impulse rather than regulated by principle.
Mr. Locke thinks that an individual became sole owner of a part of the common heritage by mixing his labor with the land, in fencing it, making wells, or building; and he illustrates his position by the appropriation of wild animals, which are common to all sportsmen, but become the property of him who captures or kills them. This acute thinker seems to me to have fallen into a mistake by confounding land with labor. The improvements were the property of the man who made them, but it by no means follows that the expenditure of labor on land gave any greater right than to the labor itself or its representative.
It may not be out of place here to allude to the use of the word property with reference to land; property - from proprium, my own - is something pertaining to man. I have a property in myself. I have the right to be free. All that proceeds from myself, my thoughts, my writings, my works, are property; but no man made land, and therefore it is not property. This incorrect application of the word is the more striking in England, where the largest title a man can have is "tenancy in fee," and a tenant holds but does not own.