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The Popularization of Malthus in Early Nineteenth-Century England: Martineau, Cobbett and the Pauper Press

Author(s):Huzel, James P.
Reviewer(s):Levy, David M.

Published by EH.NET (March 2007)

James P. Huzel, The Popularization of Malthus in Early Nineteenth-Century England: Martineau, Cobbett and the Pauper Press. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2006. xv + 266 pp. $100 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-7546-5427-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David M. Levy, Department of Economics, George Mason University and Sandra J. Peart, Department of Economics, Baldwin-Wallace College.


James Huzel characterizes his research reported in this marvelous book as a continuation of that found in two reevaluations of T. R. Malthus’s ideas, Donald Winch’s Poverty and Riches (1996) and Samuel Hollander’s The Economics of Thomas Robert Malthus (1997). While Winch locates Malthus’s arguments in the larger intellectual discussion and Hollander tackles of question of Malthus’s coherence as an economic theorist, Huzel explores the popular controversy over Malthus and that most malthusian act of legislation, the 1834 New Poor Law which conditioned poor relief with sumptuary controls.

Huzel argues that Malthus is the moving spirit in replacing the “moral economy” with the market economy. If the Old Poor Law, which conferred a right to public assistance in cases of distress, is the paradigm of the moral economy, then the New Poor Law is one of policy visualized as exchange (Levy and Peart, 2005). Huzel, conscious of the need to guard against interested misrepresentations, as well as some of Malthus’s self-inflicted infelicities ? is moral restraint possible? ? begins by providing an overview of Malthus’s thought and influence. He pays a good deal of attention to Malthus’s development over the editions of Population and Political Economy. The chapter titles suggest what each of them contains: Harriet Martineau: The Female Malthusian?; Cobbett against the Parson; The Radical Working Class Press against the Malthusian Crew. Pages 197-218 of the “Radical Working Class” chapter focus on the pro-contraceptive movement, in particular, Francis Place and John Stuart Mill.

Huzel’s book will help the reader shake off the bane of all careful Malthusian scholarship ? the interpretation that reads “natural selection” back into Malthus by taking choice out of the marriage decision (Peart and Levy 2005a; Levy and Peart, 2006). Huzel calls attention (pp. 212-13) to a revealing paragraph that Malthus added to the 1817 edition in which he considers how the system of equality proposed by Robert Owen would affect the age of marriage. In a system of equality, everyone’s children are supported by everyone else. When people realize, as they will, that this creates an unsupportable increase in population they will come to realize that the assignment of individual responsibility is preferable. We quote the entire paragraph:

Let us suppose that in a system of equality, in spite of the best exertions to procure more food, the population is pressing hard against the limits of subsistence, and all are becoming very poor. It is evidently necessary under these circumstances, in order to prevent the society from starving, that the rate at which the population increases should be retarded. But who are the persons that are to exercise the restraint thus called for, and either to marry late or not at all? It does not seem to be a necessary consequence of a system of equality that all the human passions should be at once extinguished by it; but if not, those who might wish to marry would feel it hard that they should be among the number forced to restrain their inclinations. As all would be equal, and in similar circumstances, there would be no reason whatever why one individual should think himself obliged to practise the duty of restraint more than another. The thing however must be done, with any hope of avoiding universal misery; and in a state of equality, the necessary restraint could only be effected by some general law. But how is this law to be supported, and how are the violations of it to be punished? Is the man who marries early to be pointed at with the finger of scorn? is he to be whipped at the cart’s tail? is he to be confined for years in a prison? is he to have his children exposed? Are not all direct punishments for an offence of this kind shocking and unnatural to the last degree? And yet, if it be absolutely necessary, in order to prevent the most overwhelming wretchedness, that there should be some restraint on the tendency to early marriages, when the resources of the country are only sufficient to support a slow rate of increase, can the most fertile imagination conceive one at once so natural, so just, so consonant to the laws of God and to the best laws framed by the most enlightened men, as that each individual should be responsible for the maintenance of his own children; that is, that he should be subjected to the natural inconveniences and difficulties arising from the indulgence of his inclinations, and to no other whatever? (1826, III III ? 16 One of the nicest features of Huzel’s book is that he emphasizes the extraordinarily personal nature of the attacks on those who followed Malthus. For instance, Harriet Martineau’s contemporary critics made her out to be masculine (pp. 78-89). Huzel asks: why her and not Jane Marcet, a Malthusian of a decade earlier? His answer is that Martineau’s deep radicalism, her support of the New Poor Law, her anti-slavery, her anti-monopoly positions all threatened many dimensions of hierarchy. Three decades later, another opponent of hierarchy, John Stuart Mill (who plays a minor role in Huzel’s account) was shown in feminine attire by his opponents (Peart and Levy, 2007).

Market Economics v. Moral Economy

Huzel’s prefatory comments about the replacement of the moral economy by the market economy deserve further exploration. As economists we know a good deal about the market economy. Consider marriage. In the Wealth of Nations Adam Smith explains how higher wages in America encourage earlier marriage in American than in Europe (1776, I 8 ? 23). In the next sentence he remarks that: “A young widow with four or five young children, who, among the middling or inferior ranks of people in Europe, would have so little chance for a second husband, is there frequently courted as a sort of fortune.” Early marriages leads to large families and to a population growing at a rate which doubles every twenty-years (1776, I 8 ? 23). What makes Smith’s economics of population so remarkable is that it is purely a matter of contracting agents who accept the responsibility for supporting their children.

A moral economy seems to be linked instead by non-contractual obligations. This is certainly how the moral economy is defended by William Cobbett (Huzel, pp. 126-49). The imperative that Smith evades but Malthus confronts is that marriage supports chastity, i.e., sexual relationship inside and only inside marriage (Levy, 1978 and 1999). Individuals who follow moral imperatives in spite of material interest, e.g., marrying early to preserve chastity, create an obligation on the part of society for support in case of distress.

We propose to focus on the attacks on two of Huzel’s subjects, Martineau and Place, published in the 1830s in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country. Fraser’s is remembered both as the first important Victorian periodical to publish portraits of literary celebrities (Bates 1874, 1883; Houghton 1972, p. 305; Fisher, 2006) and as the periodical most associated with the literary, “progressive conservative,” opposition to political economy (Thrall, 1934, pp. 147-58). “Progressive conservatism” catches the fact that the debate between market economy and moral economy is not carried out along a single dimension. The greatest of “progressive conservative” thinkers, Thomas Carlyle, who had been associated with Fraser’s from its first issue in February 1830, chose to publish his defense of slavery, “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” in the December 1849 issue. Carlyle exemplified the tendency to slide between justifying following moral imperatives and justifying following the commands of superiors (Peart and Levy, 2005).

Fraser’s does not get much attention in Huzel’s book. He discusses the Fraser’s review of Martineau’s Malthusian novel briefly (p. 76), but passes over the Daniel Maclise portrait of Martineau accompanied by William Maginn’s abuse at Martineau (Maginn and Maclise, 1833; Bates, 1874, pp. 114-16; Bates, 1883, pp. 206-12). Consider a controversy between market economists and moral economists, those who hold exchange as central against those who take obligation to as central. How will the dispute be conducted? From the point of view of the market economists, the moralist economists are not doing their calculations incorrectly. Controversy is largely a matter of reworking arguments in different words. From the point of view of the moral economists, because the market economists are denying all but contractual obligations, there is something wrong with them. Bad calculations on one side; bad people on the other side. Considerations of scarcity are critical in the Malthusian debates (Waterman, 1991). Scarcity is a fact for market economists, it is a failing for the moral economists because it is seen as evidence that someone wants what they should not want.

How do you show that people are bad? Gossip, caricature. That brings us back to Fraser’s. Malthus’s recommendation to deal with scarcity by delaying marriage until one could reasonably expect to support the consequent children, the “preventive check,” was the center of things. The 1832 review of Harriet Martineau’s novels, attributed to Fraser’s editor William Maginn, reflected the radicalism of the proposal to delay marriage:

Morality and marriage must ever subsist in a state in correlative proportions. To decrease the prevalence of marriage is to increase the prevalence of immorality. This the whole experience of mankind informs us. …. But we will allow the existence, to a limited extent, of this falsely-called “moral restraint,” in London; ? and there we immediately find its necessary concomitant; to wit, about 30,000 prostitutes (1832, p. 413).

The review closed scandalized by the fact that a young woman wrote against marriage.

A Maclise portrait of Martineau appeared the next year. Words attributed to Maginn which accompany Maclise’s portrait claim that by looking at her picture, one can see why she is a Malthusian.

doubtless, one of the first works the literary antiquary of future centuries will consult must be Fraser’s Magazine, by the delineation of her countenance, figure, posture, and occupation, which will be found on the opposite plate. He will readily agree with us, after proper inspection, that it no great wonder that the lady should be pro-Malthusian; and that not even the Irish beau, suggested to her by a Tory songster, is likely to attempt the seduction of the fair philosopher from the doctrines of no-population (Maginn and Maclise, 1833, p.576; Bates, 1874, p. 114).

Scholars who have studied the Maclise image suggest that Martineau is rendered masculine in the picture (Fisher, 2006, pp. 120-23). Other evidence of a masculinization of Martineau is given by Huzel (pp. 74-78).


The attack on Martineau is so ugly that it puzzles latter-day friends of Fraser’s. Thrall (1934, p. 311) calls this “one of the most contemptible attacks in the magazine.” Earlier, Bates (1883, p. 211) uses “ungallant” defending Fraser’s only relative to the Quarterly’s “coarse and ungenerous” allegation that Martineau proposed contraception. That is a lie (Huzel, p. 75).

Ugly needs to seen in context. Malthus and Martineau accepted the religious universe which carried the imperatives that underlay the moral economy. Francis Place did not. This is how Maginn’s commentary in Fraser’s on the Maclise portrait of Place begins:

The hero was found, we believe, in a dust-pan, upon the steps of a house in St. James’s Place, about sixty years back, by an honest Charlie. Who forthwith conveyed him to the next workhouse, where (for those were unenlightened times) the little stranger was kindly take care of. He was christened Francis, that being the surname of his wet-nurse; while, in lieu of patronymie, they gave him Place, as a memorial of the locality where he had been discovered. Such were the bulrushes out of which Westminster drew the future Moses of the Preventive Check, — a philosophical decalogue well worthy to supersede the first, which it so boldly contracts in the absurd article about murder.

The Mount Sinai of the new lawgiver …. Place has erected his grand Mill-dam, for the salutary purpose of asserting this same tide … (Maginn 1836, p. 427).


Houghton’s judgment in the Wellesley Index is that save for the clever contraceptive reference to a certain J (J.S.?) Mill, this is a tissue of lies (Houghton, 1972, p. 306). He is puzzled ? “an anti-Semitic slur?” ? since the references to the Hebrew Scriptures are rather unsubtle but Place was not Jewish.

Huzel (p. 87) asks why the gender attacks on Martineau and not on Jane Marcet? One answer is that the New Poor Law was a viable threat to the moral economy. If Malthus is the arch-enemy of the moral economy, then it is important that the idea behind the New Poor Law can be found in the first edition of Malthus’s Population:

Lastly, for cases of extreme distress, county workhouses might be established, supported by rates upon the whole kingdom, and free for persons of all counties, and indeed of all nations. The fare should be hard, and those that were able obliged to work. It would be desirable that they should not be considered as comfortable asylums in all difficulties; but merely as places where severe distress might find some alleviation. A part of these houses might be separated, or others built for a most beneficial purpose, which has not been infrequently taken notice of, that of providing a place, where any person, whether native or foreigner, might do a day’s work at all times and receive the market price for it. Many cases would undoubtedly be left for the exertion of individual benevolence (1798, 5 ? 25).

Nassau Senior’s study of international experience verified this early intuition.

But in all the countries which we have been considering, except the Canton de Berne and perhaps Denmark, the great object of pauper legislation, that of rendering the situation of the pauper less agreeable than that of the independent labourer, has been effectually attained (Senior, 1835, 88).


Huzel’s valuable study brings to light with enormous care the early nineteenth century disputes between adherents of the moral economy and the market economy. When we reflect upon the present debates about the global economy, markets and culture, we may ask whether we have ever settled the issues. We suspect not.


Bates, William. [1874]. A Gallery of Illustrious Literary Characters (1830-1838) Drawn by the Late Daniel Maclise, R.A. and Accompanied by Notices Chiefly by the Late William Maginn, LL.D. London: Chatto and Windus.

Bates, William. 1883. The Maclise Portrait-Gallery of “Illustrious Literary Characters” with Memoirs Biographical, Critical, Bibliographical & Anecdotal Illustrative of the Literature of the Former Half of the Present Century. London: Chatto and Windus.

Fisher, Judith L. 2006. “‘In the Present Famine of Anything Substantial': Fraser’s ‘Portraits’ and the Construction of Literary Celebrity; or, ‘Personality, Personality Is the Appetite of the Age.'” Victorian Periodicals Review 39: 97-135.

Houghton, Walter E. 1972. “Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country: 1830-1882.” The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 303-521.

Levy, David M. 1978. “Some Normative Aspects of the Malthusian Controversy.” History of Political Economy 10: 271-85.

Levy, David M. 1999. “Christianity or Malthusianism: The Invisibility of a Successful Radicalism.” Historical Reflections/R?flexions Historiques 25: 61-93.

Levy, David M. and Sandra J. Peart. 2005 “The Theory of Economic Policy in British Classical Political Economy: A Sympathetic Reading.” History of Political Economy 37 Supplement: The Role of Government in the History of Economic Thought (2005): 120-42.

Levy, David M. and Sandra J. Peart. 2006. “Charles Kingsley and the Theological Interpretation of Natural Selection.” Journal of Bioeconomics. 8: 197-218.

Malthus, T. R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers. London: J. Johnson.

Malthus, T. R. 1826. An Essay on the Principle of Population: A View of its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness; with an Inquiry into Our Prospects Respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils which It Occasions. London: John Murray. Sixth edition.

[Maginn, William.] 1832. “National Economy. No. III. Miss Martineau’s Cousin Marshall ? The Preventive Check.” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country 6: 403-13.

[Maginn, William and Daniel Maclise] 1833. “Gallery of Literary Character. No. 42. Miss Harriet Martineau.” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country 8: 576.

[Maginn, William and Daniel Maclise.] 1836. “Gallery of Literary Character. No. 71. Mr. Francis Place, Esq.” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country 13:427.

Peart, Sandra J. and David M. Levy. 2005a. “Happiness, Progress and ‘the Vanity of the Philosopher.”

Peart, Sandra J. and David M. Levy. 2005b. The “Vanity of the Philosopher”: From Equality to Hierarchy in Post-Classical Economics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Peart, Sandra J. and David M. Levy. 2007. “Economics in Cartoons.” Presented at the History of Economics Society / Allied Social Sciences Association. Chicago.

Senior, Nassau W. 1835. Statement of the Provision of the Poor. London: B. Fellows.

Smith, Adam. 1776. An Inquiry into the Nature and Cause of the Wealth of Nations. London: Methuen and Co., Ltd., ed. Edwin Cannan, 1904. Fifth edition.

Thrall, Miriam M. H. 1934. Rebellious Fraser’s, Nol Yorkes Magazine in the Days of Maginn, Thackeray and Carlyle. New York: Columbia University Press.

Waterman, A. M. C. 1991. Revolution, Economics and Religion: Christian Political Economy 1798-1833. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sandra Peart is Professor of Economics at Baldwin-Wallace College, President-Elect of the History of Economics Society and Co-Director of the Summer Institute for the Preservation of the History of Economic Thought. In August, she will become Dean of the Jepson School of Leadership at the University of Richmond.

David Levy is Professor of Economics and Research Associate of the Center for Study of Public Choice at George Mason University. He is Co-Director of the Summer Institute for the Preservation of the History of Economic Thought and a member of the History of Economics Society Executive.

Their “Vanity of the Philosopher”: From Equality to Hierarchy in Post-Classical Economics was named a Choice Outstanding Academic Title this January. Their next book will be on the Economist in Cartoons.

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