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Godwin, William. Of Population. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, Paternoster Row, 1820.








Mr. Malthus has published what he calls an Essay on the Principle of Population, by which he undertakes to annul every thing that had previously been received, respecting the views that it is incumbent upon those who preside over political society to cherish, and the measures that may conduce to the happiness of mankind. His theory is evidently founded upon nothing. He says, that "population, when unchecked, goes on doubling itself every twenty-five years, or increases in a geometrical ratio.a"

If we ask why we are to believe this, he answers that, "in the northern states of America, the population has been found so to double itself for above a century and a half successively.b" All this he delivers in an oraculous manner. He neither proves nor attempts to prove what he asserts. If Mr. Malthus has taken a right view of the question, it is to be hoped that some author will hereafter arise, who will go into the subject and shew that it is so.

Mr. Malthus having laid down a theory in this dogmatical manner, a sort of proceeding wholly unworthy of a reflecting nation or an enlightened age, it is time in reality that some one should sweep away this house of cards, and endeavour to ascertain whether any thing is certainly known on the subject.

This is the design and the scheme of the present volume I shall make no dogmatical assertions ; or, at least I am sure I will make none respecting the proposition or propositions which form the basis of the subject. I shall call upon my reader for no implicit faith. I shall lay down no positions authoritatively, and leave him to seek for evidence, elsewhere, and as he can, by which they may be established. All that I deliver shall be accompanied by its proofs. My purpose is to engage in a train of patient investigation, and to lay before every one who will go along with me, the facts which satisfy my mind on the subject, and which I am desirous should convey similar satisfaction to the minds of others.

The consequence is, that I, the first, as far as I know, of any English writer in the present century, shall have really gone into the question of population. If what I shall deliver is correct, some foundation will be laid, and the principle will begin to be understood. If what I allege as fact shall be found to be otherwise, or the conclusions I draw from my facts do not truly follow from them, I shall have set before other enquirers evidence that they may scan, and arguments that they may refute. I simply undertake to open the door for the gratification of the curious, or, more properly speaking, of those who feel an interest in the honour and happiness of the human species, which hitherto in this respect has been shut. Conscious how little as yet is known on the subject, I attempt no more than to delineate Outlines of the Doctrine of Population.

The first point then that I have to examine, and which will form the subject of Three of the Six Books into which my treatise is divided, is respecting the Power of Increase in the Numbers of the Human Species, and the Limitations of that Power. This question, precisely speaking, is the topic of the Second Book only: though I have thought proper to prefix in a First Book a view of the numbers of mankind in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, in ancient and modern times, where population has generally been supposed not to increase; and in another [the Fourth] to subjoin a view of the United States of North America in this particular, where from some cause or other the population has multiplied exceedingly.

The result of our investigations into the subject of population, I believe, will afford some presumption that there is in the constitution of the human species a power, absolutely speaking, of increasing its numbers. Mr. Malthus says; that the power is equal to the multiplication of mankind by a doubling every twenty-five years, that is, to an increase for ever in a geometrical series, of which the exponent is 2:--a multiplication, which it is difficult for human imagination, or (as I should have thought) for human credulity to follow: and therefore his theory must demand the most tremendous checks [their names in the Essay on Population are vice and misery] to keep the power in that state of neutrality, in which it is perhaps in almost all cases to be found in Europe. I think I shall be able to make out that the power of increase in the numbers of the human species is extremely small. But, be that as it may, it must be exceedingly interesting to assign the Causes by which this Power is Restrained from producing any absolute multiplication, from century to century, in those many countries where population appears to be at a stand: and I have accordingly endeavoured to take the question out of the occult and mystical state in which Mr. Malthus has left it. This disquisition forms the subject of my Third Book; as it was necessary to give it precedence over the examination of the population of the United States, that we might be the better enabled to see, how far the causes which keep down population are peculiar to us, and how far they extend their agency to North America.

Such is the outline of the most essential parts of the following work; and here I might perhaps without impropriety have put an end to my labours. But, as Mr. Malthus has taken occasion to deliver many positions respecting subsistence, and various other points of political economy, I have thought it might not be useless to follow him into these topics.

The question of subsistence indeed Mr. Malthus has made an essential member of his system, having stated the power of increase in the numbers of mankind as equal to a doubling every twenty-five years for ever in geometrical series, and the utmost power of increase in the means of subsistence as reaching only to a perpetual addition of its own quantity in similar periods, or a progression in arithmetical series. Thus,

Population 1 2 4 8 16 32 64 128 256
Subsistence 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

I have therefore devoted my Fifth Book to the consideration of the Means which the Earth Affords for the Subsistence of Man.

The topic I have reserved for my Sixth Book is, at least to my apprehension, in no way less interesting than the question of Subsistence. Dr. Franklin and other writers who have attributed to the human species a power of rapidly multiplying their numbers, have either foreseen no mischief to arise from this germ of multiplication, or none but what was exceedingly remote. It is otherwise with Mr. Malthus. The geometrical ratio is every where with him a practical principle, and entitled to the most vigilant and unremitted attention of mankind. He has deduced from this consideration several moral and political maxims, which he enjoins it upon the governors of the world to attend to. I am persuaded that the elements of our author's theory are unsound, and that therefore his conclusions must follow the fate of the principle on which they are founded. But I should have left my undertaking imperfect, if I did not proceed to expose these maxims; thus, in the first place, setting the system of the Essay on Population and its practical merits in the full light of day; and, in the second, holding up for the instruction of those who may come after, an example of the monstrous errors into which a writer may be expected to fall, who shall allow himself, upon a gratuitous and wholly unproved assumption, to build a system of legislation, and determine the destiny of all his fellow-creatures. An examination of the Moral and Political Maxims Inculcated in the Essay on Population therefore constitutes the subject of my Sixth Book.

I might indeed have written a treatise in which I should have endeavoured to trace the outlines of the subject of population, without adverting to Mr. Malthus. But, in the first place it was gratifying to me to name an author, who, however false and groundless his theories appear to me, has had the merit of successfully drawing the attention of the public to the subject. I think it but fair, so far as depends upon me, that his name should be preserved, whatever becomes of the volumes he has written. If any benefit shall arise from the discussion of the Doctrine of Population, there is a propriety in recollecting the person by whose writings the question has been set afloat, though he has not discussed. And, in the second place, I know that the attention of the majority of readers is best secured by the appearance of a contention. If I had delivered the speculations of the following pages in a form severely scientific, and still more if I had written my book without Mr. Malthus's going before me, I should have appeared to multitudes to be elaborately explaining what was too clear for an argument, and could not have expected to excite an interest, to which under the present circumstances, if I have done any thing effectually on the subject, I may be thought reasonably entitled.



aEssay on Population, fifth edition, vol. I. p. 9.
b Vol. I. p. 7.

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