From Firstborns to Equal Shares: Inheritance, Land, and Ecology in Revolutionary France

Inheritance is often seen as a private matter, a question of how wealth and property are passed down through generations within one family. However, inheritance laws can have far-reaching consequences that extend beyond the family unit, shaping not only society and economy but also the environment.

This truth was recognized as early as the French Revolution. Following the abolition of the old system of primogeniture in 1790, which favored the eldest son in the division of property, French legislators found themselves grappling with the question of how to distribute inherited property. Jacques Antoine Marie de Cazalès (1758-1805), a conservative deputy from southern France, incisively pointed to the ecological significance of inheritance. The division of land to future generations, he argued, should be examined not just in terms of fairness and equality among siblings, but in relation to the agricultural potential of the land itself. The benefits and drawbacks of different inheritance customs, Cazalès pointed out, depended on “the quality of the land and the nature of the produce being cultivated.”[1] Central to the debate over property division were questions about the agricultural implications of different inheritance practices, the influence of geography, and the possible ecological effects of modifying estate partition practices.

Jacques-Louis David, Serment du Jeu de paume, le 20 juin 1789, after 1791, Carnavalet Museum, Paris. Image taken from Wikipedia Commons.
[Image description: The picture depicts the scene of the Tennis Court Oath: A large crowd of men gathers in a dramatically lit court, gesturing towards an illuminated central scene, where a man delivers an impassioned speech, capturing a moment of great excitement and upheaval.]

During the tumultuous years of the French Revolution, the ideal way to distribute family property was envisioned differently, yet environmental considerations remained a consistent concern. In its early stages, the revolutionary assembly reformed inheritance laws to ensure greater equality among siblings regardless of gender. This egalitarian ethos reached its peak with the law of 17 Nivôse, Year II (January 6, 1794), which mandated equal distribution of a deceased parent’s estate among all children, regardless of gender and regardless of the existence of a will.[2] During this fervent political climate, some revolutionaries, like Abbé Antoine de Cournand (1742-1814), even proposed a radical redistribution program, in which every citizen would receive an equal share of land for cultivation, with natural resources held in common. Cournand believed that egalitarian distribution of property would benefit both the population and the French lands, arguing that by teaching all citizens the necessary skills for agricultural and economic sustainability, “we would finally have a race of humans that nature would not disavow.”[3] While Cournand explicitly referred to men and women in his utopian vision, he did not mention the colonies or enslaved people. As a fervent supporter of the abolishment of slavery, however, he likely envisioned French citizenship to include everyone, regardless of race, class, or gender.

Yet, as the Revolution progressed and political winds shifted, opposing views gained traction. After the fall of Robespierre, the new government sought to establish a more conservative Republic, focused on the sanctity of property rights and less on equality. Interestingly, just as today’s environmental crisis is often mobilized by different political ideologies to serve contradictory purposes, experts and legislators in post-Terror France began to cite environmental reasons to justify a return to primogeniture and unequal inheritance.

This conservative turn in environmental discourse is particularly evident in local administrative reports from this period. Prefects surveying the lands and mapping regional customs now argued that in some French territories, patriarchal households with strict patrilineal succession were a natural evolution. Patrilineal succession, they suggested, prevented impoverishment resulting from the division of scarce fertile lands.[4] François-Emmanuel Fodéré, a physician who wrote a statistical report on the Alpes-Maritimes region in southeastern France, was one of many such voices. He claimed that primogeniture was a necessity in non-fertile areas and that the fragmentation of lands would drive future generations to destitution.[5] Adopting an anthropological explanation, Fodéré suggested that Indigenous peoples in mountainous regions all across the world adapted their familial structures to the land, sacrificing the happiness of some children for the endurance of the estate. Fodéré was not alone in his views. Many other bureaucrats advanced similar arguments under the Directory and Consulate. A statistical report compiled for the Prefect of Orne, for instance, expressed disappointment with the new laws of equal succession. Despite the advantageous suppression of feudal rights, the report argued, land division produced “a real evil,” leading to a decline in farm animals, loss of manure, and a rise in damaged crops.[6]

Pierre de Belleyme, Carte de la France, 1791, National Library of France.
[Image description: A map of France drawn during the French Revolution, depicting the country’s division into the newly established 88 administrative departments.]

Ultimately, the Napoleonic Code of 1804, which codified civil laws related to property, family, and personal rights, brought an end to the upheaval over inheritance debates. It codified egalitarian principles while providing individuals some flexibility in how they chose to divide their estate. Consequently, some families opted to continue their regional traditions of unequal distribution of lands among their offspring. This illustrates how from the perspective of farmers and cultivators, inheritance was not merely about the children’s welfare but also about the land’s capacity to sustain them.

In today’s economy, where wealth is often held in liquid assets rather than in land, it might seem as if inheritance decisions are separate from environmental considerations. But the historical debates of the French Revolution serve as a powerful reminder that the way we transfer property across generations can have significant ecological consequences as well as social and political consequences.

As we confront the challenges of our time, from climate change to environmental degradation, it is essential to recognize how inheritance practices have the ability to influence not only the lives of individuals, families, and societies, but also the well-being and resilience of the ecosystems we all depend on. By examining the ecological dimensions of inheritance and its multi-layered paradoxes, as the debates among French revolutionaries so clearly exemplify, we can work towards building a more sustainable and equitable future for generations to come.

[1] Archives parlementaires, edited by J. Mavidal and E. Laurent et al. (Paris: Dupont et al., 1867-2000) vol. 26, from March 10, 1791 to April 12, 1791, 573.

[2] Suzanne Desan, The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

[3] Abbé Antoine de Cournand, De la propriété ou la cause du pauvre, plaidée au Tribunal de la Raison, de la Justice, et de la Vérité (Paris: 1791), 21.

[4] For more on prefects and inheritance evaluation during the Directory and the Consulate, see: Netta Green, “Longing for the Beheaded Father: Inheritance and Departmental Statistics under the Directory and the Consulate, 1795–1804,” French Historical Studies 47 (2024): 71-102.

[5] F.E. Fodéré, Statistique du département des Alpes-Maritimes (1803).

[6] Lycée Alençon, Description abrégée du département de L’Orne rédigée par le lycée d’Alençon sur la demande de Lamagdeleine (Paris: Imprimerie des sourds-muets, 1800), 13-15.

Cover Image: Jean Baptiste Greuze, “La Piété filiale ou le Paralytique secouru par ses enfants” (Filial Piety, The Paralytic), 1725-1805, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersbourg. Image taken from Wikipedia Commons.
*Cover Image description: A sick elderly man surrounded by his family, children, and grandchildren, who are comforting him before he meets his death.

Edited by Genie Yoo; reviewed by Katherine Cheung.

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