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Malthus' Essay on Population and the American Debate over Slavery

  • Dennis Hodgson (a1)


Malthus published his Essay on Population in 1798 and for the next century, as the new discipline of political economy incorporated his thought into its central tenets, population theorizing took place largely within a Malthusian framework. A stark simplicity marks his argument, especially as presented in the succinct first edition of the essay. He presents the reader with two self-evident natural laws: “that food is necessary to the existence of man,” and “that the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state” (1798: 11). He then observes, “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man” (13), and contends that population, when unchecked, increases in a “geometrical ratio” while subsistence in only an “arithmetical ratio” (14). In this first edition, Malthus had the particular ideological goal of proving that “the advocates of equality and of the perfectibility of man” had an unattainable dream. Mr. Godwin could imagine a British Isle where all are equal, live in “airy” farmhouses, share “the necessary labours of agriculture” (182), and divide its fruits “according to their wants,” Malthus observed, but such a regime places no barrier to early marriage and large families. He calculated that in a hundred years the Isle's seven million people “would be one hundred and twelve millions, and the food only sufficient for thirty-five millions, leaving seventy-seven millions unprovided for” (23–24). Since “no possible form of society could prevent the almost constant action of misery upon a great part of mankind” (36), constructing a society of equals only ensures a society in which all will be poor. Any attempt to improve the conditions of the impoverished by granting them access to subsistence, such as the poor laws then in effect in England, simply works “in some measure to create the poor which they maintain” since they permit the poor man to “marry with little or no prospect of being able to support a family in independence” (83).



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