Thomas Robert Malthus lived through the last third of the Enlightenment and witnessed the stirring events of the French Revolution and the subsequent convulsions of the Napoleonic era. The progression of the French Revolution from modest, Enlightenment-based liberalism through radicalism to a violent reaction against the early liberalism no doubt affected Malthus, who came from a liberal family. The global conflicts of the Napoleonic era also led to the centralization of power in national governments, which meant that statistical information was collected on a much wider scale than before. The national censuses instituted in 1790 in the United States and in 1801 in Britain provided the numerical data on which mathematical models of society could be based. Malthus also benefited from the contemporary developments in mathematics, which in turn drew on new understanding in the field of astronomy, leading to the creation of mathematical models of the universe. Malthus was one of the first of a long line of thinkers of the nineteenth century to attempt to apply mathematical models to society.
The origin of An Essay on the Principle of Population is said to have been an argument Malthus had with his father over the view advanced by reforming Englishman William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet, among others, on the perfectibility of humankind. Malthus argued that the pressure of population on the means of subsistence ensures that the bulk of the population will live at a low level. If by chance the lot of an ordinary worker improved, he would immediately rush into marriage and bring into being numerous children whom he would be unable to support. He would then sink back into a marginal existence.
Malthus, reflecting his status as a clergyman, laid stress on the obligation that God imposed on every man to support his children. He further accepted the biblical urging to every person to multiply and be fruitful. Combining these two mandates of God meant that the prudent man would postpone marriage until he could clearly see how he could support his children. However, the poor had no sense of prudence; they married early and had abundant children, whom they were then unable to support, forcing them to rely on society through the “poor laws,” the welfare system of the England of that time. The recent sharp increase in the “poor rates,” the taxes levied on property owners specifically for the support of the poor, was, to Malthus, a clear demonstration of the operation of the principle of population.
In the first edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus devotes many pages to refuting the ideas of Godwin and other Enlightenment thinkers on the perfectibility of humankind. In later editions, however, he eliminated these sections and replaced them with an exhaustive survey of the world’s population, region by region, based on population data such as that collected in the 1801 and subsequent censuses in Britain. He also drew on information he had collected on two trips to Europe, in 1799 and 1802. He frequently drew comparisons with China, which he felt clearly exemplified the operation of the principle of population. However, a major benchmark was the data on population in the United States, enumerated in the 1790 and subsequent censuses. The average growth of the population of the United States indicated that, where no shortage of farmland existed, the population would double in twenty-five years; indeed, in some frontier communities, as quickly as every fifteen years. The first census in Britain, in 1801, caused him to revise some of the figures quoted in the first edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population , in which he had estimated the population of Great Britain as seven million. The census of 1801 revealed that, on the...
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