Editor’s Intro to Ricardo’s Notes on Malthus

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Source: Editors' Introduction to The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, ed. Piero Sraffa with the Collaboration of M.H. Dobb (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). Vol. 2 Notes on Malthus.



Malthus’sPrinciples of Political Economy appeared early in April 1820.1 While at various times, whether in the form of a new edition of his pamphlet on Rent of 1815 or of a supplementary volume to the Essay on Population which should deal with his views on Agriculture and Manufactures,2 he had been thinking of a more general work on Political Economy, it was only after the publication of Ricardo’s Principles that the project of a separate treatise crystallised. From the first this was intended as an answer to Ricardo; and late in 1817 Malthus was writing to him: ‘I am meditating a volume as I believe I have told you, and I want to answer you, without giving my work a controversial air.’3 In the spring of 1818 he writes to Professor Preévost of Geneva: ‘I am at present engaged in a volume on those subjects in Political Econy. the principles of which do not yet appear to be quite settled and in this I shall advert frequently to Mr Ricardo’s work. I shall not however be ready for the press till next Spring.’4 By August 1818 Malthus had read part of his manuscript to Ricardo;5 and again when he visited Gatcomb Park in December he read to Ricardo ‘some more of his intended publication’.6 The book was actually advertised as being ‘in the Press’ in November 1818.7 But publication was delayed, as Ricardo told Mill in a letter of 28 Dec. 1818, partly because Murray thought the end of the following year would be the most favourable time, ‘and partly, I think, from doubts which he [Malthus] cannot help entertaining of the correctness of his opinions’.1 As the time now fixed for publication approached, Malthus wrote to Ricardo on 10 Sept. 1819: ‘I have been delayed and led away as usual by thoughts relating to the subjects of some of our discussions.... I think I have a fourthor a fifth to write yet; and having composed the different parts at different times and not in their natural order, I have still much to put out and put in, before it will be fit to send to the press.’2

A few months before the book came out, McCulloch, presuming that it would be a defence of Malthus’s views on the Corn Laws, had written to Ricardo: ‘I think that justice will not be shown either to the science or the country, if it be not handled pretty roughly’;3 and a little later he asked Ricardo to send him notes on the book when it was published.4 This Ricardo agreed to do: ‘When I have read Mr. Malthus book I will make known to you my opinion on the passages which will be found in it in opposition to our theory.’5

When in April 1820 the book appeared, Ricardo gave it a first reading—‘rather in haste and after different intervals of time.’6 He explains to McCulloch: ‘I thought of noticing the particular points on which Mr. M and I differ, and to have offered some defence of my opinions, but I should have little else to do but to restate the arguments in my book, for I do not think he has touched them’.7 He expresses disagreement particularly with Malthus’s measure of value (he ‘adopts a measure of value very different from mine, but he no where adheres to it’), and with his doctrine of rent; he considers ‘the most objectionable chapter in Mr. Malthus’ book’ to be ‘that perhaps on the bad effects from too great accumulation of capital’; and accuses Malthus of having misunderstood him regarding improvements on the land (‘he has not acted quite fairly by me in his remarks on that passage in my book which says that the interest of the landlord is opposed to that of the rest of the community’). He adds: ‘At present I feel a real difficulty, for I confess I do not very clearly perceive what Mr. Malthus system is.’1

About three months later (during a stay at Brighton in the second half of July) Ricardo read Malthus’s book a second time, and expressed himself ‘even less pleased with it than I was at first’.2 He writes to Mill from Brighton on 27 July 1820: ‘I have had no books here but Malthus’s and my own. I am reading the former with great attention, and noting the passages which I think deserving of comment. They are more numerous than I expected. If I were to answer every paragraph, containing what I think an erroneous view of the subject on which the book treats, I should write a thicker volume than his own.’3

For a time after he had retired to Gatcomb on 9 August,4 Ricardo was largely occupied in revising his own Principles for edition 3. Two months later, in a letter of 14 Oct. 1820 to Mill (who in the interval had been staying with him at Gatcomb ‘for more than three weeks’),5 he said: ‘I take advantage of every leisure hour to work on my reply to Malthus—I consider it as an agreeable amusement, and say every thing that offers. It will not probably be desirable to publish it—if I do send it forth it will want a great deal of lopping’.6 On 16 November he announces: ‘My notes on Malthus (such as they are) are finished’;7 and a week later he tells McCulloch: ‘I have been employed for some little time in writing notes on Mr Malthus’ last work, which as yet I have shown to no one.... I have, wherever I met with a passageon which I wished to animadvert, quoted the page, and the first few words of the passage, and then have written my short comment.’8 On the next day he informs Malthus: ‘I have made notes on every passage in your book which I dispute, and have supposed myself about publishing a new edition of your work, and at liberty to mark the passage with a reference to a note at the bottom of the page. I have in fact quoted 3 or 4 words of a sentence, noting the page, and then added my comment.’1 (The idea of putting his criticisms in the form of notes to a special edition of Malthus’s work may have been suggested by Say’s treatment of Ricardo’s own Principles in the French edition which had recently been published.)

These letters indicate that the possibility of publishing the Notes had not been entirely ruled out by Ricardo while he was writing them. Just before their completion Mill had offered to advise him about publication (‘I shall be glad, when you have finished your notes...if you will transmit them to me, and give me an opportunity of advising with you; because, the time about which you will most probably come to town, will be the time best for publication’).2 At first Ricardo had entertained the alternative idea of ‘publishing them as an appendix’ to the third edition of his own Principles; but had been ‘strongly dissuaded from it by Mill’.3

However, in asking McCulloch to read the Notes, he disclaims any intention of publication: ‘If the criticism were just, and the principles I advocate correct, still it would not I think be desirable to publish it—first, because Mr. Malthus book, I am told, has not excited much interest, and these dry, and perhaps not very clearly expressed comments upon it, will excite still less.’4 And in a letter to Trower of 26 Nov. 1820 he writes: ‘The whole might occupy about 150 pages if printed. It is not however probable that I shall publish them, because they are not in an inviting form, and would consequently have few readers.’5 McCulloch, after reading the Notes, advised against publication, on the ground that they were ‘by far too controversial’ and in their present shape involved ‘a good deal of tedious and unnecessary repetition’;6 and Ricardo decided ‘for the present’ to ‘do nothing with them’.1 Trower also, some months later, declared them unsuitable for publication ‘in their present shape’.2 Meanwhile Malthus, far from encouraging Ricardo’s idea of an annotated edition, had at once intimated his intention of himself preparing a new edition, and had followed this with an announcement in the press of its impending publication.3 However, a number of changes in edition 3 of Ricardo’s Principles embody material from these Notes.4

Malthus had intended to visit Gatcomb in December 1820 and to see Ricardo’s Notes before revising his own book;5 and in view of this Ricardo refrained from sending the Notes immediately to McCulloch, in order that Malthus should have a chance of seeing them.6 On hearing from Malthus, however, that the visit had to be postponed, Ricardo dispatched them to McCulloch in Edinburgh; and when Malthus a week later (in the middle of December) came to Gatcomb at short notice, the Notes were no longer there for him to see.7 According to Ricardo’s account of the visit: ‘Mr. Malthus and I had a great deal of discussion, and on some points understood each other’s objections better than before, but yet there remains the greatest difference between us.’8 McCulloch kept the Notes several weeks, after which they were seen by Malthus,9 and later by Trower.10 At the end of 1821, they were once more sent to McCulloch at his request.11 There is no record of when they were actually seen by Mill. To Mill’s offer of 13 Nov. 1820 to advise about the best mode of publication Ricardo had replied: ‘I cannot think of imposing on you the task of reading them, particularly as it would be necessary for you to read also the passages in Malthus on which I comment.’12 That at some stage they were read by Mill is shown by the jottings in his handwriting on the MS, quoted below; but these may have been made after Ricardo’s death.


The discussion between Ricardo and Malthus on the Notes, as we have seen, was chiefly carried out in conversation, except for Ricardo’s comments on the possibility of a general glut, which were taken up by Malthus in a letter of 7 July 18211 —a letter which initiated a brief correspondence between them in the course of that month. Meanwhile Malthus proceeded with his plans for a second edition. After his first move in this direction at the end of 1820, which has been mentioned above, he returned to the task two years later, in December 1822, when he wrote to his friend Prévost: ‘I am very anxious to get out as soon as I possibly can another edition of my last work, in which there will be some new views on a standard of value which require a good deal of care and consideration.’2 This however bore fruit, not in a new edition of that work, but in The Measure of Value Stated and Illustrated which he published as a separate pamphlet in 1823. Its publication gave rise to further correspondence with Ricardo which extended over the last months of Ricardo’s life.

It was not till 1836 that a second edition of Malthus’s Principles of Political Economy appeared; it was published posthumously by his friend Bishop Otter,3 Malthus having died in 1834. It is not quite clear what exactly the editor’s part was in preparing the work for publication. He says in the ‘Advertisement’ prefixed to the volume (p. xi) that Malthus had died ‘before he had completed the whole of the alterations which he had in contemplation, and while he was yet occupied in correcting and improving the latter parts of the work’. He acknowledges that he has ‘slightly varied’ the text in some places, and omitted ‘some passages’.

The changes in this edition are extensive, but in general they do not appear to be carried out with a view to meeting Ricardo’s criticisms. Indeed, they seem rather to be on the defensive against a new generation of critics who linked Malthus in their attacks with Ricardo.

There is thus some indication, firstly that Malthus was engaged on revisions for a second edition in the years 1820 to 1822, and secondly that he carried out another revision in the closing years of his life. We are able to find confirmation of this from Malthus’s working copy of his Principles of Political Economy, 1820, with numerous alterations mostly in his own handwriting which has been preserved.1 These alterations fall into two clearly distinct parts: (a) corrections extending over the first two-thirds of the book and written in the margin or on slips inserted, and (b) a set of 17 pages of MS, consisting of a revision of parts of Chapter II, mainly of Section VI, ‘Of the Labour which a Commodity will command, considered as a Measure of real Value in Exchange’.

As compared with the published second edition, the changes in (a) appear to be much more connected with the controversy with Ricardo in the early ’20’s. Thus it is significant that the most extensive revisions in (a) are in Section V of Chapter II (‘Of Money, when uniform in its cost, considered as a Measure of Value’), which is the second of the sections devoted to a discussion of the measure of value proposed by Ricardo; whereas the second edition omits this section altogether. There are other indications of the period to which (a) belongs. In particular, a footnote to a passage inserted at page 261 refers to the date of publication of ‘the quarto edition of the Essay on Population’ (which was 1803) as ‘nearly twenty years ago’. This footnote occurs in the second edition, p. 235, altered to ‘above thirty years ago’. Also, such inserted slips of paper in (a) as have dated watermarks bear the dates 1819, 1820 and 1822. Thus it would appear that (a) belongs to the period of the abortive preparations for a new edition between 1820 and 1822.

As regards (b), however, such of its pages as have dated water-marks belong to 1828; while in one place on the MS a reference to ‘the time of George IV’ is changed to ‘William IV’.1 Thus these pages must have been written between 1828 and 1830.

While some of the corrections in (a) have found their way into the second edition, the differences are very considerable. It is, therefore, clear that the revision mentioned by Otter, and embodied in the published second edition, cannot be (a) unless Otter himself carried out a more extensive work of revision than he acknowledged. On the other hand (b), most of which is embodied in the second edition with comparatively slight changes,2 evidently belongs to Malthus’s final revision.


For almost a century the Notes disappeared from sight. McCulloch, in the early versions of his Life and Writings of Mr. Ricardo,3 had said: ‘He also left very full “Notes” on Mr. Malthus’s Principles of Political Economy, which we trust will be published. They contain a most able vindication of his own doctrines from the objections of Mr. Malthus, and an exposition of the mistakes into which he conceives Mr. Malthus has fallen.’ But in the later versions of the Life (such as that prefixed to his own edition of Ricardo’s Works, 1846) he replaced the phrase, ‘which we trust will be published’ with the sentence: ‘But we doubt whether they have sufficient interest to warrant their publication’.4

It was only in 1919 that the MS came to light. The discovery was made by Mr Frank Ricardo, a great-grandson of the economist, at Bromesberrow Place, Ledbury (formerly the residence of Ricardo’s eldest son Osman), who describes it as follows in a letter of 28 Oct. 1925 to Professor J. H. Hollander: ‘It was, I think, in the autumn of 1919—or may be the spring—that I was going through some furniture stored in the lumber room at Bromesberrow, and I came upon this MS. wrapped in brown paper and casually put away in a box together with some old ornaments. I recognized it as an original MS. of David Ricardo but whether it had been published I did not then know.’1 The find was reported by Mr Frank Ricardo to the British Museum, which communicated with Professor T. E. Gregory; and the Notes were published in 1928, with a lengthy introduction by Professor Hollander and short summaries of the relevant parts of Malthus’s text prefixed to each Note and prepared by Professor Gregory.2 Acknowledgement is due to the editors and to the publishers, The Johns Hopkins Press, for permission to use their edition.


The MS consists of a title-page and 222 loose sheets (as counted by Hollander) cut to a size of about 4¾ 7¾ inches. They are written by Ricardo on both sides, and were numbered first in pencil on one side only from 1 to 199. These numbers were superseded by a final pagination in ink on both sides of the paper from 1 to 412. Pages were added or taken out at various stages of composition, resulting in duplications and omissions in both paginations. Thus in the ink pagination there are intermediate pages numbered 147½, 148½, 167½, 167½, etc. and in some cases there are pages without a number. There are also frequent insertions on smaller slips, some of them loose and some stuck on to the page with wafers.

The MS is cased in two cardboard book-covers which from their size and colour (blue and buff) may have been taken from a copy of Malthus’s book. On the inside of one of the covers there are some pencil notes in James Mill’s handwriting.1


The method adopted in the present edition follows Ricardo’s hint (when he ‘supposed’ himself ‘about publishing a new edition’ of Malthus’s work):2 namely, of giving Malthus’s text at the top and Ricardo’s Notes at the bottom. This also conforms to Professor Cannan’s idea, when he criticised the Hollander-Gregory edition: ‘What was really wanted was a reprint of Malthus’s book with Ricardo’s notes added, each in its proper place at the foot of the page’.3

Larger type has been used for Ricardo’s Notes than for Malthus’s text. Consecutive numbers have been given to the Notes; and these have been inserted in bold type at the end of each passage commented upon. In the first three of the Notes Ricardo gives an indication of the end as well as the beginning of the passage in question. But in subsequent Notes only the beginning is quoted in the MS, so that the correct position of the reference number in the text is in some cases uncertain and has had to be guessed.

In distributing Ricardo’s commentary under Malthus’s text, an ‘opening’ (i.e. two pages facing one another) has been treated as a single page, and as a result a Note may sometimes be found on the opposite page to its reference in the text.

The page-numbers of the original edition of Malthus have been reproduced in the margin. This has made it possible for Ricardo’s references to those pages to be retained unchanged. On the other hand, Malthus’s page-references to Ricardo’s Principles (which in the original are to Ricardo’s edition 2) have been adjusted to the pagination of Volume I of the present edition and enclosed in square brackets.

As a rule the text of Malthus has been given in full. Only such portions of the text as are not relevant, even indirectly, to Ricardo’s commentary have been cut1 and replaced by the corresponding parts of the very extensive ‘Summary of the Contents’ given by Malthus at the end of his book (where it occupies 70 pages). These parts have been enclosed in square brackets, and can be recognised at a glance by the quick succession of page-numbers in the margin. (It is to be noted that the position of these in such cases can only be approximately correct.)

Malthus’s original Index has been included, with its page-references adapted to the present edition.

The editor’s footnotes to Ricardo’s commentary are distinguished by numbers and by generally being arranged in double column (while Malthus’s footnotes to his own text are marked by asterisks and extend across the page). They give all the corrections in the MS which seemed to be of any possible interest, however remote. The various changes made by Ricardo are indicated by the use of the formulas ‘replaces’, ‘del.’ (for deleted) and ‘ins.’ (for inserted). These terms describe successive stages in the expression of Ricardo’s thought as can be inferred from study of the MS. They do not, however, describe the form in which the alterations were carried out. Thus ‘replaces’ may alternatively indicate: (1) the crossing out of a passage and the rewriting of it between the lines; (2) the recasting of it by adding and removing words here and there; and (3) the copying out of a long passage (sometimes of more than one page) in the course of which alterations were made in the expression. The fact of the sheets being written on both sides involved, whenever a passage had to be added, recopying of all the matter that followed on the same sheet.

The spelling, punctuation and abbreviations of Ricardo’s MS have been retained, except for ‘&’ which has been spelt ‘and’, and Mr., Mrs. and Dr., which have been printed in the more usual form of Mr., Mrs. and Dr. The opening quotations of each Note, which in the MS are in quotes, have been given instead in italics.

The present volume has been printed, for Malthus’s text, from the first edition of 1820 and, for Ricardo’s Notes, from a copy of the Hollander-Gregory edition which was corrected by collation with the original MS a number of times both by editor and printer. Consequently, although attention has not been drawn specifically to the errors which abound in that edition and often distort the sense, the reader can be assured that, where a different reading is given in the present volume, this has not been done without consideration of the alternative version.

This volume, with its special typographical difficulties, has been dependent even more than the others upon the skill and ingenuity of the printers of the Cambridge University Press.


[1 ]It was advertised in the Monthly Literary Advertiser of 10 April 1820 as ‘just published’, price 15s.

[2 ]Below, VII, 26–7.

[3 ]Letter from Malthus 3 Dec. 1817, ib. 215; and cp. letter of 12 Oct. 1817, ib. 194.

[4 ]Letter of 30 March 1818, published by G. W. Zinke in Journal of Economic History, May 1942, vol. ii,p. 178.

[5 ]Ricardo to Malthus, 20 Aug. 1818, below, VII, 284.

[6 ]Ricardo to Mill, 22 Dec. 1818, ib. 372. Another chapter was shown to Ricardo while the book was in the press (below, VIII, 173).

[7 ]In the Monthly Literary Advertiser of 10 Nov. 1818; see below, VII,329.

[1 ]Below, VII, 379–80 and cp. 376.

[2 ]Below, VIII, 64, 66.

[3 ]Letter of 5 Dec. 1819, ib. 138–9; cp. also 167.

[4 ]Letter of 2 April 1820, ib. 176.

[5 ]Letter to McCulloch, 8 April 1820, ib. 177–8.

[6 ]Letter to McCulloch, 2 May 1820, ib. 183. Curiously, two days later he writes to Malthus that he has read his book, ‘with great attention’ (ib. 183).

[7 ]ib. 180.

[1 ]ib. 180–2. Cp. also letter to Malthus, 4 May 1820, ib. 183–6.

[2 ]Letter to McCulloch, 2 Aug. 1820, ib. 215.

[3 ]ib. 212.

[4 ]ib. 230.

[5 ]ib. 231.

[6 ]ib. 283.

[7 ]Letter to Mill, ib. 296.

[8 ]ib. 297–8.

[1 ]Below, VIII, 301.

[2 ]Letter to Ricardo, 13 Nov. 1820, ib. 292–3.

[3 ]Ricardo to Trower, 14 Jan. 1821, ib. 333. Mill’s dissuasion no doubt had been during his visit to Gat-comb in August-September 1820.

[4 ]ib. 298.

[5 ]ib. 305.

[6 ]Letter from McCulloch, 22 Jan. 1821, ib. 340.

[1 ]Letter to McCulloch, 25 Jan. 1821, ib. 342.

[2 ]ib. 395.

[3 ]Letter from Malthus, 27 Nov. 1820 (ib. 308) and Murray’s advertisement in the Monthly Literary Advertiser, 10 Jan. 1821 (ib. 341).

[4 ]See above, I, Introduction, section vii.

[5 ]Below, VIII, 308.

[6 ]ib. 314–5.

[7 ]ib. 318, 324, 334.

[8 ]Letter to McCulloch, 17 Jan. 1821, ib. 336.

[9 ]Ricardo writes on 2 March 1821: ‘Mr. Malthus has now had my notes for 5 weeks’ (ib. 349); and Malthus still had them on 25 April (ib. 373).

[10 ]ib. 393.

[11 ]Below, IX, 135, 138.

[12 ]Below, VIII, 296.

[1 ]Below, IX, 9 ff.

[2 ]Letter of 23 Dec. 1822, in Journal of Economic History, vol. ii,p. 188.

[3 ]‘Second Edition with Considerable Additions from the Author’s Own Manuscript and an Original Memoir’, London, Pickering, 1836.

[1 ]This copy has recently (1949) been presented to the Marshall Library of Economics at Cambridge by Mr R. A. Bray, of Shere, a descendant of Malthus’ sister. The Marshall Library has also the original MS of a large part of the first edition (acquired in 1944).

[1 ]This significant correction was pointed out by Dr Bonar, who first studied this copy of Malthus’s book and called the editor’s attention to its existence.

[2 ]These passages are on p. 87, p. 93 and pp. 95–109 of the second edition.

[3 ]Edinburgh Annual Register for 1823 and the pamphlet Memoir of the Life and Writings of David Ricardo, London,1825.

[4 ]In his Literature of Political Economy, 1845, McCulloch in a note on Malthus’s Principles also referred to Ricardo’s Notes: ‘Mr. Ricardo left a manuscript volume of observations on this work, principally in reply to the interminable criticism of Mr. Malthus on his peculiar doctrines.’(p. 18.)

[1 ]Quoted in Hollander’s Introduction to Notes on Malthus, 1928, p. xi.

[2 ]Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1928, pp. cviii, 246.

[1 ]They are as follows:

‘p. 349 On subdivision of property among children.372 Foreign trade does not augment value.137 Rent comes all out of profits.

154 Reduction in cost of production never goes to rent.’

The references are to the ink pagination of the MS and correspond to pp. 386, 402, 157, 187 below.

[2 ]Above, p. ix-x.

[3 ]Economica, Nov. 1929, p. 358.

[1 ]The omitted portions amount to rather less than a third of the original.