Primogeniture, also known as entailment, is the tradition of inheritance, including money, land, and homes, being passed down to the eldest son of a family. Although this tradition is largely out of practice in the present day, it survived in many parts of the world for centuries.
Daughters and younger sons were neglected completely under primogeniture and were forced to rely on the generosity of the eldest son for subsistence. The system of primogeniture had a very severe affect on the career choices of younger sons. They were forced to choose one of two occupations that did not require a large personal fortune: clergy or soldier. Daughters that had been neglected under entailment also faced a daunting task; either marry well or depend upon their eldest brother for lifetime income.
The goals of entailment were to firmly imbed seniority into a social and economic hierarchy and to maintain the entirety of an estate. Rather than giving pieces of an estate to different family members, those operating under primogeniture were secure in the fact that their fortunes passed intact from one head of household to another. After a carefully selected marriage partner and the joining of family fortunes, a landowner’s wealth could become so expansive that his power, influence, and military support could very well threaten the government.
This practice of entailment originated with the Normans in England. The Normans introduced feudalism, in which a lord maintained his rents and military through vassals, or subordinates. Through feudalism, a lord was only as strong as the completeness of his holdings.
If a lord's vassals were allowed to distribute land equally among sons, for example, the structure of feudalism and the strength of the lord, in wealth and military support, would fail. Therefore, the system of primogeniture, in which vassals could only pass an estate to an eldest son, kept the feudal lord’s kingdom from becoming unmanageable. By 1662, feudal tenures such as these were abolished in England and it was lawful for landowners to pass wealth and land on to separate family members.
Primogeniture did make an appearance in the New World and many of the original colonies practiced some form of this custom. However, in many cases American colonists relied more heavily on what was termed “partible descent” in which the estate was divided equally, with a double portion set aside for the eldest son. By the time of the American Revolution, primogeniture had largely fallen out of practice and by 1798 it was abolished throughout the United States.