Godwin’s Enquiry provoked into print a book far more famous than his own. The process was aided by the unusual reaction of a son against his father’s liberal philosophy.

Daniel Malthus (died 1800) was an amiable eccentric, a personal friend of David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He shared the skepticism of the Scot and the pessimism of the Swiss about civilization. He attended personally to his son’s pre-college education, and trusted that Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) would be a law-abiding radical like himself and Godwin. Thomas went through Cambridge, and entered the Anglican ministry in 1797. When Godwin’s book appeared (1793), father and son had many fond debates over its contents. Thomas did not share his father’s enthusiasm about it. This utopian fancy of triumphant reason, he felt, would be repeatedly stultified by the simple fact, so pithily declared in the Book of Ecclesiastes, that when the supply of food rises its beneficence is soon annulled by an increase in population. As the fertility of the earth is limited, and there is no bound to the sexual mania of men, the multiplication of mouths—through earlier marriage, reckless reproduction, lowered infantile and senile mortality—must soon consume the augmented food. The father did not accept this conclusion, but he admired the force with which it had been argued, and he asked his son to write out his views. Thomas did, and the result was published in 1798 as An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society.

It began with a disarming apology to the two writers whose optimism it challenged:

I cannot doubt the talents of such men as Godwin and Condorcet…. I have read some of their speculations, on the perfectibility of men and society, with great pleasure. I have been warmed and delighted with the enchanting picture which they hold forth. I ardently wish for such happy improvements. But I see great and, to my understanding, unconquerable difficulties in the way to them. These difficulties it is my present purpose to state; declaring, at the same time that so far from exulting in them as a cause of triumph over the friends of innovation, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see them completely removed.33

Malthus tried to put his argument in mathematical form. Allowing that the food supply may increase arithmetically every twenty-five years (from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 to 5 to 6, etc.), the population, if unchecked—and allowing four surviving children to every couple—would increase geometrically every twenty-five years (from 1 to 2 to 4 to 8 to 16 to 32 …). At this rate “in two centuries the population would be to the means of subsistence as 25 to 9; in three centuries it would be 4,096 to 13; and in 2,000 years the difference would be incalculable.”34 The reason why population has not risen so rapidly is that it was limited both by negative and by positive checks on reproduction. The negative checks were preventive: the deferment of marriage by poverty or other causes; “vice” (by which Malthus meant extramarital sex), “unnatural passions” (homosexuality, sodomy, etc.), and the various means of contraception in or outside of marriage. When these negative factors failed to keep population in balance with the food supply, nature and history provided positive checks operating upon individuals already existing: infanticide, disease, famine, and war, painfully balancing births with deaths.

From this somber analysis Malthus drew surprising conclusions. First, there is no use raising the wages of workingmen, for if wages are increased the workers will marry earlier and will have more children; the population will grow; the mouths will increase faster than the food, and poverty will be restored. Likewise it is useless to raise the “poor rates” (taxes for the care of the unemployed); this will be an incentive to idleness and larger families; mouths will again multiply faster than goods; the competition among buyers will allow sellers to raise the prices of their diminishing stocks; and soon the poor will be as poor as before.35

To complete his demolition of Godwin, Malthus went on to consider the “dream” of philosophical anarchism. If government were to disappear, “every man would be obliged to guard with force his little store,” as we bar our doors and windows when law and order fail. “Selfishness would be triumphant…, contention perpetual.”36 With all restraints removed from mating and coitus, reproduction would advance faster than production, overpopulation would reduce each individual’s allotment of goods, and utopia would collapse in desperate competition, price and wage spirals, inevitable chaos, spreading misery.37 Government would have to be restored; private property would have to be protected to encourage production and investment; private violence would have to be suppressed by public force. History would return to its traditional formula: the products of nature divided by the nature of man.

In a revised and much extended form of the Essay, Malthus laid down, more clearly and harshly than before, the preventive remedies that might render unnecessary the catastrophic cures used by nature and history. He proposed a halt to poor relief, and a check on interference with free enterprise; the law of supply and demand should be left to operate in the relations of producers and consumers, employers and employees. Early marriage must be discouraged to keep the birth rate down. “Our obligation” is “not to marry till we have a fair prospect of being able to support our children.”38 Above all, men must learn moral restraint before and after marriage. “The interval between the age of puberty and… marriage must… be passed in strict chastity.”39 Within marriage there must be no contraception in any way or form. If these or equivalent regulations are not observed we must resign ourselves to periodical reductions of overpopulation by famine, pestilence, or war.

The Essay on Population was received as a divine revelation by the conservative elements of the British people. Parliament and the employers felt warranted in resistance to the demands of liberals like Robert Owen for legal mitigations of the “laws” of supply and demand. William Pitt withdrew the bill he had introduced for extending poor relief.40 The measures already taken by the government against British radicals seemed justified by Malthus’ contention that these peddlers of utopia were seducing simple souls to tragic delusions. British manufacturers were strengthened in their belief that low wages made for disciplined labor and obedience. Ricardo made the Malthusian theory the foundation of his “dismal science.” (It was after reading Malthus that Carlyle gave that name to economics.) Now nearly all the evil incident to the Industrial Revolution could be ascribed to the reckless fertility of the poor.

The liberals were at first thrown into dismay and disarray by Malthus’ Essay. Godwin took twenty years to draw up his answer, and then his book Of Population, an Answer to Malthus (1820) was mostly a reiteration of his hopes, and a complaint that Malthus had converted the friends of progress into reactionaries by the hundred.41 William Hazlitt was an exception: in an essay on Malthus in The Spirit of the Age (1824), he attacked the merciless divine with all the sharp edge of his intellect. The fertility of plants, he thought, could be relied upon to outrun the fertility of women. “A grain of corn will multiply and propagate itself much faster even than the human species. A bushel of wheat will sow a field; that field will furnish seed for 20 others.”42 There will be “green revolutions.”

Later writers brought up an array of facts to calm Malthusian fears. In Europe, in China, in India, population has more than doubled after Malthus; yet their people are better fed than before. In the United States the population has doubled several times since 1800; nevertheless, despite an ever lower percentage of the people required for it, agriculture produces more adequately than ever before, and has an immense surplus for export. Contrary to Malthus, the rise in wages has brought not an increase but a lowering of the birth rate. The problem is no longer a deficiency of seeds or fields but a shortage in the supply of nonhuman energy to operate the mechanisms of agriculture and industry, of villages and towns.

Of course the real answer to Malthus has been contraception—its moral acceptance, its wider dissemination, its greater efficacy, its lower cost. The general secularization of thought broke down the theological barriers to birth control. The Industrial Revolution transformed children from the economic assets they had been on the farm to the economic handicaps they became in cities as child labor slowly diminished, as education became expensive, as urban crowding rose. Intelligence spread: men and women realized that changed conditions no longer required large families. Even war now demanded technical inventiveness for competition in material destruction rather than masses of young men deployed in competitive homicide.

So the answer to Malthus came not from Godwin’s theories but from the “Neo-Malthusians” and their propaganda for birth control. In 1822 Francis Place published Illustrations and Proofs of the Principle of Population. He accepted Malthus’ principle that population tends to increase faster than the food supply. Restraint, he agreed, is necessary, but not by postponing marriage; better would be the acceptance of contraception as a legitimate and relatively moral substitute for nature’s blind fertility and war’s wholesale destruction. (He himself had fifteen children, of whom five died in childhood.) He scattered through London handbills printed at his own expense, advocating birth control; and he continued his campaign till his death at the age of eighty-three (1854).

Malthus lived long enough to feel the force of Place’s arguments. In 1824 he contributed to the Encyclopaedia Britannica an article revising his theory, withdrawing his frightening mathematical ratios, and laying new stress upon overpopulation as a factor in the struggle for existence. Many years later Charles Darwin wrote in his Autobiography:

In October, 1838, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population; and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence… from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of a new species. Here then I had at last got hold of a theory by which to work.

So, after almost a generation of further research and thought, Darwin published (1859) The Origin of Species, the most influential book of the nineteenth century. The Chain of Ideas adorns the “Great Chain of Being,” and underlies the history of civilization.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!