anarchy archives


About Us

Contact Us

Other Links

Critics Corner


The Cynosure

  Michael Bakunin
  William Godwin
  Emma Goldman
  Peter Kropotkin
  Errico Malatesta
  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
  Elisée Reclus
  Max Stirner
  Murray Bookchin
  Noam Chomsky
  Bright but Lesser Lights
  Cold Off The Presses
  Anarchist History
  Worldwide Movements
  First International
  Paris Commune
  Haymarket Massacre
  Spanish Civil War
  Art and Anarchy
  Education and Anarchy
  Anarchist Poets

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


It happens to men sometimes, where they had it in their thoughts to set forward and advance some mighty benefit to their fellow creatures, not merely to fail in giving substance and efficacy to the sentiment that animated them, but also to realise and bring on some injury to the party they purposed to serve. Such is my case, if the speculations that have now been current for nearly twenty years, and which had scarcely been heard of before, are to be henceforth admitted, as forming an essential branch of the science of politics.

When I wrote my Enquiry concerning Political Justice, I flattered myself that there was no mean probability that I should render an important service to mankind. I had warmed my mind with all that was great and illustrious in the republics of Greece and Rome, which had been favourite subjects of meditation with me, almost from my infancy. I became further animated by the spectacle of the Revolutions of America and France, the former of which commenced when I was just twenty years of age, [though I never approved of the mode in which the latter was effected, and the excesses which to a certain degree marked its very beginning] and by the speculations, which in England, and other parts of Europe, among learned men and philosophers, preceded, and contributed to, and have in some measure attended upon, and accompanied, every step of these events. I thought it was possible to collect whatever existed that was best and most liberal in the science of politics, to condense it, to arrange it more into a system, and to carry it somewhat farther, than had been done by any preceding writer.

The book I produced seemed for some time fully to answer in its effects the most sanguine expectations I had conceived from it. I could not complain that it "fell dead-born from the press," or that it did not awaken a considerable curiosity among my countrymen. I was never weak enough to suppose, that it would immediately sweep away all error before it, like a mighty influx of the waves of the ocean. I hailed the opposition it encountered, direct and indirect, argumentative and scurrilous, as a symptom (we will suppose, not altogether unequivocal) of the result I so earnestly desired. Among other phenomena of the kind, I hailed the attack of Mr. Malthus. I believed, that the Essay on Population, like other erroneous and exaggerated representations of things, would soon find its own level.

In this I have been hitherto disappointed. It would be easy to assign the causes of my disappointment; the degree in which, by the necessity of the case, the theory of this writer flattered the vices and corruption of the rich and great, and the eager patronage it might very naturally be expected to obtain from them: but this makes no part of what it is my purpose to say. Finding therefore, that whatever arguments have been produced against it by others, it still holds on its prosperous career, and has not long since appeared in the impressive array of a Fifth Edition, I cannot be contented to go out of the world, without attempting to put into a permanent form what has occurred to me on the subject. I was sometimes idle enough to suppose, that I had done my part, in producing the book that had given occasion to Mr. Malthus's Essaya, and that I might safely leave the comparatively easy task, as it seemed, of demolishing the "Principle of Population," to some one of the men who have risen to maturity since I produced my most considerable performance. But I can refrain no longer. "I will also answer my part; I likewise will shew my opinion: for I am full of matter; and the spirit within me constraineth me."

This is a task in which I am the more bound to engage, because, as I have said, if the dogmas which are now afloat on the subject of population are to become permanent, I have, instead of contributing as I desired to the improvement of society, become, very unintentionally, the occasion of placing a bar upon all improvements to come, and bringing into discredit all improvements that are past. If Mr. Malthus's way of reasoning only tended to the overthrow of what many will call "the visionary speculations" of the Enquiry concerning Political Justice, the case would have been different. I might have gone to my grave with the disgrace, to whatever that might amount, of having erected castles in the air, for the benefit, not of myself, but of my species, and of then seeing them battered to pieces before my face. But I cannot consent to close my eyes for ever, with the judgment, as the matter now seems to stand, recorded on my tomb, that, in attempting one further advance in the route of improvement, I should have brought on the destruction of all that Solon, and Plato, and Montesquieu, and Sidney, in ancient times, and in a former age, had seemed to have effected for the redemption and the elevation of mankind.

It is not a little extraordinary, that Mr. Malthus's book should now have been twenty years before the public, without any one, so far as I know, having attempted a refutation of his main principle. It was easy for men of a generous temper to vent their horror at the revolting nature of the conclusions he drew from his principle; and this is nearly all that has been done. That principle is delivered by him in the most concise and summary manner. He says, that he "considered it as established in the first six pages. The American increase was related [in three lines]; and the geometrical ratio was provedb." Now, it stands out broadly to the common sense of mankind, that this was proving nothing. Population, and the descent, and increase or otherwise, of one generation of mankind after another, is not a subject of such wonderful simplicity, as to be thus established. It is in reality the complexity and thorniness of the question, that have had the effect of silencing Mr. Malthus's adversaries respecting it. They seem with one consent to have shrunk from a topic, which required so much patient investigation. In the midst of this general desertion of the public interest, I have ventured to place myself in the breach. With what success it is for others to judge.

It may seem strange, that what was so summarily stated, and successfully asserted, by Mr. Malthus, should require so much research and labour to overthrow. The Essay on Population has set up a naked assertion; no more. I might have made a contradictory assertion ; and, equitably speaking, the matter was balanced, and what Mr. Malthus bad written ought to go for nothing. But this would not have been the case. "Possession," says the old proverb, "is nine points of the law;" and the Essay on Population bad gotten possession of the public mind. This author entered on a desert land, and, like the first discoverers of countries, set up a symbol of occupation, and without further ceremony said, "It is mine." His task was easy: he gave the word; his vessel was launched, and his voyage completed. Like Cymochles in the Fairy Queen, he could say,

My wandering ship I row,
That knows her port, and thither sails by aim ;
Ne care, ne fear I, how the wind do blow ;
Both swift and slow alike do serve my turn.

But the task in which I have engaged has been of a different sort. It was necessary that my advances should be slow, and my forces firm. It was mine, not only to dislodge the usurperfrom his fastnesses and retreats; but further, by patient exertions, and employing the most solid materials, to build up a Pharos, that the sincere enquirer might no longer wander in the dark, arid be liable to be guided by the first daring adventurer that would lead him into the paths of error and destruction.

I beg leave to repeat one passage here from the ensuing volume,c as containing a thought very proper to be presented to the reader in the outset of the enquiry. "If America had never been discovered, the geometrical ratio, as applied to the multiplication of mankind, would never have been known. If the British colonies had never been planted, Mr. Malthus would never have written. The human species might have perished of a long old age, a fate to which perhaps all sublunary things are subject at last, without one statesman or one legislator, through myriads of centuries, having suspected this dangerous tendency to increase, 'in comparison with which human institutions, however they may appear to be causes of much mischief to society, are mere feathersd.'"

In the following pages I confine myself strictly to Mr. Malthus's book, and the question which he has brought under consideration. My bitterest enemy will hardly be able to find in this volume the author of the Enquiry concerning Political Justice. I have scarcely allowed myself to recollect the beautiful visions (if they shall turn out to be visions), which enchanted my soul, and animated my pen, while writing that work. I conceived that any distinct reference to what is there treated of, would be foreign to the subject which is now before me. The investigation of the power of increase in the numbers of mankind, must be interesting to every one to whom the human species and human society appear to be matters of serious concern: and I should have thought that I was guilty of a sort of treason against that interest, if I had unnecessarily obtruded into the discussion any thing that could shock the prejudices, or insult the views, of those whose conceptions of political truth mighty be most different from my own.

I am certainly very sorry that I was not sooner in possession of Mr. Malthus's calculation for peopling the whole visible universe with human beings at the rate of four men to every square yard, contained in his Principles of Political Economye. A considerable portion of my work was printed, before the appearance of that volume. Several passages in these sheets will read comparatively flat and tame, for went of the assistance of this happy reductio ad absurdum from the pen of the author.

I cannot close these few pages of Preface, without testifying my obligations to one friend in particular, Mr. David Booth, formerly of Newburgh in the county of Fife, now of London. Without the encouragement and pressing instances of this gentleman my work would never have been begun; and the main argument of the Second Book is of his suggesting. But indeed the hints and materials for illustration I have derived from his conversation are innumerable; and his mathematical skill assisted my investigations, in points in which my habits for many years, were least favourable to my undertaking.--It is further necessary I should add, that Mr. Booth has scarcely in any instance inspected my sheets, and that therefore I only am responsible for any errors they may contain.

The reader will find, annexed to the end of the Second Book, a Dissertation on the Ratios of Increase in Population, and in the Means of Subsistence, which that gentleman had the goodness to supply to me.

This is all that is necessary for me to say in the way of Preface. Except that I feel prompted to make my apology in this place, if I shall appear any where to have been hurried into undue warmth. I know how easily this sin is accustomed to beset all controversial writers. I hold Mr. Malthus in all due respect, at the same time that I willingly plead guilty to the charge of regarding his doctrines with inexpressible abborrence. I fully admit however the good intentions of the author of the Essay on Population, and cheerfully seize this occasion to testify my belief in his honourable character, and his unblemished manners.

October 21, 1820.



a It is stated in the front of the Essay on Population, that it is to my writings that the work is indebted for its origin.
b Essay on Population, Vol. III, p. 344, note.
c P. 139, 140.
d Essay on Population, First Edition, p. 177; Fifth Edition, Vol. II, p. 246.
e See below, p. 135, et seqq.

Go to Book I Chapter I
Return to Table of Contents
  Table of contents Next Chapter


[Home]               [About Us]               [Contact Us]               [Other Links]               [Critics Corner]