Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IV.: Of the doctrines of the essay on population as they affect the condition of the poor. - Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind
Return to Title Page for Of Population. An Enquiry concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
CHAPTER IV.: Of the doctrines of the essay on population as they affect the condition of the poor. - 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).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Of the doctrines of the essay on population as they affect the condition of the poor.
THUS, far Mr. Malthus cannot justly be accused of having advanced any thing that should tend to the “decrease of mortality,” and that by so doing should counteract the main purpose and fundamental doctrine of the Essay on Population. When he has established the two memorable propositions which have been canvassed in the preceding Chapter, that the poor “have no right to support,” and that the rich” have a right to do what they will with their own,” these maxims will by no means in their practical application tend to the “decrease of mortality,” except so far as famine and despair may arrest the propagation of mankind. And it is an obvious and irresistible truth, that he who is not born will never die.
Indeed it will be found all through, that when our author speciously proposed a scheme for the “decrease of mortality,” he meant a scheme for “thinning the ranks of mankind.”
Mr. Malthus however has great hopes of accomplishing his point, so far as this country is concerned by the abolition of the poor-laws.
Having therefore prepared the way, by “formally disclaiming,” on the part of the community, “the right of the poor to support,” he is contented with what he calls a” very gradual abolition” of the enactments by which that right is recognised.
His plan is that of a law, “declaring, that no child born from any marriage, taking place after the expiration of a year from the date of the law, and no illegitimate child born two years from the same date, shall ever be entitled to parish assistancea .” “This,” he says, “would amount to a fair, distinct and precise notice, which no man could well mistakeb .” “No individual would be either deceived or injured, and consequently no person could have a just right to complainc .”
For my own part, I profess myself at a loss to conceive of what earth the man was made, by whom this sentence was penned.
In the question of a child to be born into the world, and of the fortune that shall attend it, there are two parties concerned, the child and its parents. I own I was ignorant enough to imagine that the child was the most deeply concerned of the two.
Tristram Shandy has trifled in a very whimsical way with the idea of a scheme for baptising children before they are born. Mr. Malthus is the first man that has proposed the proclaiming children, and putting them out of the protection of the law, before they are born, for the purpose of preventing them from complaining afterwards. What has his “fair, distinct and precise notice” to do with them?
In the system of the globe we inhabit, and among the varieties of human fortune, it is an exclamation that has often been heard, and when urged in the depth of reflection, and amidst the agitations of agonised feelings, does not fail to be greatly pathetic: “Why am I thus? How have I deserved the series of misfortunes that incessantly pursue me? How came I into the world? I never desired it. My consent was never demanded. I was compelled to come; and perhaps have never enjoyed one day of real felicity. All to me has been darkness, pains of body, grief of mind, hunger, nakedness, depression and contempt.”
I know that the order of the universe is too mighty for any human being to contend with: but I do not entertain exactly the same deference and awe for the systems of human law. Earthly legislatures may without sin be approached in the language of expostulation and remonstrance.
Here then is a child that perishes with want perhaps as soon as he is born. Or he may drag on the load of existence for a varied length of way, from one to fourscore years. However long he may exist, he shall bear about him for ever the miseries, which arise from his being half-famished in the first stage of existence. And Mr. Malthus comes and tells him he “has no right to complain,” for a “fair, distinct and precise notice” was given two years before he was born.
If Mr. Malthus and his disciples were to tell him, that general considerations of human weal, and the “principle of population” required that he should be thus deserted, that would be somewhat different. But to say, that a “fair, distinct and precise notice” was given two years before he was born, and” therefore no person has a just right to complain,” what a mockery is it!
The author of the Essay on Population goes on in a climax, in this instructive discourse on the rights of human creatures. He first” formally disclaims the right of the poor,” the infant, the helpless old, the sick, and the man who cannot procure employment, “to support” He next assures us, that, a “fair, distinct and prescise notice” having previously been given, “no person,” and consequently not the child thereafter to be born, “can have a just right to complain” of any calamities that may afterwards overtake him.
Mr. Malthus however undertakes to reconcile the poor man to his lot by an allegory. “These are the unhappy persons, who in the great lottery of life have drawn a blankd .” “A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and in fact has no business to be where he is. At nature's mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he do not work upon the com: passion of some of the guests. If these guests get up and make room for him, other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favour. The report of a provision for all that come, fills the hall with numerous claimants. The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed; the plenty that before reigned is changed into scarcity; and the happiness of the guests is destroyed by the spectacle of misery and dependence in every part of the hall, and by the clamorous importunity of those, who are justly enraged at not finding the provision which they had been taught to expect. The guests learn too late their error, in counteracting those strict orders against all intruders issued by the great mistress of the feast, who, wishing that her guests should have plenty, and knowing that she could, not provide for unlimited numbers, humanely refused to admit fresh comers when her table was already fulle .”
I pass over the humanity of the man who makes to himself an agreeable amusement, from the consideration of the unhappy wretches that are starving at his door. The best of it is, that it is totally false. Men are born into the world, in every country where the cultivation of the earth is practised, with the natural faculty in each man of producing more food than he can consume, a faculty which cannot be controled but by the injurious exclusions of human institution.
It is true that this passage is omitted by Mr. Malthus in his last edition; but it deserved to be preserved as a specimen of the strange extravagances to which the “principle of population” is liable to urge its disciples. It is indeed the most dreadful passage that ever poor printer for his sins was condemned to compose.
But let us follow a little more closely Mr, Malthus's scheme for the gradual abolition of the poor-laws.
“To give a more general knowledge of this law, and to inforce it more strongly on the minds of the lower classes of people, I should propose that the clergyman of each parish should, after the publication of the bans of marriage, read a short address, stating the strong obligation on every man to support his own children; the impropriety, and even immorality, of marrying without a prospect of being able to do this; the evils which had resulted to the poor themselves, from the attempt which had been made to assist by public institutions in a duty which ought to be exclusively appropriated to parents; and the absolute necessity which had at length appeared of abandoning all such institutions, on account of their producing effects totally opposite to those which had been intended.
“This would operate as a fair, distinct and precise notice, which no man could well, mistakef .
It must be admitted that this is a strong measure. It strips human life of all those pleasing hues, and all that fascinating appearance, which, if not genuine, has at least served to reconcile thousands to their fate. Marriage is the grand holiday of our human nature; and, if the rest of the path-way of life is too often involved in horrors or in shades, this is the white spot, the little gleam of pure sunshine, which compensates for a thousand other hardships and calamities. It is indeed a bitter homily to the poor man, that Mr. Malthus proposes. However fair may be his hopes, 110 one who lives by the sweat of his brow, can be sure that he shall always be able, without assistance, to support a family. He has revolved, it may be, with considerable anxiety and deep meditation, before he took this decisive step; and he does not love to be reminded of it, thus publicly, in the face of the church, at a time when the good customs of our forefathers taught him to look out for congratulations. Even if, when I propose to be married, my circumstances are moderately easy, I do not like to be thus lectured, and put into uncomfortable speculations on the occasion; and I will take care, after the passing Mr. Malthus's law, always to be married with a licence, that I may not individually be the occasion for my fellow-parishioners to hear, three times repeated, this displeasing warning. I cannot forgive the author of the law, for thus reminding me, whenever I am disposed to enter into wedlock, that marriage in the abstract is crimen lœsi boni communis, and that in certain cases of exception only it becomes innocent.
It is further right to remark in this place, that Mr. Malthus's plan for the frequent recital of his homily against marriage, is for ostentation only. He expressly says, that the principle of moral restraint “has undoubtedly in past ages operated with very inconsiderable force;” and he protests against “any opinion respecting the probable improvement of society, in which we are not borne out by the experience of the past” If the making a picture of this kind would answer he purpose, and prevent our being visited with the reality, then (upon Mr. Malthus's principle of the necessity for perpetual and powerful checks against increasing population) it were well. But our author well knows,
The writer of the Essay on Population, in hie commonwealth, can by no means dispense with the actual presence of misery. It is on this ground that he pleads against “a society, constituted according to the most beautiful form that imagination can conceive.” He is like some of our old divines, who are of opinion that the happiness of heaven would be incomplete, unless its inhabitants had a far-off prospect of the gulph of hell, and heard its tenants from their place of torment exclaim, that so they might be fully sensible of the fate from which they had escaped.
The author of the work I am examining plainly shuts himself up in the little circle of what is passing in the world around him, without ever having recourse to the evidence of past ages. Had he opened the volume of history, he would there have learned many instructive lessons.
In the first place, he would have learned the origin of our poor-laws. They grew out of the Reformation. They were no new concession made to the lower order of the people of England, but a substitute for something that the Reformation had taken away. We have been taught by our ancestors, the authors of that great revolution in human affairs, to look only on the dark side of all that preceded, as if it had been all pure and unmingled evil. But it was not so: nor is such the character of the ancient institutions of any civilised country.
Christianity, as it was understood for centuries before the Reformation, was a religion of charity and beneficence. The prelates of those times had large revenues; but it was universally conceived that they held these revenues, not to be expended in personal luxuries, but merely as stewards for the flock of Christ. It was expected of them by the faithful, that they should themselves live in primitive simplicity, and even voluntarily subject themselves to many privations and hardships. The use they were to make of a considerable part of their revenues, was to relieve the sick, to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry. The monasteries of those times had large revenues; but their inhabitants were held by the charter of their institutions, to rise to midnight prayers, to feed sparingly, and to live upon the earth as strangers, whose only home was beyond the grave. The aid therefore derived by the distressed and unfortunate from the revenues of the monasteries, was of the greatest importance. Even the nobility and gentry of those times, won over by such examples, employed a considerable part of their incomes in acts of charity.
All this was reversed by the Reformation. The great multitude of monasteries and religious houses was swept away at once; and the maxims of that age, when this high stimulus and example was removed, were speedily changed. The consequence was the establishment of a great number of hospitals and public institutions, and the enacting of our poor-laws. These did not originate in the prodigal beneficence of the men of those days; but were a penurious and scanty substitute for the vast sources of relief that were taken away, and they were absolutely required by the nature and state of society.
How comes it then that England was not greatly overpeopled in the ages that preceded the Reformation, as it certainly would have been, if the human species were altogether so like rabbits, as Mr. Malthus represents them? The scheme for starving us out for our good, is altogether new; and I am apprehensive that mankind did quite as well in times that are past, as they are ever likely to do under the parental care of the author of the Essay on Population.
If Mr. Malthus had looked into the page of history, he might have derived instruction not only from the early history of England, but from the records of Ancient Greece. Her two most flourishing states were Sparta and Athens. These were the countries in which to have tried the geometrical ratio; and it was triedg . The constitution of Sparta endured five hundred years; that of Athens not so long. But, in defiance of the calculations of Mr. Malthus, “this fair form of society” was not destroyed, and all its institutions turned into “every hateful vice, and every form of distress, that can degrade and sadden” the worst pages of the history of mankind, by the “mere effect of the principle of population.”
To conclude. The reader will do me the justice to observe, that the above pages do not constitute a criticism upon, or a defence of, the poor-laws of England. Mr. Malthus has brought these laws into discussion, while illustrating his principle, that “the poor man has no right to support” This principle I deny; but upon the poor-laws I have no design of pronouncing judgment. In England, those who are supposed unable to maintain themselves are aided from a general assessment: in France and some other countries, they are provided for in a different way. In both however they are under the protection of the law: I should prefer being the citizen of a country, where the deserted and the helpless should be sufficiently taken care of without the intervention of the state. But in England at least we are not yet ripe for this.
[a]Vol. III, p. 179.
[d]Vol. II. p. 266.
[e]Quarto Edition, 1803, p. 531.
[f]Vol. III, p.179.
[g]See above, Book I, Chap. X, and again, p. 101, 102, 103.