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


Numbers of Mankind in Ancient and Modern Times

Les hommes ne multiplient pas aussi aisément qu'oun le pense. Voltaire, Histoire Générale, CHAP. I.

It is not a little singular, and is proper to be commemorated here, that a controversy existed in the early part of the last century, as to the comparative populousness of ancient nations, or the contrary. One of the leaders in this debate was the celebrated Montesquieu; and what he says on the subject is so much to the purpose, that I shall translate the passage.

"To amuse in some part," says one of the correspondents in the Persian Letters to another, "the time of my visit to Europe, I devoted myself to the perusal of the historians, ancient and modern; I compare the different ages of the world; I am pleased to make them pass, so to speak, in review before me; and I fix my attention particularly upon those great changes, which have rendered some ages so different from others, and the world so unlike to itself.

"You perhaps have not turned your thoughts, upon a thing that to men is altogether surprising. How happens it that the world is so thinly peopled in comparison with what it was formerly? How is it that nature has wholly lost that prodigious fecundity which she boasted in earlier times? Is it that she is in her decrepitude, and is hastening to her final extinction?

"I have resided more than a year in Italy, and I have seen there only the Ruins of that Italy which was anciently so famous. Though its present population is confined to the towns, they are themselves mere vacancy and a desart: it seems as if they subsisted for no other purpose, than to mark the spot where those magnificent cities formerly stood, with whose policy and whose wars history is filled.

"There are persons who pretend that Rome alone formerly contained a greater population than any one of the most powerful kingdoms of Europe does at present. There were single Roman citizens, who possessed ten, and even twenty thousand slaves, without including those they used for rustic employments: and as the number of the citizens alone amounted to 4 or 500,000, we cannot calculate the entire population of this great city, without reaching to a number at which the imagination revolts.

"Sicily, in times of old, contained within its shores flourishing states and powerful kingdoms, which have entirely disappeared: it is now considerable only for its volcanoes.

"Greece is so wholly deserted, as not to contain the hundredth part of the number of its former inhabitants.

"Spain, formerly so abundant in men, exhibits nothing at the present day but a variety of provinces, almost without inhabitants; and France is an unpeopled region, compared with that ancient Gaul which Cæsar describes to us.

"The north of Europe is in a manner stripped f its people. The times are no more, when she was obliged to separate her population into portions, and to send forth, as in swarms, colonies and whole nations, to seek some new spot where they might dwell at large.

"Poland and Turkey in Europe are almost without inhabitants.

"In American we do not find more than the two-hundredth part of the men who formerly composed its mighty empires.

"Asia is not in a much better condition. That Asia Minor, which boasted so many powerful monarchies, and so prodigious a number of great cities, has now but two or three cities within her limits. As to the Greater Asia, that part which is subject to the Turk is in no better condition, and for the part over which our monarch reigns [Persia], if we compare it with its former flourishing condition, we shall see that it contains but a very small residue of the population which anciently furnished the innumerable host of Xerxes and Darius.

"As to the smaller states, which are placed in the vicinity of these great empires, they are literally unpeopled; such for example are Imiretta, Circassia and Guriel. All these princes, with the extent of country over which they preside, have scarcely in their subjection so many as fifty thousand human beings.

"Egypt has not suffered less than the countries I have mentioned.

"In a word I review the different nations of the earth; and I find nothing but destruction. I seem to see a race of beings, just escaped from the ravages of an universal plague, or an universal famine.

"Africa has always been so unpenetrated, that we cannot speak of it with the same precision as of other parts of the globe; but, if we turn our attention only to the coast of the Mediterranean, the portion of it which is known, we see at once how wretchedly it has sunk, since the period in which it formed a Roman province of the first order. Its princes are now so feeble, that they are strictly the smallest power in existence.

"Upon a calculation, the most exact that matters of this sort will admit, I am led to think that the earth does not contain now fully the fiftieth part of the human beings, that inhabited it in the time of Cæsar. What is most astonishing is, that its population every day grows thinner; and if it goes on at the same rate, in one thousand years more, the race of man will be extinct.

"Here then, my dear friend, we are presented with the most fearful catastrophe that imagination can form. Yet it is hardly attended to, because it proceeds by insensible degrees, and spreads itself over such a series of ages. But that very thing proves incontestibly, that there is an innate vice, a concealed and inaccessible poison, a wasting disease, which clings to our nature, and cannot be removeda ."

It is surprising, if the Persian Letters ever fell in the way of Mr. Malthus's juvenile reading, that this impressive representation should not a little have startled him, amidst his anxieties and alarms for the excessive and ruinors multiplication of mankind. It would seem to require considerable strength of nerve, in the face of such a picture, to preach his doctrine of depopulation; for such in the sequel it will be discovered to be.

I know that his representation of Montesquieu has been controverted, and that among others it has fallen under the acute examination of Hume. But the most I think that Hume has effected, is to throw some portion of uncertainty on the subject.

It may be worth while to remark how gross and obvious are the mistakes into which a careless observer inevitably falls upon this question of population.

He goes into a village or a little town, and he is struck with the number of children he sees, playing, skipping, laughing, crying, paddling in the dirt, and almost running under his horse's feet, as he passes along. From this phenomenon he sagaciously concludes," There is no fear for the future population of this village."

If he made an enumeration of the inhabitants of the village, would he find that the number of children taken together exceed the number of inhabitants arrived at years of maturity? The result of the American census, as we shall presently see, is that half the inhabitants are under, and half above sixteen years of age. But, it has appeared from all the Tables, that if the present race of grown men and women did not produce children to the amount of double their own number, the race of mankind could not be kept up, consequently, if at any given period, as in America, the children only equal the adults in number, we must depend upon the recruits to be added every year, for the preservation of our species. If those that have already become mother universally ceased to become mothers in the future, and devolved the task wholly upon their offspring, and this were repeated from period to period, it would be a matter of no difficult calculation to determine the precise era at which the human race would be extinct.

And what is the ground of this general mistake? Simply that we see those who are born, but do not see those who die. They are consigned to the silent grave, and we soon learn almost to forget that they ever existed. Hence Mr. Malthus and others would terrify us with the spectre of and imaginary overpopulation. Xerxes, I suspect, understood this matter much better, when he wept to think that, of the millions of men that passed in review before him in his march into Greece, not one would be alive at the end of one hundred years. Every old man is accustomed to the remark, that he sees all his contemporaries dying from around him, and that he is left in a manner alone in a new world. We depend entirely and exclusively upon the rising generation for the future population of the earth. In a few year I and my present readers of the year 1820 will have all left the stage, and the children that live under our roofs, or that we see in the streets, will be the only men and women, to conduct affairs, and continue the race, of human kind. Mr. Malthus, and men like Mr. Malthus, who have been accustomed to look with a jealous eye, and with certain feeling of terror and alarm, upon the number of little children they meet with, would, if they maturely considered this, contemplate the spectacle with a very different sentiment.

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