Properties of Blood I.8: Spouses and Heirs, Part D

Jefferson, in rejecting primogeniture, may have been influenced by John Locke’s First Treatise on Civil Government.  Locke’s primary purposes in the treatises were first, to refute Sir Robert Filmer’s argument that royal authority was patriarchal and could be traced back to Adam’s authority over his wife and children, and second, to advance his own theory that government was not a natural or divine institution but something invented by man, in a state of nature, for his own use.  Since the principle of primogeniture was the basis of most European monarchies, Locke was naturally eager to oppose it, but he went further, arguing that a possessor might do anything he liked with his property, including destroy it.

Paradoxically, Locke also insists that all the children have a “right” to inherit an equal share of their father’s property, though it is an empty right if the father has, before his death, burned his house, sold the land, and squandered the money on women and gambling.  Absurd or not, Locke’s elevation of the acquisitive individual to a moral plateau above family and tradition was to echo throughout the liberal tradition, drowning out the old arguments of blood.  Conservatives who take their stand on classical liberal grounds are apparently unaware that they are supporting the first phase of the revolution they think they are opposing.

Even in modern America law, where inheritances are for the most part determined by the passing mood of the testator, the property of a man dying intestate is awarded, in most states, to next-of-kin according to a fixed order and formula that varies from state to state.  In Wisconsin, the formula goes in the order of surviving spouse, then down the ladder his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren etc., then  to  parents, siblings, and, nieces and nephews, and so on.  In some states, a surviving spouse splits the estate with surviving descendants.  Far from making a family more dependent on government, such a law reinforces the traditional relationship between blood and property.  Laws of intestate succession can fairly be said to represent a legal consensus that acknowledges the propriety of traditional patterns of inheritance.

When the bulk of an estate consists of lands and property inherited from previous generations, it is easier to see the current possessor as only one link in a long chain, but in modern societies a father’s wealth depends very largely on his own efforts.  Should he not be able to dispose of the fruits of his labor as he sees fit?  To some extent, yes, but this line of reasoning ignores two facts: The first and perhaps less significant fact is that most prosperous people are indebted to parents and perhaps grandparents for their lives, education, and the moral outlook that made success possible.  My parents were not wealthy people, but they worked hard, provided a decent home, encouraged disciplined habits and serious reading, and sent me off to college.  They also left me a modest stake of money that came in very handy when I was an impoverished young writer.  I cannot repay them for all this, but I can discharge some of my obligation by passing what little wealth I have onto their grandchildren.

There is also the biological fact, perhaps of greater significance, that I am genetically the sum of my parent’s contribution to my being, just as my children are the sum of  the genetic contribution made by my wife and me.  Liberals who persist in believing that there is an unbridgeable chasm between the realm of biological facts and moral values will not accept this argument, but the minds of such people are impervious to reality.

Wealthy Americans like J. Howard Marshall appear to feel no shame in disinheriting their children or in leaving a large part of their estates to women a third their age (the case of “Anna  Nicole Smith”).  In earlier times, such an act was viewed as despotic and a sign of a mental and social disorder.  In Greek legend and literature the most famous case is that of Orestes.  After Clytemnestra and her lover murdered his father Agamemnon, they drove the dispossessed Orestes into exile.  He could only reclaim his estate and position as king by murdering the guilty pair, an act that drove him mad.  The disinheriting of Orestes is only one vile act in a multi-generational sequence of crimes, but it is a sign that something is rotten in the state of Argos/Mycenae, just as there was something rotten in the state of Denmark, when young Hamlet is not permitted to succeed to his father’s throne.

Several of Shakespeare’s greatest plays turn on the disinheritance of the proper heir:  Macbeth not only kills King Duncan but usurps the place of Duncan’s son and heir, Malcolm, who at the end of the play succeeds to the throne;  Lear capriciously demands his daughters to display sycophantic affection, and when his one loyal daughter respectfully declines to flatter the old fool, he disinherits her with disastrous consequences to himself and his realm.  Lear ignored the admonition of Ecclesiasticus (33:19-23]:  To son or wife, to brother or friend, do not “give power over yourself, as long as you live; and do not give your property to another, lest you change your mind and must ask for it.  At the time when you end the days of your life, in the hours of death, distribute your inheritance.”  Lear wished to live in ease and comfort, but he had failed to bring up two of his daughters to know their responsibilities to the man from whom they inherited wealth and power.

Christian Kinship

Some Christians might respond to the arguments I have been making by citing a predictable collection of proof-texts chosen to show Jesus' hostility to family and kinship.  The most alarming statement occurs in all the synoptic Gospels:

If any come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple [Luke 14:26]

If Jesus really were rejecting the bonds of family and kinship, he would not have needed to add, "yea, and his own life also," which rather makes it clear that He is asking us not to neglect our families but to make a radical choice between the most important things of this world, no matter dearly we love them, and the heavenly kingdom.  A Christian's highest priority cannot be his own life, with all its affections and duties, but his loyalty and obedience to God.  If he is willing to lose his life, he must also be willing to lose his family.  However, short of martyrdom, he must fulfill every jot and tittle of the law, which prescribed "Honour thy father and thy mother."

The Law that Christ came to fulfill was rooted in the duties of kinship.  In the Old Testament, the system of descent is patrilineal.  A mother's family is thus not kin to her child.  There appears, secondarily, to be some preference for endogamy, that is, for marriage within the tribe or kindred.  This practice is reflected in the commandment concerning the daughters of Zelophehad [Numbers 36:6]: “Let them marry whom they think best; only, they shall marry within the family of the tribe of their father.”

That this practice was seen as desirable by the Hebrews can be seen in Judges 14:3, where Samson’s parents lament the fact that their son wants to marry a Philistine woman: “Is there not a woman among the daughters of your kinsmen, or among all our people, that you must go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?”  This text shows certain levels of endogamy preference.  Ideally, Samson’s spouse would be a woman from his kinsmen (i.e. his patrilineage); if he did not want to marry one of them, his parents would have preferred any Hebrew woman, rather than for their son to marry a foreigner.  Another text that may be taken as confirming the Hebrew preference for endogamous marriage is Judges 12:9, which specifically mentions that Ibzan gave his children away in marriage "outside," presumably to another tribe of Israel, though a union with foreigners would not be impossible.  This passage occurs in the section of Judges that details the rapid moral decline of the Israelites after entering Canaan. There would seem to be no reason for this detail to be mentioned here unless the author was trying to use it to illustrate moral decline.

If we knew more about Jewish kinship and social life during the Roman period, we might have a better idea of what structures of family and kinship were taken for granted in the age of the Apostles.  We do know that Paul is able to cite his own tribal affiliation and that Jesus, who grew up in Nazareth, probably picked eleven out of 12 disciples from his own small region of Galilee over 1000 square miles--roughly  the size of two midwestern counties.  Jesus’ followers treated each other as kinfolk.  Until the mission at Antioch developed under the divided leadership of Peter and Paul, they had no other names for each other but “brother” and “friend.”  Paul, in instructing Christians to be especially careful do good to other Christians, refers to them as “members of the household of the faith.”  [Gal. 6:10].  This is no mere metaphor, and the Greek word oikeios, while it means pertaining to or belonging to the household, also connotes kinship and friendship.  It is a more intense word than the Latin domesticus or any English phrase used to translate it.  When something (or someone) is oikeios to you, it or he is part of you.  Among Stoic philosophers, there was an explanation of moral development called oikeiosis, the process by which first parents, then friends and neighbors, fellow-citizens, and eventually all mankind become your own.  The Church, then, functions as a broadly extended network of kinship in which the members discharge the duties of love and friendship to each other.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. Allen Wilson says:

    Having fallen behind by about a year in all my reading, during the last week or so I finally got round to reading every installment of this series from the first to the current one. It really does seem to break new ground.

    Being unable to make any helpful comments, I can supply a couple anecdotes which may be of interest, or not.

    The first one concerns a co-worker who went to a cookout hosted by another, female co-worker who was divorced and engaged. He was disgusted when, in front of the woman and her mother, the woman’s fiancee told her children, “When me and your mamma get married, your dad won’t be your dad anymore, I’ll be your dad.”

    The other concerns my great-great-great grandmother’s youngest child. My great-great-great grandfather died in the war, and my great-great-great grandmother couldn’t support all of their kids. She had to give up their youngest one, an infant girl, to his friend, former law partner, and comrade in arms, who was also married to great-great-great grandfather’s second cousin. He and his wife raised the child with their own daughters. In her adult life, she did quite well, married well, and always referred to her third cousins as her “sisters”, which of course makes perfect sense. Her husband was of German parentage and inherited an estate in Pomerania which, upon his death, was inherited by a son who, so I have heard, moved there and lived on the estate. Since his father died in 1911, it would be interesting to find out what became of him and his descendants and heirs, and their estate, which may or may not have wound up on the German side of the post-’45 Polish border.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    Dr. Fleming writes : “Jesus, who grew up in Nazareth, probably picked eleven out of 12 disciples from his own small region of Galilee over 1000 square miles.” Yes, the one who betrayed him and hung himself in despair, was from the outside. The one who betrayed Him, then out of shame repented, who requested to be crucified upside down was a fellow Galilean.