The Wealth of Nations

Book 3, Chapter 2

the Discouragement of Agriculture in the Ancient State of Europe, After the Fall of the Roman Empire

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Chapter 2 Summary


When the German nations overran the western provinces of the Roman Empire, turmoil reigned for several centuries, with towns largely deserted and the countryside left uncultivated. During this time, the chiefs and leaders of those nations acquired or usurped to themselves the greater part of this mostly uncultivated land. The result was that all of this land ended up being by various proprietors.


Land represented not only a means of subsistence, but was a sign of power and protection. As such, it was felt that it was preferable not to divide land up, but rather to keep it within a family. This resulted in the introduction of the law of primogeniture, under which land passed to the eldest son of a family—the origin of the right of succession.


Entails were the natural consequences of the law of primogeniture. Introduced to limit the inheritance of property to certain heirs over a number of generations, they prevented land being passed outside the family by gift or folly, or by the misfortune of any of its successive owners. In the case of, for example, a principality, entails are indeed useful as they could well ensure the welfare of perhaps thousands of people against the caprice or extravagance of one man. But in Europe, nothing could be more absurd. Entails are used as a means of maintaining the exclusive privileges of nobility; in Scotland, more than a third of the land is under strict entail. Great landlords, however, are rarely great improvers of the land, preferring to invest their annual savings in new purchases rather than in the improvement of their old estate.


Man generally prefers to hire serfs rather than skilled laborers. Although sugar and tobacco plantations provide sufficient profit to pay for the upkeep of slaves, corn plantations do not. In the English colonies, of which the principal produce is corn, work is carried out by laborers. The resolution of the Quakers in Pennsylvania to free all their Negro slaves suggests that slaves were not widely used on the land there. The work on our sugar colonies is carried out entirely by slaves, and on our tobacco plantations a large part of it. Profits from sugar plantations are greater than for any other cultivation in Europe or America. Profits from tobacco plantations are superior to those of corn. This explains the fact that there are more Negro slaves than whites working in our sugar plantations than tobacco plantations.


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