Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population and its Historical Impact

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Lee, Jun-Oh
Term Paper, AP European History Class, March 2008

Table of Contents

I. Information on the Author
II. Historical Context
III. An Essay on the Principle of Population
III.1 The First Edition
III.2 The Second to Sixth Edition
IV. Reception
IV.1 Acclaim
IV.2 Criticism
V. Influence
VI. Fallacies of the Essay
VI.1 Inadequate Statistical Data
VI.2 Underestimation of Humankind's Ability to Produce Food
VI.3 Failure to See Demographic Transition
VII. Notes
VIII. Bbliography

I. Information on the Author
            Thomas Robert Malthus, the second son of eight children, was born into a prosperous family in 1766. Malthus received education at home in Bramcote, Nottinghamshire and at the Dissenting Academy, Warrington, until he was admitted to Jesus College, Cambridge in 1784. He earned his master's degree in 1791 and won election as a fellow of Jesus College two years later. In 1797, he took orders and became an Anglican country parson, despite his speech defect that resulted from a cleft palate. (1)
            Malthus married his first-cousin once removed, Harriet Eckersall on April 12, 1804, and had three children. In 1805, he became the Britainí»s first professor in political economy at the East India Company College, which provided vocational and general education for youths of sixteen to eighteen nominated to writerships in oversea service.
            He died in 1834 and lies buried in Bath Abbey in England.

II. Historical Context
            In Malthus' lifetime, some writers and preachers pronounced that high tides such as the American Revolution and the French Revolution, put the world into turmoil, they would eventually bring the calmest, most idyllic time man had known. Rousseau (1712-1778) had earlier written utopian prose. William Godwin (1756-1836), a minister, in his book Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness, believed that "Man is perfectible, or in other words susceptible of perpetual improvement." (2) And because truth is omnipotent, man could transform himself into a creature better suited for happiness and harmony with his neighbor. Godwin envisaged the abolition of government, courts, crime, war, melancholy, and anguish as man achieved perfection. Similar visions struck Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), a French philosopher and mathematician, whose Sketch for a Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind, was published in 1794.
            Godwin and Condorcet were not the only ones . During this time, people in general, who were beginning to benefit from the agricultural and industrial revolution, were healthier. With fewer people dying, this phenomenon resulted in a population increase. Some people, including Archdeacon William Paley (1743-1805), argued that an increasing population was a good sign, for it meant more total happiness. Paley proclaimed that a decay of population was the greatest evil a state could suffer.(3)
            Malthus thought otherwise, however. Malthus thought that people, especially in the lower class, are very multiplicative. More children means food shortage, which results in the decline in the standard of living and would keep people at only a bare subsistence level. He thought that it was time to call people back from dream to reality, so he produced his Essay on Population. (4)

III. An Essay on the Principle of Population

III.1 The First Edition
            The first edition was published in 1798, anonymously.
            Malthus wrote the original text in reaction to the optimism of his father, Daniel Malthus, and his father's associates, regarding the future improvement of society. Malthus also constructed his case as a specific response to writings of William Godwin and of Marquis de Condorcet, as the title of the first e dition suggests : An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers.
            Malthus regarded ideals of future improvement in the lot of humanity with skepticism, partly because throughout history a segment of every human population seemed relegated to poverty. He explained this phenomenon by pointing out that population growth generally preceded expansion of the populationí»s resources, food in particular. Malthus also saw that societies through history had experienced at one time or another epidemics, famine, or wars. Malthus observed that these events suppressed population growth.
            To give mathematical perspective to his observations, Malthus proposed that population, if unchecked, increases at a geometric rate (i.e. 1, 2, 4, 8, 16), whereas the food supply grows at an arithmetic rate (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Here, geometric rate means that the number is multiplied by a constant, while arithmetic rate means that the number is added by a constant. Thus, a number that is increased at a geometric rate increases much faster.
            In the first edition of the Essay, Malthus suggested that only natural causes (accidents, natural deaths), misery (war, pestilence, plague, and famine), and vice (infanticide, murder, contraception, and homosexuality) could check excessive population growth because they helped the population down. In the subsequent editions, Malthus raised the possibility of moral restraint (marrying late or not at all, sexual abstinence) as a check on growth of population. (5). He also proposed gradual abolition of poor laws that gave no incentive to birth control.

III.2 The Second to Sixth Edition
            Between 1798 and 1826, Malthus published five more editions of the Essay. He updated each edition to incorporate new material, to address criticism, and to convey changes in his own perspective on the subject. Unlike in the first edition, Malthus did not publish his work anonymously.
            The 2nd edition was published in 1803. The 2nd edition was different from the first edition in structure, not to mention the copious and detailed evidence Malthus presented; Malthus examined his essay on a region-by-region basis of world population. Subsequent editions, which are considered as minor revisions of the 2nd essay, were published in 1806, 1807, 1817, and 1826.(6)

IV. Reception

IV.1 Acclaim
            Reputable writers, politicians, and economists, such as David Ricardo(1772-1823) and John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), admitted that Malthus' essay was logical. Malthus was praised for his insight, diligence, and his brevity.

IV.2 Criticism
            Nassau William Senior (1790-1864) pointed out that in the world as a whole, and through the past to the present, food had always increased faster than population, in spite of the alleged tendency of population to increase faster than food.(7) Some have argued that Malthus did not fully recognize the human capacity to increase food supply.
            Because Malthus proposed abolishing the Poor Law, which aided the poor financially, he was criticized for lacking a caring attitude towards the situation of the poor.
            After Malthusí» time, Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) sharply criticized Malthusian theory, calling it a "reactionary doctrine" and "an attempt on the part of bourgeois ideologists to exonerate capitalism and to prove the inevitability of privation and misery for the working class under any social system." (8)
            Not all criticism was targeted at the validity of Malthus' Essay . Instead, some people merely satirized Malthus' idea that the world has its limits in growth. The comedy of Cobbett (1763-1835) "Surplus Population," in Twopenny Trash for June 1831, shows Sir Gripe Grindum, Peter Thimble Esquire, a great anti-population philosopher, and a bunch of villagers, at sixes and sevens over projected matings, with Sir Gripe Grindum finishing up in the horse pond. (9) In addition, when Malthus got married and had three children, the critics quickly grabbed the chance to jeer at the multiplication of his own offspring, for it was Malthus who argued that the population growth will be detrimental to the well-being of people.

V Influence
            First of all, Malthus had influenced the Britainí»s policies . Malthus' theory on population hardened the growing sentiment and opinion against the Poor Law, not merely against its laxities, but against its continuance. His essay also won over Prime Minister Pitt (1759-1806). Though in 1796 Pitt had advocated poor relief in Parliament, four years later he adopted Malthus' thesis and withdrew his support for a new bill. Pitt now argued that poor relief brought the date to ravage the populace, since it encouraged the poor to have children.(10)
            Malthusí» theory also influenced the British policies in the 1840s. The government neglected relief-measures during the Irish Potato Famine, seeing mass starvation as a natural and inevitable consequence of Ireland's supposed overpopulation. After the Famine, deaths and the emigration to foreign countries, reduced the population of Ireland, which had been over 8 million, to 6 million. In response to this phenomenon, the Catholic clergy in Ireland promoted having more babies.
            The threat of ever-growing population led people to use birth control. Even though Malthus himself opposed contraception, his work strongly influenced Francis Place (1771-1854), whose Neo-Malthusian movement became the first to advocate contraception.
            People's interest in the population grew, and it resulted in promoting the idea of a national population census. The first modern census was carried out in 1801. Many also regard Malthus as the founder of modern demography; commentators widely regard his theory as an approximate natural law of population dynamics. It is because he proved that nothing can sustain exponential growth as a construct follows demographic forces.
            Malthus' idea of man's struggle for existence had an influence on Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and the theory of evolution. This struggle for existence of all creatures provides the catalyst by which natural selection produces the survival of the fittest. Darwin, in his book The Origin of Species, called this theory an application of the doctrines of Malthus in an area without the complicating factor of human intelligence. Alfred Wallace (1823-1913), who was also independently working on the theory of evolution, said that reading Malthus' essay led him toward the theory.

VI. Fallacies of the Essay

Vi.1 Inadequate Statistical Data
            The U.S. population data of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), which Malthus relied on, did not distinguish the immigrants in the entire population.(11) It means that the increase in population was a combination of newborns and the immigrants. Seeing that the United States attracted immigrants from all over the world because of its economic opportunities and religious freedom, it was Malthus' mistake to believe that the population grew so quickly in the United States by birth alone.
            The data that Malthus used in later editions were also inappropriate. Decennial census reckonings of the population began only in 1801 in Britain; there was no compulsory registration of births and deaths until three years after Malthus died in 1837. Malthus could not have known the precise demographic data, and without exact data, Malthus' thesis may be questioned.

VI.2 Underestimation of Humankind's Ability to Produce Food
            In the 1850s and 1860s, John Fowler (1826-1864), an agricultural engineer and inventor, produced a steam-engine that could plough farmland more quickly and more economically than horse-drawn ploughs. His ploughing engine could also be used to dig drainage holes, thereby bringing into cultivation previously unused swampy land. This resulted in more farmland, and therefore, more food.
            Charles Townshend (1674-1738) learned the four field system from Flanders and introduced it to Great Britain in 1730. The system (wheat, barley, turnips and clover), opened up a fodder crop and grazing crop allowing livestock to be bread year-round. The improved grain production simultaneously increased livestock production. Farmers could grow more livestock because there was more food, and manure was an excellent fertilizer, so they could have even more productive crops.
            Development of fertilizers also contributed to the increase in productivity. Although it was possible for the land to regain strength through the four field system, the use of fertilizers helped the land regain nutrients even faster. Justus von Liebig (1803-1873) contributed greatly to the advancement in the understanding of plant nutrition. He argued for the importance of ammonia, and later the importance of inorganic minerals. His study laid the foundation for the study of fertilizers, allowing other scientists to build on his results, and eventually increasing the crop yield.
            Robert Bakewell (1725-1795) and Thomas Coke (1754-1842) introduced selective breeding (mating together two animals with particularly desirable characteristics) and inbreeding(to stabilize certain qualities) in order to reduce genetic diversity in desirable animals programs from the mid 18th century. These methods proved successful in the production of larger and more profitable livestock. Before Bakewell, the main use for cattle was for pulling ploughs, but he crossed long horned heifers and a Westmoreland bull to create the Dishley Longhorn. He increased the weight of his sheep and also greatly improved the taste of mutton. As more and more farmers followed his lead, farm animals increased dramatically in size and quality.
            And now, scientists are now even able to change the genes of the livestock and grain to beget even better products; grains can now withstand most diseases, and livestock now grow even larger and yield more offspring. With the development in science, it is needless to say that the food production can catch up with the population growth.

VI.3 Failure to See emographic Transition
            Malthus failed to foresee the demographic transition; the population did not soar steadily as Malthus assumed. In preindustrial societies, high death rates balance high birthrates, ensuring steady population. In the second stage, early industrial development, better health lowers death rates, so birthrates appear excessive, and population spurts upward. Since Malthus collected his data in this era, he did not and probably could not have seen what would come next. In the third stage, urbanization and education persuade many to have fewer children. Thus, the death rate continues falling but so does the birthrate, which flattens the population curve. Finally, in a mature society, with successful birth control and often both spouses working, couples seem to desire between one to three children, and the population stabilizes. If Malthus had known that the population would go through transitions and limit itself, he could not have predicted that the population would grow forever.


(1)      Malthus 1798
(2)      Buchholz 1999
(3)      Bonar 1966
(4)      ibid.
(5)      Raphael 1997
(6)      Wikipedia : Thomas Malthus
(7)      Wikipedia : An Essay on the Principle of Population
(8)      Wikipedia : Thomas Malthus
(9)      Percival 1989.
(10)      Glass 1953
(11)      Meet Dr. Franklin, 1943


Note : websites quoted below were visited in March 2008.
1.      Buchholz, Todd G.. New Ideas From Dead Economists. Revised Edition. Harmondsworth: Plume, 1999.
2.      Heilbroner, Robert L.. The Worldly Philosophers. 7th Edition. New York: Touchstone, 1995
3.      Article : Malthus, Thomas Robert, from : Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. 2007. Questia. 27 Feb. 2008 .
4.      Glass, D. V., ed. Introduction to Malthus. London: Watts, 1953. Questia. 27 Feb. 2008 .
5.      Bonar, James, ed. Malthus and His Work. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1966. Questia. 28 Feb. 2008 .
6.      Malthus, Thomas Robert. First Essay on Population, 1798. London: Macmillan, 1926. Questia. 28 Feb. 2008 .
7.      Rickard, Suzanne. "Conversations with Malthus." History Today Dec. 1999: 47. Questia. 29 Feb. 2008 .
8.      Percival, Ray. "Malthus an His Ghost: When He Formulated His Theory, Malthus Ignored the Ingenuity of Man." National Review 18 Aug. 1989: 30+. Questia. 4 Mar. 2008 ..
9.      Raphael, D. D., Donald Winch, and Robert Skidelsky. Three Great Economists: Smith, Malthus, Keynes. Oxford : UP, 1997. Questia. 4 Mar. 2008 .
10.      Article : Thomas Malthus, from : Wikipedia, 10 Mar 2008. 11 Mar 2008 .
11.      Article : British Agricultural Revolution, from : Wikipedia, 9 Mar 2008, 12 Mar 2008 .
12.      Anonymous, Meet Dr. Franklin. Philadelphia: The Franklin Institute, 1943. Questia. 13 Mar. 2008 .
13.      Article : An Essay on the Principle of Population, from : Wikipedia, 11 Mar 2008, 15 Mar 2008 .
14.      Johnston, Wesley. "The Great Famine in Ireland." 15 Mar 2008 .