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CHAPTER IV.: attempt towards a rational theory of the checks on population continued. - William Godwin, Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind 
Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind, being an Answer to Mr. Malthus’s Essay on that Subject (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1820).
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attempt towards a rational theory of the checks on population continued.
Thus far I have been considering those checks on population, which operate with an outstretched power, and have in various instances turned great cities and flourishing countries into a desert. I proceed now to consider those regions, such as England, Germany and France, which for centuries past have not been subject to such violent convulsions.
What we appear to have most reason to believe under this latter head, is, that these countries, like Sweden, have from time to time gone on for a certain period increasing their population in a steady and moderate degree, and that then certain events have occurred, which have arrested this progress, and even reduced the population considerably below the standard to which it had lately attained. For instance, I will set it down, that we have no very certain reason to believe that England contains a greater number of inhabitants now, than it did in 1339, when Edward the Third commenced his expedition for the conquest of France.
That the hypothesis just delivered, viz. that civilized countries, in possession of a reasonable degree of prosperity, have from time to time gone on for a certain period increasing their population in a steady and moderate degree, and that then certain events have occurred, which have arrested this progress, and even reduced the population considerably below the standard to which it had lately attained,—that this hypothesis, I say, is true, may be very strongly presumed from the example of Sweden.
To illustrate this, I will repeat here a Table which has already been laid before the reader in an earlier page of this volume.
The population of Sweden in 1805, as appears from the actual enumeration, amounted to 3,320,647.
By the same rule the population will be
So that by this way of calculation Sweden contained, at the time of the destruction of the Western Empire in 476, little more than three hundred souls, and, when this part of the globe began to send forth its hordes, which destroyed the power of the Romans, and changed the face of the world, it could scarcely boast a human inhabitant. There needs no argument, I presume, to prove that this is not the fact.
The progress of population indeed may be illustrated both ways, in its increase and in its decline, from the example of Sweden. In the year 1751, the precise period from which my accounts of the numbers of the Swedish nation commence, Adolphus Frederic of Holstein Gottorp, bishop of Lubeck, succeeded to the throne. He reigned during a period of twenty years, and was succeeded by his son, Gustavus III, who was assassinated by Ankarstroem in 1792. This event however occasioned little disturbance in the affairs of the nation: Gustavus III. was replaced in the government by his son, Gustavus IV, who reigned till 1809. Europe, during this period, was plagued with the war of 1756, the American war, and the wars which arose out of the French Revolution; but Sweden sustained less disturbance from these causes, than almost any other European state. The whole period was to her for the most part a period of tranquillity; and accordingly we see a perpetual increase in the number of her inhabitants.
The close of the reign of Gustavus IV. was on the other hand eminently disastrous; and we accordingly find it attended with corresponding effects. Not only Finland became lost to the Swedish crown, the population of which, by the returns of 1805, amounted to 895,773 souls-but, beside this reduction, the enumeration for the rest of the kingdom in 1810, instead of increasing, fell short by 47,000 and upwards, of the enumeration in 1805a . From that period however the government was committed to the hands of Bernadotte, now Charles XIV, by whom the affairs of Sweden appear to have been conducted with some degree of prudence and moderation; and accordingly we find, by the return for 1815, that the population is again upon the rise. Norway by a late treaty has been added to the Swedish dominions; but the inhabitants of that country, amounting to about a million, are not included in the enumeration.
But I return to the question of population as it relates to my native country.
Now I say that the causes, which have kept down the population of the British Isles, and may, for aught we know, have prevented this country from arriving at a higher state of population at the present hour than it exhibited five centuries ago, may be principally reduced to these three, war, pestilence and famine, with the further addition of those calamities which bear a near affinity to them, viz. periods of general or local disturbance, contagious distempers of every description, unhealthy seasons, and occasions of eminent scarcity or public distress.
The question into which I am enquiring, is why England, having gone on for some time, at various periods, I shall suppose as Sweden has done, augmenting the number of its inhabitants, has also experienced such interruptions of this augmentation, as have very probably brought back the population to what it was before, thus oresenting us with the image of a journey, such as often occurs in the incoherence of dreams, in which great advances have been made, but nothing has ultimately been gained. The ground on which we tread slides from under us, and at the end of the race we find ourselves precisely on the spot at which we set out.—As, by the hypothesis, the interruptions have been occasional, the causes of those interruptions must also have been of an intermittent, not a regular operation.
All this does certainly well accord with what we know of the system of the universe. If there were not a power of increase in the numbers of the human species, sometimes operating, and at other times existing as a power only without present agency, the human species in all probability must have been long since extinct. If whenever famine, cruel war, or wide-wasting pestilence, had reduced the inhabitants of a country or a populous city to a mere remnant, as we frequently find to have been the case, of the population it boasted a few years or a few months before, there were no power in the constitution of man, of replacing by direct procreation with siwifter or slower steps the numbers that had been swept away, it would be easy to see that every portion of the globe in its turn would have been changed into a desert.—To return.
In 1339 Edward the Third led forth an army for the conquest of France. He repeated the same proceeding in 1342, and again in 1346, while at the same time queen Philippa marched against the Scots, who were defeated in a great battle, in which twenty thousand North Britons were slain, and the Scottish king and many of his nobles were taken prisoners. The expulsion of the English from France in the latter end of the reign of Edward the Third, was probably more destructive than his conquests. To these events we must add the plague of 1348, of the victims of which fifty thousand are said to have been interred in one year, in a burial-ground now the site of the Charter Houseb , beside those who died in other parts of London; this infection appears to have diffused itself impartially through every part of England.
The turbulent times of Richard the Second, the insurrection of the common people under Wat Tyler, and afterwards the contests between the king and his barons, could not have been favourable to population. The reign of Henry the Fourth was scarcely less disturbed than that of his predecessor.
Henry the Fifth acted over again the achievements of Edward the Third for the conquest of France; and these were followed by still more disastrous reverses in the reign of his son.
The series of events next brings us to the wars of York and Lancaster, upon which Hume observesc : “This fatal quarrel was not finished in less than a course of thirty years: it was signalised by twelve pitched battles: it opened a scene of extraordinary fierceness and cruelty, and is computed to have cost the lives of eighty princes of the blood, and to have almost annihilated the ancient nobility of England.” What effect this had on the general population may easily be imagined. It is no less true of these wars, than of the war of Troy,
Quicquid delirant reges, plecluntur Achivi.
The reign of the Tudors may be conceived to have been on the whole favourable to population.
Not so the reign of the Stuarts. Charles the First never spared the blood of his people; and his conduct at length involved the nation in a civil war. The interregnum, with all its fluctuations and uncertainty of government, did not tend to increase the numbers of our countrymen; and the profligate and intolerant policy of Charles the Second could not have been beneficial to the nation.
At the Revolution commenced the system, of England making herself a principal in the wars of the continent. The long reign of George the Third has certainly had its full proportion of years of war.
Till the fire of London in 1666, Hume saysd , “The plague used to break out with great fury in this metropolis twice or thrice in every century.”
From the reign of Elizabeth began the system of colonisation, the effects of which I shall have occasion more fully to unfold, when I come to treat expressly of the United States of North America. In the reign of George the Third we have not been contented to send out our planters to that side of the globe; we have settled an empire in the East Indies; and distributed our colonists profusely to other parts of the world.
Mr. Malthus may say what he pleases of the limited size of the earth, enabling it to subsist only a limited number of inhabitants, and of its population “at all times pressing hard against the limits of the means of subsistence,”—nothing in the mean while can be more palpable than the inadequate population of this island, its imperfect agriculture, and the vast tracts of its soil, which have as yet been made to contribute scarcely any thing to the subsistence of man. In short it is universally admitted that the soil of this island would maintain its present population ten times told.
Meantime I have thought it proper to enter into this slight sketch of our history as connected with the numbers of our citizens, that it might serve in some degree as a corrective to the visions of Mr. Malthus. All this well accords with what we know of the history of population in Sweden. We know there, that it advances, and it retrogrades. It advances by slow and measured steps: and, in a country, not liable to the inroad of savage conquerors, nor to the perhaps still more destructive influences of a government framed for the misery of its subjects, absolute desolation is not to be expected. Here then we distinctly see the checks upon a growing population; they are matters of record; they form a distinct part of the great volume of our history. We are not left, in this (if in reality we knew nothing more of it than the Essay on Population supposes),misnamed science, to fill up its gaps with imaginary deaths, and still more imaginary births.
It will be seen that my question and Mr. Malthus's respecting the checks on population are altogether different. My question is, why the world, in its various climates, and its successive ages, does not produce human beings, at the rate Sweden is proved to have done for fifty-four years? His question, on the contrary, is why Sweden did not for those fifty-four years produce human beings, at the rate in which he exhibits them as produced, in his dream of the United States of North America?
The entire result of the arguments and facts collected in this and the preceding Chapter, is, that the causes that keep down the population of mankind, which otherwise might advance with a slow, but regular progress, are not silent, mysterious and concealed, but obvious and glaring, and that they operate by fits and at intervals. Though I am far from pretending in this place to have reduced the theory of the checks on population into a science, I have done something towards it. I have taken it out of the state in which Mr. Malthus left it, referring every thing, as he does, to occult causes, and holding the world in awe by the repetition, at due intervals, of two cabalistical terms, vice and misery, and have shewn that the real checks are palpable, recorded in the history of mankind, and even capable of being reduced into somewhat of a tabulated form by the persons who shall hereafter patiently study this important branch of political economy.
[a]I have been told by a Swede of good information that 90,000 persons perished in the disastrous campaign of 1809–10.
[b]Stow, ad annum