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T.R. Malthus: The Unpublished Papers in the Collection of Kanto Gakuen University

Author(s):Pulle, J. M.
Parry, Trevor Hughes
Reviewer(s):Hollander, Samuel

Published by EH.NET (March 2004)


J. M. Pullen and Trevor Hughes Parry, editors, T.R. Malthus: The Unpublished Papers in the Collection of Kanto Gakuen University. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Volume I, 1997. xxiv + 140 pp. $70/?45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-58138-9; Volume II, 2004. xviii + 341 pp. $100/?60 (cloth), 0-521-58871-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Samuel Hollander, Department of Economics, Ben-Gurion University.

Patricia James, Malthus’s biographer, who lived with her subject for fifteen years, found him “as interesting and lovable as his friends described him.” After only ten years of work on his economics I came away with the same impression of intellectual honesty and courage, and personal appeal belying all the old saws relating to his hardheartedness. This portrait is readily confirmed in the two-volume set of hitherto unpublished Malthus papers under review. The first volume contains 75 letters (presumed to have been lost) to and from Malthus, some of which have been cited by his biographers, contemporary and modern; the second comprises hitherto unknown materials by Malthus: four sermons, his diary of a tour of the Lake District in 1795, a document on the calculation of profits on bullion trade transactions, a draft essay on foreign trade of 1811, lecture notes on British and early European history and a series of brief items on miscellaneous economic topics. There are materials relating to Malthus’s wife Harriet, an appendix listing documents in the collection but not reproduced, and another containing “letters” to David Ricardo the authorship and dating of which is unclear. The second volume closes with a description of the Kanto Gakuen Catalogue.

All in all, while the materials in these volumes may not engender a fully-fledged revision of opinion regarding Malthus, their subject certainly emerges in sharper focus and, in some cases, from an unfamiliar perspective. The University and the editors are to be applauded for their achievement in saving the collection for posterity and providing so splendid an accompaniment. And if some of the correspondence will be found familiar, this is in no small part due to the earlier published researches by Professor Pullen himself. In any event, full appreciation of these volumes requires detailed knowledge of the background issues, and the editorial apparatus and commentary succeed brilliantly in providing access to the historical (including linguistic) context and relevant literature, making the work a joy to read.

The first volume includes seventeen letters relating to Malthus’s schooldays (1779-84) of which nine are to and four from his father Daniel; and twenty-five relating to his Cambridge University years (1784-93) of which thirteen are by Malthus and twelve by Daniel. Here father and son emerge as a delightful partnership, their relationship one of mutual consideration, affection and much good humor, both parties at once serious and fun-loving. The exchanges reveal only a few instances of tension, one reflecting Daniel’s nervousness regarding his financial difficulties and concern that Malthus may have been living at college too extravagantly, a concern the latter convinced him finally was unjustified; and another his wish that Robert apply himself to practical applications as a balance to his formal “speculative” studies, a difference that turned on a misunderstanding. On the whole, Daniel gave his son much sound advice; and Malthus fully merited his father’s confidence.

It remains unclear why Robert was sent to a Nonconformist school — though a non-conformist, Daniel was not a Nonconformist — and, when it closed down, to study with Gilbert Wakefield, a progressive teacher (subsequently found guilty of treason and jailed). Presumably Daniel found the curriculum more “progressive” than at Church of England schools. As for Malthus himself, the correspondence relating to his University years seems to point (at least to begin with) to other leanings than the Church: “If you will give me leave to proceed in my own plan of reading for the next two years (I speak with submission to your judgement) I promise you at the expiration of that time to be a decent natural philosopher, & not only to know a few principles, but to be able to apply those principles in a variety of useful problems” (11 February 1786; 42). The exchanges with his father turn on matters as diverse as the accuracy of thermometers, ice-skating and the theater but not theology. One letter (15 April 1784), however, does provide an early indication of his intention to seek ordination: “… before I went into orders, I should have liked to take a degree either at Oxford or Cambridge” (23); nonetheless, in response to his father’s observation (19 December 1785) regarding the desirability of applied science — “I desir’d to see you a surveyor, a mechanick, a navigator, a financier, a natural philosopher, an astronomer, & [not] a meer speculative algebraist” (36) — Robert simply pointed out that “a knowledge of [such] kind would be difficult to obtain before I took my degree …” (41), making no reference to alternative plans in the Church. And there is a letter from Daniel commenting on Robert’s expression of his “love of letters”: “I have no doubt that you will be able to procure any distinction from them you please — I am far from repressing your ambition …” (June 16, 1787; 51). That even at this time Malthus did not intend the Church as primary profession, is perhaps suggested by his response to advice received from the master of Jesus College regarding his prospects: “He seem’d at first rather to advise against orders upon the idea that the defect in my speech would be an obstacle to my rising in the Church, & he thought it a pity that a young man of some abilities should enter into a profession without, at least, some hope of being at the top of it. When however I afterwards told him that the utmost of [my] wishes was a retired living in the country, he said he did not imagine that my speech would be much objection in that case …” (19 April 1786; 47).

The correspondence reveals that Daniel was supportive of his son’s decision to seek ordination, for despite his own financial difficulties he offered to make up any shortfall from the stipendiary curacy at Okewood Chapel which he helped Robert secure in the first place (20 March 1789; 55); at the same time, his own “unorthodoxy” is apparent in a letter — one of six in a section on “later family correspondence” (1796-9) — in which he encourages Robert’s efforts to publish the (now non-extant) pamphlet “The Crisis,” even though success might harm his longer-term prospects in the Church (14 April 1796; 63).

The sermons published in Volume II reveal the seriousness of Malthus’s early commitment to his clerical duties. That of 7 June 1789 may be the first Malthus delivered as ordained deacon licensed to the curacy of Okewood Chapel; the second was read shortly thereafter. Equally important, as the editors point out, it can scarcely be said — as some have said — that Malthus’s commitment waned with the passage of time, since the third sermon was given at the East India College as late as 1832. Study of these sermons will doubtless fuel the on-going debate regarding the decision to remove the two theological chapters of the 1798 Essay from later editions, since their interpretation is by no means plain sailing.

I return to Volume I and a section containing fifteen letters involving “Themes from the Essay on Population,” all but one to Malthus. One written by Edward Daniel Clarke, fellow of Jesus College and traveling companion of Malthus, describes some characteristic objections to the two theological chapters, and here we find reference to a meeting between Malthus and William Godwin regarding the efficacy of “prudence” (20 August 1798; 73-7). A second, of 1806, by the physician Thomas Beddoes makes the important point that longevity and healthiness are not to be identified as Malthus sometimes implied in the Essay (78-9). One by Samuel Whitbread dated 5 April 1807 explains convincingly why the empowerment of parishes to build cottages, as envisaged in his Poor Law bill, should not raise Malthus’s concern since it would provide shelter for the existing population rather than encourage population growth (80-5). The section also involves seven letters dated 1822 by the mathematician Bewick Bridge regarding various demographic calculations. A letter dated 1821 by Pierre Pr?vost, French translator of the Essay, contains an unflattering remark regarding J.B. Say’s “sarcasms” (92). The sole letter by Malthus is to Wilmot-Horton on emigration (c. 15 February 1830), and will be of interest for those who see Malthus as increasingly optimistic regarding the operation of prudential control. While he points to the likelihood that the effect of contraction of labor supply in improving wages would be short-lived, we also find important qualifications: “It is a very just and philosophical observation … that when a population passes rapidly from a very depressed to a much better state, it is to be apprehended that the power of custom will ‘not give way immediately to the influence of an emproved condition and that the moral change will not be accomplished so quickly as the physical one.’ This would not however weigh with me against a plan of emigration in certain circumstances of a country; but surely the contemplation of the probability of it cannot be called unphilosophical if the conclusions of philosophy are to rest as they ought to do upon large experience” (103-4).

A series of nine items of miscellaneous correspondence bring the first volume to a close. One to Francis Horner dated 5 February 1810 is of high significance since it opines that even should the Bank of England not be responsible for the low sterling exchange rate, “the remedy … can be no other than a diminution of the issues of Bank paper” (110), which is, of course, Ricardo’s view. (In his “Pamphlets on the Bullion Question” of 1811, Malthus accepted that the empirical evidence did inculpate the Bank.) There is further confirmation of his conservative monetary policy, consistent with later published work, in the concern expressed with the discretionary scope allowed the Bank under inconvertability, and — while recognizing the deflationary dangers of note contraction — insistence on (gradual) contraction (111).

Other letters in the miscellaneous category include one on the Corn Laws from Francis Jeffrey of 12 May 1814 when Malthus was still known as a free trader (118); and one by Karl Heinrich Rau (15 June 1821) which intimates that he shared Malthus’s position against Say, though strangely proceeding: “I have felt it necessary to contest the possibility of a general Glut of Commodities” (127). He also seems to have read Malthus as favoring government “interference” but is not more specific; conceivably he intended Malthus’s case for public works. Two letters by Malthus (one dating to 1825 or later, the other to 1828 or later) relate to the Measure of Value. Here he spells out what he took to be the major difference with Ricardo — the “grand distinction” — that relative values reflect not only relative labor input but changes in the profit rate assuming differential organic corpositions (to use Marx’s terminology) (130). This scarcely seems a convincing reading of Ricardo, but at least there is confirmation that the measure is designed to mark “variations in the relative values of commodities with reference to the conditions of their supply …” (134). Here too we encounter Malthus’s adherence to the “proportionality theorem,” though with the qualification that “[a] rise of proportional wages is not the primary cause of low profits … but the consequence” (136). By this Malthus seeks to emphasize the secular fall in the profit rate due to “increased abundance of capital and consequent increase of the supply of commodities compared with the producers & consumers”; it need not be read as a general rejection of the Ricardian causal sequence which in fact is spelled out with eminent clarity in his Measure of Value (1823) and in the Quarterly Review (1824).

Two items in the second volume will be of particular interest to historians of economic thought. First, the analysis of bullion trade transactions which illuminates the Ricardo-Malthus exchanges of 1813 on the profitability of gold movements between London and Amsterdam; here the editors surpass themselves in their splendid commentary designed to make sense of, and bring order to, the notes. And the essay on foreign trade, a draft paper of 1811 elaborating aspects of Malthus’s position in the formal and informal “bullionist” controversy with Ricardo.

Samuel Hollander is Professor of Economics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel. He is author of The Economics of Thomas Robert Malthus (1997) and Jean-Baptiste Say and the Classical Canon in Economics (Routledge 2005), and is completing his studies on the economics of Karl Marx.


Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century