SECOND MEMOIR: A Letter to M. Blanqui – Part 3

In Rome, as in all other places, the dissension between the rich and the poor was not caused directly by the desire for wealth (people, as a general thing, do not covet that which they deem it illegitimate to acquire), but by a natural instinct of the plebeians, which led them to seek the cause of their adversity in the constitution of the republic. So we are doing today; instead of altering our public economy, we demand an electoral reform. The Roman people wished to return to the social compact; they asked for reforms, and demanded a revision of the laws, and a creation of new magistracies. The patricians, who had nothing to complain of, opposed every innovation. Wealth always has been conservative. Nevertheless, the people overcame the resistance of the Senate; the electoral right was greatly extended; the privileges of the plebeians were increased, – they had their representatives, their tribunes, and their consuls; but, notwithstanding these reforms, the republic could not be saved. When all political expedients had been exhausted, when civil war had depleted the population, when the Cæsars had thrown their bloody mantle over the cancer which was consuming the empire, – inasmuch as accumulated property always was respected, and since the fire never stopped, the nation had to perish in the flames. The imperial power was a compromise which protected the property of the rich, and nourished the proletaires with wheat from Africa and Sicily: a double error, which destroyed the aristocrats by plethora and the commoners by famine. At last there was but one real proprietor left, – the emperor, – whose dependent, flatterer, parasite, or slave, each citizen became; and when this proprietor was ruined, those who gathered the crumbs from under his table, and laughed when he cracked his jokes, perished also. Montesquieu succeeded no better than Bossuet in fathoming the causes of the Roman decline; indeed, it may be said that the president has only developed the ideas of the bishop. If the Romans had been more moderate in their conquests, more just to their allies, more humane to the vanquished; if the nobles had been less covetous, the emperors less lawless, the people less violent, and all classes less corrupt; if . . . &c., – perhaps the dignity of the empire might have been preserved, and Rome might have retained the sceptre of the world! That is all that can be gathered from the teachings of Montesquieu. But the truth of history does not lie there; the destinies of the world are not dependent upon such trivial causes. The passions of men, like the contingencies of time and the varieties of climate, serve to maintain the forces which move humanity and produce all historical changes; but they do not explain them. The grain of sand of which Pascal speaks would have caused the death of one man only, had not prior action ordered the events of which this death was the precursor. Montesquieu has read extensively; he knows Roman history thoroughly, is perfectly well acquainted with the people of whom he speaks, and sees very clearly why they were able to conquer their rivals and govern the world. While reading him we admire the Romans, but we do not like them; we witness their triumphs without pleasure, and we watch their fall without sorrow. Montesquieu’s work, like the works of all French writers, is skilfully composed, – spirited, witty, and filled with wise observations. He pleases, interests, instructs, but leads to little reflection; he does not conquer by depth of thought; he does not exalt the mind by elevated reason or earnest feeling. In vain should we search his writings for knowledge of antiquity, the character of primitive society, or a description of the heroic ages, whose morals and prejudices lived until the last days of the republic. Vico, painting the Romans with their horrible traits, represents them as excusable, because he shows that all their conduct was governed by preexisting ideas and customs, and that they were informed, so to speak, by a superior genius of which they were unconscious; in Montesquieu, the Roman atrocity revolts, but is not explained. Therefore, as a writer, Montesquieu brings greater credit upon French literature; as a philosopher, Vico bears away the palm. Originally, property in Rome was national, not private. Numa was the first to establish individual property by distributing the lands captured by Romulus. What was the dividend of this distribution effected by Numa? What conditions were imposed upon individuals, what powers reserved to the State? None whatever. Inequality of fortunes, absolute abdication by the republic of its right of eminent domain over the property of citizens, – such were the first results of the division of Numa, who justly may be regarded as the originator of Roman revolutions. He it was who instituted the worship of the god Terminus, – the guardian of private possession, and one of the most ancient gods of Italy. It was Numa who placed property under the protection of Jupiter; who, in imitation of the Etrurians, wished to make priests of the land-surveyors; who invented a liturgy for cadastral operations, and ceremonies of consecration for the marking of boundaries, – who, in short, made a religion of property.(1) All these fancies would have been more beneficial than dangerous, if the holy king had not forgotten one essential thing; namely, to fix the amount that each citizen could possess, and on what conditions he could possess it. For, since it is the essence of property to continually increase by accession and profit, and since the lender will take advantage of every opportunity to apply this principle inherent in property, it follows that properties tend, by means of their natural energy and the religious respect which protects them, to absorb each other, and fortunes to increase or diminish to an indefinite extent, – a process which necessarily results in the ruin of the people, and the fall of the republic. Roman history is but the development of this law. Scarcely had the Tarquins been banished from Rome and the monarchy abolished, when quarrels commenced between the orders. In the year 494 B.C., the secession of the commonalty to the Mons Sacer led to the establishment of the tribunate. Of what did the plebeians complain? That they were poor, exhausted by the interest which they paid to the proprietors, – foeneratoribus; that the republic, administered for the benefit of the nobles, did nothing for the people; that, delivered over to the mercy of their creditors, who could sell them and their children, and having neither hearth nor home, they were refused the means of subsistence, while the rate of interest was kept at its highest point, &c. For five centuries, the sole policy of the Senate was to evade these just complaints; and, notwithstanding the energy of the tribunes, notwithstanding the eloquence of the Gracchi, the violence of Marius, and the triumph of Cæsar, this execrable policy succeeded only too well. The Senate always temporized; the measures proposed by the tribunes might be good, but they were inopportune. It admitted that something should be done; but first it was necessary that the people should resume the performance of their duties, because the Senate could not yield to violence, and force must be employed only by the law. If the people – out of respect for legality – took this beautiful advice, the Senate conjured up a difficulty; the reform was postponed, and that was the end of it. On the contrary, if the demands of the proletaires became too pressing, it declared a foreign war, and neighboring nations were deprived of their liberty, to maintain the Roman aristocracy. But the toils of war were only a halt for the plebeians in their onward march towards pauperism. The lands confiscated from the conquered nations were immediately added to the domain of the State, to the ager publicus; and, as such, cultivated for the benefit of the treasury; or, as was more often the case, they were sold at auction. None of them were granted to the proletaires, who, unlike the patricians and knights, were not supplied by the victory with the means of buying them. War never enriched the soldier; the extensive plundering has been done always by the generals. The vans of Augereau, and of twenty others, are famous in our armies; but no one ever heard of a private getting rich. Nothing was more common in Rome than charges of peculation, extortion, embezzlement, and brigandage, carried on in the provinces at the head of armies, and in other public capacities. All these charges were quieted by intrigue, bribery of the judges, or desistance of the accuser.

The culprit was allowed always in the end to enjoy his spoils in peace; his son was only the more respected on account of his father’s crimes. And, in fact, it could not be otherwise. What would become of us, if every deputy, peer, or public functionary should be called upon to show his title to his fortune!

“The patricians arrogated the exclusive enjoyment of the ager publicus; and, like the feudal seigniors, granted some portions of their lands to their dependants, – a wholly precarious concession, revocable at the will of the grantor. The plebeians, on the contrary, were entitled to the enjoyment of only a little pasture-land left to them in common: an utterly unjust state of things, since, in consequence of it, taxation – census – weighed more heavily upon the poor than upon the rich. The patrician, in fact, always exempted himself from the tithe which he owed as the price and as the acknowledgment of the concession of domain; and, on the other hand, paid no taxes on his possessions, if, as there is good reason to believe, only citizens’ property was taxed.” – Laboulaye: History of Property. In order thoroughly to understand the preceding quotation, we must know that the estates of citizens – that is, estates independent of the public domain, whether they were obtained in the division of Numa, or had since been sold by the questors – were alone regarded as property; upon these a tax, or cense, was imposed. On the contrary, the estates obtained by concessions of the public domain, of the ager publicus (for which a light rent was paid), were called possessions. Thus, among the Romans, there was a right of property and a right of possession regulating the administration of all estates. Now, what did the proletaires wish? That the jus possessionis – the simple right of possession – should be extended to them at the expense, as is evident, not of private property, but of the public domain, – agri publici. The proletaires, in short, demanded that they should be tenants of the land which they had conquered. This demand, the patricians in their avarice never would accede to. Buying as much of this land as they could, they afterwards found means of obtaining the rest as possessions. Upon this land they employed their slaves. The people, who could not buy, on account of the competition of the rich, nor hire, because – cultivating with their own hands – they could not promise a rent equal to the revenue which the land would yield when cultivated by slaves, were always deprived of possession and property.

Civil wars relieved, to some extent, the sufferings of the multitude. “The people enrolled themselves under the banners of the ambitious, in order to obtain by force that which the law refused them, – property. A colony was the reward of a victorious legion. But it was no longer the ager publicus only; it was all Italy that lay at the mercy of the legions. The ager publicus disappeared almost entirely, … but the cause of the evil – accumulated property – became more potent than ever.” (Laboulaye: History of Property.) The author whom I quote does not tell us why this division of territory which followed civil wars did not arrest the encroachments of accumulated property; the omission is easily supplied. Land is not the only requisite for cultivation; a working-stock is also necessary, – animals, tools, harnesses, a house, an advance, &c.

Where did the colonists, discharged by the dictator who rewarded them, obtain these things? From the purse of the usurers; that is, of the patricians, to whom all these lands finally returned, in consequence of the rapid increase of usury, and the seizure of estates. Sallust, in his account of the conspiracy of Catiline, tells us of this fact. The conspirators were old soldiers of Sylla, who, as a reward for their services, had received from him lands in Cisalpine Gaul, Tuscany, and other parts of the peninsula Less than twenty years had elapsed since these colonists, free of debt, had left the service and commenced farming; and already they were crippled by usury, and almost ruined. The poverty caused by the exactions of creditors was the life of this conspiracy which well-nigh inflamed all Italy, and which, with a worthier chief and fairer means, possibly would have succeeded. In Rome, the mass of the people were favorable to the conspirators – cuncta plebes Catilinæ incepta probabat; the allies were weary of the patricians’ robberies; deputies from the Allobroges (the Savoyards) had come to Rome to appeal to the Senate in behalf of their fellow-citizens involved in debt; in short, the complaint against the large proprietors was universal. “We call men and gods to witness,” said the soldiers of Catiline, who were Roman citizens with not a slave among them, “that we have taken arms neither against the country, nor to attack any one, but in defence of our lives and liberties. Wretched, poor, most of us deprived of country, all of us of fame and fortune, by the violence and cruelty of usurers, we have no rights, no property, no liberty.”(2) The bad reputation of Catiline, and his atrocious designs, the imprudence of his accomplices, the treason of several, the strategy of Cicero, the angry outbursts of Cato, and the terror of the Senate, baffled this enterprise, which, in furnishing a precedent for expeditions against the rich, would perhaps have saved the republic, and given peace to the world. But Rome could not evade her destiny; the end of her expiations had not come. A nation never was known to anticipate its punishment by a sudden and unexpected conversion.

Now, the long-continued crimes of the Eternal City could not be atoned for by the massacre of a few hundred patricians. Catiline came to stay divine vengeance; therefore his conspiracy failed.

The encroachment of large proprietors upon small proprietors, by the aid of usury, farm-rent, and profits of all sorts, was common throughout the empire. The most honest citizens invested their money at high rates of interest.(3) Cato, Cicero, Brutus, all the stoics so noted for their frugality, viri frugi, – Seneca, the teacher of virtue, – levied enormous taxes in the provinces, under the name of usury; and it is something remarkable, that the last defenders of the republic, the proud Pompeys, were all usurious aristocrats, and oppressors of the poor. But the battle of Pharsalus, having killed men only, without touching institutions, the encroachments of the large domains became every day more active. Ever since the birth of Christianity, the Fathers have opposed this invasion with all their might. Their writings are filled with burning curses upon this crime of usury, of which Christians are not always innocent. St. Cyprian complains of certain bishops of his time, who, absorbed in disgraceful stock-jobbing operations, abandoned their churches, and went about the provinces appropriating lands by artifice and fraud, while lending money and piling up interests upon interests.(4) Why, in the midst of this passion for accumulation, did not the possession of the public land, like private property, become concentrated in a few hands? By law, the domain of the State was inalienable, and consequently possession was always revocable; but the edict of the praetor continued it indefinitely, so that finally the possessions of the patricians were transformed into absolute property, though the name, possessions, was still applied to them. This conversion, instigated by senatorial avarice; owed its accomplishment to the most deplorable and indiscreet policy. If, in the time of Tiberius Gracchus, who wished to limit each citizen’s possession of the ager publicus to five hundred acres, the amount of this possession had been fixed at as much as one family could cultivate, and granted on the express condition that the possessor should cultivate it himself, and should lease it to no one, the empire never would have been desolated by large estates; and possession, instead of increasing property, would have absorbed it. On what, then, depended the establishment and maintenance of equality in conditions and fortunes? On a more equitable division of the ager publicus, a wiser distribution of the right of possession. I insist upon this point, which is of the utmost importance, because it gives us an opportunity to examine the history of this individual possession, of which I said so much in my first memoir, and which so few of my readers seem to have understood. The Roman republic – having, as it did, the power to dispose absolutely of its territory, and to impose conditions upon possessors – was nearer to liberty and equality than any nation has been since. If the Senate had been intelligent and just, – if, at the time of the retreat to the Mons Sacer, instead of the ridiculous farce enacted by Menenius Agrippa, a solemn renunciation of the right to acquire had been made by each citizen on attaining his share of possessions, – the republic, based upon equality of possessions and the duty of labor, would not, in attaining its wealth, have degenerated in morals; Fabricius would have enjoyed the arts without controlling artists; and the conquests of the ancient Romans would have been the means of spreading civilization, instead of the series of murders and robberies that they were.

But property, having unlimited power to amass and to lease, was daily increased by the addition of new possessions. From the time of Nero, six individuals were the sole proprietors of one-half of Roman Africa. In the fifth century, the wealthy families had incomes of no less than two millions: some possessed as many as twenty thousand slaves. All the authors who have written upon the causes of the fall of the Roman republic concur. M. Giraud of Aix(5) quotes the testimony of Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch, Olympiodorus, and Photius. Under Vespasian and Titus, Pliny, the naturalist, exclaimed: “Large estates have ruined Italy, and are ruining the provinces.” But it never has been understood that the extension of property was effected then, as it is to-day, under the aegis of the law, and by virtue of the constitution. When the Senate sold captured lands at auction, it was in the interest of the treasury and of public welfare. When the patricians bought up possessions and property, they realized the purpose of the Senate’s decrees; when they lent at high rates of interest, they took advantage of a legal privilege. “Property,” said the lender, “is the right to enjoy even to the extent of abuse, jus utendi et abutendi; that is, the right to lend at interest, – to lease, to acquire, and then to lease and lend again.” But property is also the right to exchange, to transfer, and to sell. If, then, the social condition is such that the proprietor, ruined by usury, may be compelled to sell his possession, the means of his subsistence, he will sell it; and, thanks to the law, accumulated property – devouring and anthropophagous property – will be established.(6)

The immediate and secondary cause of the decline of the Romans was, then, the internal dissensions between the two orders of the republic, – the patricians and the plebeians, – dissensions which gave rise to civil wars, proscriptions, and loss of liberty, and finally led to the empire; but the primary and mediate cause of their decline was the establishment by Numa of the institution of property.

I end with an extract from a work which I have quoted several times already, and which has recently received a prize from the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences: –

“The concentration of property,” says M. Laboulaye, “while causing extreme poverty, forced the emperors to feed and amuse the people, that they might forget their misery. Panem et circenses: that was the Roman law in regard to the poor; a dire and perhaps a necessary evil wherever a landed aristocracy exists.

“To feed these hungry mouths, grain was brought from Africa and the provinces, and distributed gratuitously among the needy.

In the time of Cæsar, three hundred and twenty thousand people were thus fed. Augustus saw that such a measure led directly to the destruction of husbandry; but to abolish these distributions was to put a weapon within the reach of the first aspirant for power. The emperor shrank at the thought.

“While grain was gratuitous, agriculture was impossible. Tillage gave way to pasturage, another cause of depopulation, even among slaves.

“Finally, luxury, carried further and further every day, covered the soil of Italy with elegant villas, which occupied whole cantons. Gardens and groves replaced the fields, and the free population fled to the towns. Husbandry disappeared almost entirely, and with husbandry the husbandman. Africa furnished the wheat, and Greece the wine. Tiberius complained bitterly of this evil, which placed the lives of the Roman people at the mercy of the winds and waves: that was his anxiety. One day later, and three hundred thousand starving men walked the streets of Rome: that was a revolution. “This decline of Italy and the provinces did not stop. After the reign of Nero, depopulation commenced in towns as noted as Antium and Tarentum. Under the reign of Pertinax, there was so much desert land that the emperor abandoned it, even that which belonged to the treasury, to whoever would cultivate it, besides exempting the farmers from taxation for a period of ten years. Senators were compelled to invest one-third of their fortunes in real estate in Italy; but this measure served only to increase the evil which they wished to cure. To force the rich to possess in Italy was to increase the large estates which had ruined the country. And must I say, finally, that Aurelian wished to send the captives into the desert lands of Etruria, and that Valentinian was forced to settle the Alamanni on the fertile banks of the Po?”

If the reader, in running through this book, should complain of meeting with nothing but quotations from other works, extracts from journals and public lectures, comments upon laws, and interpretations of them, I would remind him that the very object of this memoir is to establish the conformity of my opinion concerning property with that universally held; that, far from aiming at a paradox, it has been my main study to follow the advice of the world; and, finally, that my sole pretension is to clearly formulate the general belief. I cannot repeat it too often, – and I confess it with pride, – I teach absolutely nothing that is new; and I should regard the doctrine which I advocate as radically erroneous, if a single witness should testify against it.

Let us now trace the revolutions in property among the Barbarians.

As long as the German tribes dwelt in their forests, it did not occur to them to divide and appropriate the soil. The land was held in common: each individual could plow, sow, and reap. But, when the empire was once invaded, they bethought themselves of sharing the land, just as they shared spoils after a victory. “Hence,” says M. Laboulaye, “the expressions sortes Burgundiorum Gothorum and klhroi Ouandigwn; hence the German words allod, allodium, and loos, lot, which are used in all modern languages to designate the gifts of chance.” Allodial property, at least with the mass of coparceners, was originally held, then, in equal shares; for all of the prizes were equal, or, at least, equivalent. This property, like that of the Romans, was wholly individual, independent, exclusive, transferable, and consequently susceptible of accumulation and invasion. But, instead of its being, as was the case among the Romans, the large estate which, through increase and usury, subordinated and absorbed the small one, among the Barbarians – fonder of war than of wealth, more eager to dispose of persons than to appropriate things – it was the warrior who, through superiority of arms, enslaved his adversary. The Roman wanted matter; the Barbarian wanted man. Consequently, in the feudal ages, rents were almost nothing, – simply a hare, a partridge, a pie, a few pints of wine brought by a little girl, or a Maypole set up within the suzerain’s reach. In return, the vassal or incumbent had to follow the seignior to battle (a thing which happened almost every day), and equip and feed himself at his own expense. “This spirit of the German tribes – this spirit of companionship and association – governed the territory as it governed individuals. The lands, like the men, were secured to a chief or seignior by a bond of mutual protection and fidelity. This subjection was the labor of the German epoch which gave birth to feudalism. By fair means or foul, every proprietor who could not be a chief was forced to be a vassal.” (Laboulaye: History of Property.)

By fair means or foul, every mechanic who cannot be a master has to be a journeyman; every proprietor who is not an invader will be invaded; every producer who cannot, by the exploitation of other men, furnish products at less than their proper value, will lose his labor. Corporations and masterships, which are hated so bitterly, but which will reappear if we are not careful, are the necessary results of the principle of competition which is inherent in property; their organization was patterned formerly after that of the feudal hierarchy, which was the result of the subordination of men and possessions. The times which paved the way for the advent of feudalism and the reappearance of large proprietors were times of carnage and the most frightful anarchy. Never before had murder and violence made such havoc with the human race. The tenth century, among others, if my memory serves me rightly, was called the century of iron. His property, his life, and the honor of his wife and children always in danger the small proprietor made haste to do homage to his seignior, and to bestow something on the church of his freehold, that he might receive protection and security.

“Both facts and laws bear witness that from the sixth to the tenth century the proprietors of small freeholds were gradually plundered, or reduced by the encroachments of large proprietors and counts to the condition of either vassals or tributaries.

The Capitularies are full of repressive provisions; but the incessant reiteration of these threats only shows the perseverance of the evil and the impotency of the government. Oppression, moreover, varies but little in its methods. The complaints of the free proprietors, and the groans of the plebeians at the time of the Gracchi, were one and the same. It is said that, whenever a poor man refused to give his estate to the bishop, the curate, the count, the judge, or the centurion, these immediately sought an opportunity to ruin him. They made him serve in the army until, completely ruined, he was induced, by fair means or foul, to give up his freehold.” – Laboulaye: History of Property.

How many small proprietors and manufacturers have not been ruined by large ones through chicanery, law-suits, and competition? Strategy, violence, and usury, – such are the proprietor’s methods of plundering the laborer.

Thus we see property, at all ages and in all its forms, oscillating by virtue of its principle between two opposite terms, – extreme division and extreme accumulation.

Property, at its first term, is almost null. Reduced to personal exploitation, it is property only potentially. At its second term, it exists in its perfection; then it is truly property.

When property is widely distributed, society thrives, progresses, grows, and rises quickly to the zenith of its power. Thus, the Jews, after leaving Babylon with Esdras and Nehemiah, soon became richer and more powerful than they had been under their kings. Sparta was in a strong and prosperous condition during the two or three centuries which followed the death of Lycurgus. The best days of Athens were those of the Persian war; Rome, whose inhabitants were divided from the beginning into two classes, – the exploiters and the exploited, – knew no such thing as peace.

When property is concentrated, society, abusing itself, polluted, so to speak, grows corrupt, wears itself out – how shall I express this horrible idea? – plunges into long-continued and fatal luxury. When feudalism was established, society had to die of the same disease which killed it under the Cæsars, – I mean accumulated property. But humanity, created for an immortal destiny, is deathless; the revolutions which disturb it are purifying crises, invariably followed by more vigorous health. In the fifth century, the invasion of the Barbarians partially restored the world to a state of natural equality. In the twelfth century, a new spirit pervading all society gave the slave his rights, and through justice breathed new life into the heart of nations. It has been said, and often repeated, that Christianity regenerated the world. That is true; but it seems to me that there is a mistake in the date. Christianity had no influence upon Roman society; when the Barbarians came, that society had disappeared. For such is God’s curse upon property; every political organization based upon the exploitation of man . shall perish: slave-labor is death to the race of tyrants. The patrician families became extinct, as the feudal families did, and as all aristocracies must. It was in the middle ages, when a reactionary movement was beginning to secretly undermine accumulated property, that the influence of Christianity was first exercised to its full extent. The destruction of feudalism, the conversion of the serf into the commoner, the emancipation of the communes, and the admission of the Third Estate to political power, were deeds accomplished by Christianity exclusively. I say Christianity, not ecclesiasticism; for the priests and bishops were themselves large proprietors, and as such often persecuted the villeins. Without the Christianity of the middle ages, the existence of modern society could not be explained, and would not be possible. The truth of this assertion is shown by the very facts which M. Laboulaye quotes, although this author inclines to the opposite opinion.(7)

So general an assertion cannot be refuted. Some of these ideas and causes should have been pointed out, that we might judge whether their source was not wholly Christian, or whether at least the Christian spirit had not penetrated and thus citizen was effected, then, by Christianity before the Barbarians set foot upon the soil of the empire. We have only to trace the progress of this moral revolution in the personnel of society. “But,” M. Laboulaye rightly says, “it did not change the condition of men in a moment, any more than that of things; between slavery and liberty there was an abyss which could not be filled in a day; the transitional step was servitude.” Now, what was servitude? In what did it differ from Roman slavery, and whence came this difference? Let the same author answer.

1. Slavery among the Romans. – “The Roman slave was, in the eyes of the law, only a thing, – no more than an ox or a horse. He had neither property, family, nor personality; he was defenceless against his master’s cruelty, folly, or cupidity. `Sell your oxen that are past use,’ said Cato, `sell your calves, your lambs, your wool, your hides, your old ploughs, your old iron, your old slave, and your sick slave, and all that is of no use to you.’ When no market could be found for the slaves that were worn out by sickness or old age, they were abandoned to starvation. Claudius was the first defender of this shameful practice.”

“Discharge your old workman,” says the economist of the proprietary school; “turn off that sick domestic, that toothless and worn-out servant. Put away the unserviceable beauty; to the hospital with the useless mouths!”

“The condition of these wretched beings improved but little under the emperors; and the best that can be said of the goodness of Antoninus is that he prohibited intolerable cruelty, as an abuse of property. Expedit enim reipublicæ ne quis re re sua male utatur, says Gaius.

“As soon as the Church met in council, it launched an anathema against the masters who had exercised over their slaves this terrible right of life and death. Were not the slaves, thanks to the right of sanctuary and to their poverty, the dearest protégés of religion? Constantine, who embodied in the laws the grand ideas of Christianity, valued the life of a slave as highly as that of a freeman, and declared the master, who had intentionally brought death upon his slave, guilty of murder.

Between this law and that of Antoninus there is a complete revolution in moral ideas: the slave was a thing; religion has made him a man.”

Note the last words: “Between the law of the Gospel and that of Antoninus there is a complete revolution in moral ideas: the slave was a thing; religion has made him a man.” The moral revolution which transformed the slave into a fructified them.

Most of the emancipation charters begin with these words: “For the love of God and the salvation of my soul.” Now, we did not commence to love God and to think of our salvation until after the promulgation of the Gospel.

2. Of Servitude. – “I see, in the lord’s manor, slaves charged with domestic duties. Some are employed in the personal service of the master; others are charged with household cares. The women spin the wool; the men grind the grain, make the bread, or practise, in the interest of the seignior, what little they know of the industrial arts. The master punishes them when he chooses, kills them with impunity, and sells them and theirs like so many cattle. The slave has no personality, and consequently no wehrgeld(8) peculiar to himself: he is a thing. The wehrgeld belongs to the master as a compensation for the loss of his property. Whether the slave is killed or stolen, the indemnity does not change, for the injury is the same; but the indemnity increases or diminishes according to the value of the serf. In all these particulars Germanic slavery and Roman servitude are alike.”

This similarity is worthy of notice. Slavery is always the same, whether in a Roman villa or on a Barbarian farm. The man, like the ox and the ass, is a part of the live-stock; a price is set upon his head; he is a tool without a conscience, a chattel without personality, an impeccable, irresponsible being, who has neither rights nor duties.

Why did his condition improve?

“In good season …” [when ?] “the serf began to be regarded as a man; and, as such, the law of the Visigoths, under the influence of Christian ideas, punished with fine or banishment any one who maimed or killed him.”

Always Christianity, always religion, though we should like to speak of the laws only. Did the philanthropy of the Visigoths make its first appearance before or after the preaching of the Gospel? This point must be cleared up.

“After the conquest, the serfs were scattered over the large estates of the Barbarians, each having his house, his lot, and his peculium, in return for which he paid rent and performed service. They were rarely separated from their homes when their land was sold; they and all that they had became the property of the purchaser. The law favored this realization of the serf, in not allowing him to be sold out of the country.”

What inspired this law, destructive not only of slavery, but of property itself? For, if the master cannot drive from his domain the slave whom he has once established there, it follows that the slave is proprietor, as well as the master.

“The Barbarians,” again says M. Laboulaye, “were the first to recognize the slave’s rights of family and property, – two rights which are incompatible with slavery.”

(1) Similar or analogous customs have existed among all nations. Consult, among other works, “Origin of French Law,” by M. Michelet; and “Antiquities of German Law,” by Grimm.
(2) Dees hominesque testamur, nos arma neque contra patriam cepisse neque quo periculum aliis faceremus, sed uti corpora nostra ab injuria tuta forent, qui miseri, egentes, violentia atque crudelitate foeneraterum, plerique patriae, sed omncsfarna atque fortunis expertes sumus; neque cuiquam nostrum licuit, more majorum, lege uti, neque, amisso patrimonio, libferum corpus habere. – Sallus: Bellum Catilinarium.
(3) Fifty, sixty, and eighty per cent. – Course of M. Blanqui.
(4) Episcopi plurimi, quos et hortamento esse oportet cæteris et exemplo, divina prouratione contempta, procuratores rerum sæularium fieri, derelicta cathedra, plebe leserta, per alienas provincias oberrantes, negotiationis quaestuosae nundinas au uucu-, pari, esurientibus in ecclesia fratribus habere argentum largitur velle, fundos insidi.sis fraudibus rapere, usuris multiplicantibus foenus augere. – Cyprian: De Lapsis.
(5) “Inquiries concerning Property among the Romans.”
(6) “Its acquisitive nature works rapidly in the sleep of the law. It is ready, at the word, to absorb every thing. Witness the famous equivocation about the ox-hide which, when cut up into thongs, was large enough to enclose the site of Carthage… The legend has reappeared several times since Dido… . Such is the love of man for the land. Limited by tombs, measured by the members of the human body, by the thumb, the foot, and the arm, it harmonizes, as far as possible, with the very proportions of man. Nor is be satisfied yet: he calls Heaven to witness that it is his; he tries to or his land, to give it the form of heaven… . In his titanic intoxication, he describes property in the very terms which he employs in describing the Almighty – fundus optimus maximus. . . . He shall make it his couch, and they shall be separated no more, – kai emignunto Figothti.” – Michelet: Origin of French Law.
(7) M. Guizot denies that Christianity alone is entitled to the glory of the abolition of slavery. “To this end,” he says, “many causes were necessary, – the evolution of other ideas and other principles of civilization.”
(8) Weregild, – the fine paid for the murder of a man. So much for a count, so much for a baron, so much for a freeman, so much for a priest; for a slave, nothing. His value was restored to the proprietor.

Source: Proudhon Pierre Joseph (1890), What is Property?, Humboldt Publishing Company

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *