The Land Question

Chapter 1:

Unpalatable Truth

IN charging the Dublin jury in the Land League cases, Mr. Justice Fitzgerald told them that the land laws of Ireland were more favorable to the tenant than those of Great Britain, Belgium, or the United States.

As a matter of fact, Justice Fitzgerald is right. For in Ireland certain local customs and the provisions of the Bright Land Act mitigate somewhat the power of the landlord in his dealings with the tenant. In Great Britain, save by custom in a few localities, there are no such mitigations. In Belgium I believe there are none. There are certainly none in the United States.

This fact which Justice Fitzgerald cites will be reechoed by the enemies of the Irish movement. And it is a fact well worth the consideration of its friends. For the Irish movement has passed its first stage, and it is time for a more definite understanding of what is needed and how it is to be got.

It is the fashion of Land League orators and sympathizing newspapers in this country to talk as if the distress and disquiet in Ireland were wholly due to political oppression, and our national House of Representatives recently passed, by unanimous vote, a resolution which censured England for her treatment of Ireland. But, while it is indeed true that Ireland has been deeply wronged and bitterly oppressed by England, it is not true that there is any economic oppression of Ireland by England now. To whatever cause Irish distress may be due, it is certainly not due to the existence of laws which press on industry more heavily in Ireland than in any other part of the United Kingdom.

And, further than this, the Irish land system, which is so much talked of as though it were some peculiarly atrocious system, is essentially the same land system which prevails in all civilized countries, which we of the United States have accepted unquestioningly, and have extended over the whole temperate zone of a new continent – the same system which all over the civilized world men are accustomed to consider natural and just.

Justice Fitzgerald is unquestionably right.

As to England, it is well known that the English landlords exercise freely all the powers complained of in the Irish landlords, without even the slight restrictions imposed in Ireland.

As to Belgium, let me quote the high authority of the distinguished Belgian publicist, M. Émile de Laveleye, of the University of Liége. He says that the Belgian tenantfarmers – for tenancy largely prevails even where the land is most minutely divided – are rack-rented with a mercilessness unknown in England or even in Ireland, and are compelled to vote as their landlords dictate!

And as to the United States, let me ask the men who to applauding audiences are nightly comparing the freedom of America with the oppression of Ireland – let me ask the Representatives who voted for the resolution of sympathy with Ireland, this simple question: What would the Irish landlords lose, what would the Irish tenants gain, if tomorrow, Ireland were made a State in the American Union and American law substituted for English law?

I think it will puzzle them to reply. The truth is that the gain would be to the landlords, the loss to the tenants. The simple truth is that, under our laws, the Irish landlords could rack-rent, distrain, evict, or absent themselves, as they pleased, and without any restriction from Ulster tenant-right or legal requirement of compensation for improvements. Under our laws they could, just as freely as they can now, impose whatever terms they pleased upon their tenants – whether as to cultivation, as to improvements, as to game, as to marriages, as to voting, or as to anything else. For these powers do not spring from special laws. They are merely incident to the right of property; they result simply from the acknowledgment of the right of the owner of land to do as he pleases with his own – to let it, or not let it. So far as law can give them to him, every American landlord has these powers as fully as any Irish landlord. Cannot the American owner of land make, in letting it, any stipulation he pleases as to how it shall be used, or improved, or cultivated? Can he not reserve any of his own rights upon it, such as the right of entry, or of cutting wood, or shooting game, or catching fish? And, in the absence of special agreement, does not American law give him, what the law of Ireland does not now give him, the ownership at the expiration of the lease of all the improvements made by the tenant? What single power has the Irish landowner that the American landowner has not as fully? Is not the American landlord just as free as is the Irish landlord to refuse to rent his lands or his houses to any one who does not attend a certain church or vote a certain ticket? Is he not quite as free to do this as he is free to refuse his contributions to all but one particular benevolent society or political committee? Or, if, not liking a certain newspaper, he chooses to give notice to quit to any tenant whom he finds taking that newspaper, what law can be invoked to prevent him? There is none. The property is his, and he can let it, or not let it, as he wills. And, having this power to let or not let, he has power to demand any terms he pleases.

That Ireland is a conquered country; that centuries ago her soil was taken from its native possessors and parceled out among aliens, and that it has been confiscated again and again, has nothing to do with the real question of today – no more to do with it than have the confiscations of Marius and Sylla. England, too, is a conquered country; her soil has been confiscated again and again; and, spite of all talk about Saxon and Celt, it is not probable that, after the admixture of generations, the division of landholder and non-landholder any more coincides with distinction of race in the one country than in the other. That Irish land titles rest on force and fraud is true; but so do land titles in every country – even to a large extent in our own peacefully settled country. Even in our most recently settled States, how much land is there to which title has been got by fraud and perjury and bribery – by the arts of the lobbyist or the cunning tricks of hired lawyers, by double-barreled shotguns and repeating rifles?

The truth is that the Irish land system is simply the general system of modern civilization. In no essential feature does it differ from the system that obtains here – in what we are accustomed to consider the freest country under the sun. Entails and primogeniture and family settlements may be in themselves bad things, and may sometimes interfere with putting the land to its best use, but their effects upon the relations of landlord and tenant are not worth talking about. As for rack-rent, which is simply a rent fixed at short intervals by competition, that is in the United States even a more common way of letting land than in Ireland. In our cities the majority of our people live in houses rented from month to month or year to year for the highest price the landlord thinks he can get. The usual term, in the newer States, at least, for the letting of agricultural land is from season to season. And that the rent of land in the United States comes, on the whole, more closely to the standard of rack, or full competition rent, there can be, I think, little doubt. That the land of Ireland is, as the apologists for landlordism say, largely under-rented (that is, not rented for the full amount the landlord might get with free competition) is probably true. Miss C. G. O'Brien, in a recent article in the Nineteenth Century, states that the tenant-farmers generally get for such patches as they sub-let to their laborers twice the rent they pay the landlords. And we hear incidentally of many "good landlords," i.e., landlords not in the habit of pushing their tenants for as much as they might get by rigorously demanding all that any one would give.

These things, as well as the peculiar bitterness of complaints against middlemen and the speculators who have purchased encumbered estates and manage them solely with a view to profit, go to show the truth of the statement that the land of Ireland has been, by its present owners, largely underlet, when considered from what we would deem a business point of view. And this is but what might be expected. Human nature is about the same the world over, and the Irish Landlords as a class are no better nor worse than would be other men under like conditions. An aristocracy such as that of Ireland has its virtues as well as its vices, and is influenced by sentiments which do not enter into mere business transactions – sentiments which must often modify and soften the calculations of cold self-interest. But with us the letting of land is as much a business matter as the buying or selling of wheat or of stocks. An American would not think he was showing his goodness by renting his land for low rates, any more than he would think he was showing his goodness by selling wheat for less than the market price, or stocks for less than the quotations. So in those districts of France and Belgium where the land is most sub-divided, the peasant proprietors, says M. de Laveleye, boast to one another of the high rents they get, just as they boast of the high prices they get for pigs or for poultry.

The best measure of rent is, of course, its proportion to the produce. The only estimate of Irish rent as a proportion of which I know is that of Buckle, who puts it at one-fourth of the produce. In this country I am inclined to think one-fourth would generally be considered a moderate rent. Even in California there is considerable land rented for one-third the crop, and some that rents for one-half the crop; while, according to a writer in the Atlantic Monthly, the common rent in that great wheat-growing section of the New Northwest now being opened up is one-half the crop!

It does not seem to me that Justice Fitzgerald's statement can be disputed, though of course its developments are not yet as strikingly bad, for this is yet a new country, and tenants are comparatively few, and land comparatively easy to get. The American land system is really worse for the tenant than the Irish system. For with us there is neither sentiment nor custom to check the force of competition or mitigate the natural desire of the landlord to get all he can.

Nor is there anything in our system to prevent or check absenteeism, so much complained of in regard to Ireland. Before the modern era, which has so facilitated travel and communication, and made the great cities so attractive to those having money to spend, the prevalence of Irish absenteeism may have been due to special causes, but at the present day there is certainly nothing peculiar in it. Most of the large English and Scotch landholders are absentees for the greater part of the year, and many of them live permanently or for long intervals upon the Continent. So are our large American landowners generally absentees. In New York, in San Francisco, in Washington, Boston, Chicago, and St. Louis, live men who own large tracts of land which they seldom or never see. A resident of Rochester is said to own no less than four hundred farms in different States, one of which (I believe in Kentucky) comprises thirty-five thousand acres. Under the plantation system of farming and that of stock-raising on a grand scale, which are developing so rapidly in our new States, very much of the profits go to professional men and capitalists who live in distant cities. Corporations whose stock is held in the East or in Europe own much greater bodies of land, at much greater distances, than do the London corporations possessing landed estates in Ireland. To say nothing of the great land-grant railroad companies, the Standard Oil Company probably owns more acres of Western land than all the London companies put together own of Irish land. And, although landlordism in its grosser forms is only beginning in the United States, there is probably no American, wherever he may live, who cannot in his immediate vicinity see some instance of absentee landlordism. The tendency to concentration born of the new era ushered in by the application of steam shows itself in this way as in many others. To those who can live where they please, the great cities are becoming more and more attractive.

And it is further to be remarked that too much stress is laid upon absenteeism, and that it might be prevented without much of the evil often attributed to it being cured. That is to say, that to his tenantry and neighborhood the owner of land in Galway or Kilkenny would be as much an absentee if he lived in Dublin as if he lived in London, and that, if Irish landlords were compelled to live in Ireland, all that the Irish people would gain would be, metaphorically speaking, the crumbs that fell from the landlords' tables. For if the butter and eggs, the pigs and the poultry, of the Irish peasant must be taken from him and exported to pay for his landlord's wine and cigars, what difference does it make to him where the wine is drunk or the cigars are smoked?