Primogeniture has two closely related meanings: (1) a principle of seniority and authority whereby siblings are ranked according to their ages, with the eldest coming first; and (2) a principle of inheritance, in which the firstborn child receives all or his parents' most significant and valuable property upon their death. In most cases, the rules have been applied primarily or exclusively to males. But even where this is the case, the rule has often been interpreted flexibly. The Crown of England, for instance, has passed to the eldest daughter when a male heir was not available, as was the case with Elizabeth II in 1953.
Primogeniture as a principle of seniority exists in a wide range of societies where it forms an important element of social organization and cosmology. The Maori people of New Zealand, like many Polynesians, believed that human beings were descended from the gods and partook in divine potency (mana). The eldest clans and lineages, being closer to the gods, bore a higher degree of sacredness than junior lines. The chief of a group was always the most capable—and ideally the eldest—male of the eldest family line (Goldman 1970). Similar assumptions about the internal relationship between hierarchy and sacredness pervade Indian society, taking social expression in the caste system, the joint family, and marriage arrangements. The joint family of northern India, in its most mature and idealized form, consists of an elderly man and wife, their sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren. The large family shares a single house, cooks at the same hearth, worships at a common altar, and works the same fields. Every male in the household holds an equal share in the estate until it is formally and legally dissolved. However, the senior male is the ultimate authority, a role that passes upon his death to the eldest son (Kolenda 1968).
Primogeniture in the second sense—as the eldest child's exclusive right to inherit his father's property—provides a means for keeping an estate unified. It tends to be found in agricultural societies where a person's status and economic prosperity is tied to ownership of land. In medieval Western Europe, the land-owning aristocracy developed practices and laws meant to prevent the splitting of estates and the titles and privileges that went with them. The lord of a manor would typically pass down his undivided lands, titles, and rights over peasants to his eldest son. Usually the younger sons received support from their families, allowing them to pursue careers in the military, church, or state bureaucracy. Daughters received a dowry upon their marriage in lieu of any rights over their father's estate (Goody 1983). Over time, many landholding peasants also adopted forms of primogeniture, although they appear to have often exercised the rule flexibly. One of the best known local adaptations is the stem family of rural Ireland in which the head of the household and his wife shared their home with one married son (usually the eldest) and his descendents. Other sons were expected to move away upon marriage (Arensberg and Kimball 1968).
Primogeniture is the most common inheritance rule used to maintain undivided property, but there are others. Parts of England prior to 1925 and Germany during the Nazi period had laws of ultimogeniture, where property passed to the youngest son. Other even rarer variations serving the same end include seniorate and juniorate rules where property passes to the eldest or youngest member of an extended family; and secundogeniture, tertiogeniture (and so forth), where property is reserved for the second or succeeding sons.
The primogeniture system came under attack from several quarters in the Western world in the latter part of the eighteenth century in part because of a growing resistance against the privileges of the landed aristocracy and a desire to release land into the open market. It was first abolished in New England and then all of the United States following the American Revolution. The French Revolution brought the system to a halt in France, and the Napoleonic Code, which specified minimal amounts of estates to be given to each child, prevented its resurrection. In England, laws were modified first to allow life tenants to mortgage or sell their lands. In 1925, the British Parliament abolished primogeniture as the governing rule in the absence of a valid will (Rheinstein and Glendon 1994–2002). It was and is still possible in many places for parents to reserve most or all of an estate for an eldest child in their will. Many countries have enacted estate taxes meant to encourage parents to share their property among their descendents (as well as a means of securing government revenues). Various countries, however, have at times amended or created new laws meant to discourage or prevent the partitioning of farms as part of public policies aimed at maintaining a viable rural economy.
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PRIMOGENITURE implies seniority by birth; legally, it denotes the right of the eldest son to inherit the estate of a parent to the exclusion of all other heirs. Its wide use in medieval England followed the introduction of continental feudalism by the Normans, who stressed the wishes of a lord to keep his holdings intact to ensure the rents, fees, and military services arising from these tenures. Otherwise, a vassal, the person holding land from a feudal lord, might distribute his tenure among his sons in a way that would defeat the economic basis of the feudal structure. By the fourteenth century practically all free tenures were subject to primogeniture. In 1540 the British Parliament passed a statute that allowed owners of land held in fee simple, as well as many feudal tenures, to pass their holdings to persons other than their eldest sons by will. Feudal tenures were abolished in 1662, after which all freehold land could be willed. By this time, feudalism, except for the manorial system, was in decline. Although feudalism influenced institutional development in America, it was chiefly in its manorial aspects that primogeniture affected the New World.
Primogeniture existed in almost all of the original thirteen colonies. In Massachusetts the earliest colonial laws provided for partible descent, or division of the property. In cases of intestacy, property was divided among all the children, with the eldest son getting a double portion. This rule was also in effect in Pennsylvania. In New England, except for Rhode Island, stout opposition gradually reduced inheritance through primogeniture, so that by the American Revolution it had practically disappeared and had been replaced by partible inheritance. In New York and the southern colonies, where economic and social forces favored large estates, primogeniture generally prevailed, much to the dissatisfaction of those who viewed the institution as an alien and undesirable practice. Its effect was limited, however, because families of the gentry tended to distribute property through wills.
The movement for free and equitable inheritance was fostered by those sponsoring the American Revolution. Stimulated by the democratic philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, the Virginia assembly attacked primogeniture and finally, in 1785, abolished it. Georgia and North Carolina had done the same in 1777 and 1784, respectively. The other states followed this lead, although it was not until 1798 that Rhode Island abolished primogeniture. Since that date, primogeniture has not been in effect anywhere in the United States.
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W. FreemanGalpin/c. p.
J. A. Cannon
pri·mo·gen·i·ture / ˌprīmōˈjeniˌchər; -ˌchoŏr/ • n. the state of being the firstborn child. ∎ (also right of primogeniture) the right of succession belonging to the firstborn child, esp. the feudal rule by which the whole real estate of an intestate passed to the eldest son.DERIVATIVES: pri·mo·gen·i·tal / -ˈjenitl/ adj.pri·mo·gen·i·tar·y / -ˈjeniˌterē/ adj.
The status of being the firstborn child among several children of the same parents. A rule of inheritance atcommon lawthrough which the oldest male child has the right to succeed to the estate of an ancestor to the exclusion of younger siblings, both male and female, as well as other relatives.