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The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Rereading the Principle of Population

Author(s):Bashford, Alison
Chaplin, Joyce E.
Reviewer(s):Hammond, J. Daniel

Published by EH.Net (July 2017)

Alison Bashford and Joyce E. Chaplin, The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Rereading the Principle of Population. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. vii + 353 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-16419-9.

Reviewed for EH.Net by J. Daniel Hammond, Department of Economics, Wake Forest University.

Alison Bashford and Joyce E. Chaplin have written a richly sourced and finely detailed account of the writing, reading, and interpretation of Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population. Their focus is on the 1798 first edition of the Essay and the enlarged 1803 second edition. Bashford (University of Cambridge) and Chaplin (Harvard University) have distinguished records of scholarship in areas related to this project, including history of science, humans’ encounters with nature in early American history, demographic and environmental history, and history of eugenics. Their aim is to expand and reorient the context for reading Malthus’s Essay beyond the conventional. Thus the element in their title, “Rereading the Principle of Population.” This is important work, not the least because Malthus is so widely known, cited, and used as the basis for an intellectual category (Malthusianism), but little read or understood.

The most historically accurate readings of the Essay have set it within the political and economic discourse of England and France in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the period from just prior to its first edition to the sixth and last (1826). The French Revolution is the event of prime significance for the first edition of the Essay. Malthus wrote in response to ideas of two Englishmen, his father Daniel Malthus and William Godwin, and a Frenchman, Nicolas de Condorcet. Malthus’s father was a political radical and friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Malthus himself said that he began the essay from a conversation with his father. The primary subjects of his critique in the text itself are Godwin’s and Condorcet’s Revolution-inspired utopian writings. Bashford and Chaplin have no objection to this orientation for reading the Essay as an argument against utopian political ideas. Rather, they invite us to look beyond the issues that Malthus engaged in 1798 to the sources of data from which he derived his principle of population in the first and second editions. The sources were the new worlds of North America and the South Pacific. Malthus used accounts of European explorers to these new worlds and colonial censuses for evidence of unchecked population growth and the operation of checks on population. Bashford and Chaplin read the Essay in the context of the origins of the principle of population in these new worlds and its implications for them.

The book is in three parts. “Population and the New World” comprises two chapters on “Population, Empire, and America” and “Writing the Essay.” Malthus was a synthesizer of four strands of population analysis, each of which has long historical roots: (1) Judeo-Christian theology, (2) statecraft, (3) political arithmetic, and (4) political economy. Chapter one provides a condensed but fulsome account of these analytical strands as they were available to Malthus. Chapter two includes biographical information on Malthus and his publisher, Joseph Johnson. Their juxtaposition is interesting on several counts. Malthus was an Anglican clergyman and Johnson was a religious dissenter. Malthus was conservative, while Johnson moved in radical circles.  Johnson published a critique of war finance by Malthus’s tutor, Gilbert Wakefield. This led to libel charges against both Wakefield and Johnson. Johnson was fined and sentenced to six months imprisonment. He also published a volume of Benjamin Franklin’s political writings that included “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind.” This contained an anticipation (or source) of Malthus’s principle of population. Johnson became a force in the publishing trade with a stable of prominent authors including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mary Wollstonecraft and her husband and Malthus’s primary intellectual adversary, William Godwin.

The three chapters of part two are on three new worlds that figure prominently in Malthus’s second edition: New Holland (New South Wales), the Americas, and the South Sea. Where the first edition was largely a response to the utopian political theory, the second edition became a universal history of mankind built around the theme of the means by which population is checked. These chapters give richly textured accounts of the sources available to Malthus for incorporating information on the Americas, Australia, and the South Sea into the second edition and the use he made of them.

Part three, “Malthus and the New World, 1803-1834,” has a chapter each on the public issues of slavery and abolition and colonization and emigration as they related to the principle of population. In both cases Malthus’s principle of population was used to form arguments on either side of the issue. Malthus had become a recognized authority on population. The authors depict Malthus as timid about taking a stand on slavery, perhaps because of personal entanglements through income derived from sugar plantations. The West Indies and British slave trade are conspicuously absent from the otherwise worldwide scope of evidence surveyed in the 1806 edition. On the issue of emigration as an outlet for population Malthus opposed clearance and removal of excess population but not voluntary emigration. The final chapter in this section covers the reception of the 1803 essay in the new worlds up to Malthus’s death in 1834.

The book concludes with a coda. The coda opens with accounts of critical commentary after Malthus’s death regarding his purported indifference to the plight of the poor.  The authors conclude that this was far from the truth. Malthus was concerned to understand population dynamics in order to protect the poor from misery and vice. The coda proceeds to draw material and moral implications from Malthus’s analysis of the European settlement of new worlds in the Americas and South Pacific in the 1803 edition for contemporary and future economic development of “new worlds.” The material implications are that today as before, the poor bear the brunt of material “expansion” by the wealthy. The moral implications, referred to as “moral hazards” in the coda, are that the distribution of benefits and costs of economic development between the rich and poor is unjust.

The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus gives considerably more attention to the 1803 edition of the Essay on the Principle of Population than to the 1798 edition, for it was in the enlarged second edition that Malthus dealt extensively with new world demographics. Further, the coda suggests that it is to the 1803 rather than the 1798 edition that we should turn today for insight into contemporary issues. The suggestion is that 1803-edition population principles have more relevance today and will in the future than the 1798-edition population principles. This suggests that Malthus made changes in substance rather than just in coverage between the first and second editions. This is an enduring question in historical interpretation of texts that underwent numerous or large revisions. In responding to reactions and suggestions of readers and to changing circumstances between one edition and the next, has an author more fully developed a thesis common to all editions or has the author changed the subject matter or thesis? The coda suggests the latter for Malthus.

If we accept the interpretation that the first edition was about British and European internal political issues and the second about English and European relations with lands and native peoples of the Americas and South Pacific, it is not clear to this reviewer that the second edition is more germane than the first to our time. The social and political revolutions of 1968 bear a resemblance to the French Revolution of 1789. The ancien régime remains under assault today as it was in the eighteenth century. Utopian visions of humans, their relations with each other, and with nature, are so embedded in modern culture that they go unrecognized. The objects of assault are no longer Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Church. They are the Constitution, Family, and Christianity. Conservatives, such as Malthus was, fight a rear-guard battle against what has become the Western revolutionary establishment of the early twenty-first century. Against this background it is instructive to reread the 1798 edition of An Essay on the Principle of Population.

J. Daniel Hammond is Hultquist Family Professor in the Department of Economics, Wake Forest University. He is the author of “Malthus, Utopians, and Economists,” Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology 33 (2015): 179-207.

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Australia/New Zealand, incl. Pacific Islands
Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
North America
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century