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Life and Writings of Thomas Robert Malthus

188 pages
Library of Alexandria
A great deal has been said in Courts of Law during the last two years about the Malthusian principle of population. The Lord Chief Justice of England has pronounced that it is an irrefragable truth, and that all parties who have studied such questions know, since the days of the Rev. T. R. Malthus, that the great cause of indigence is the tendency that population has to increase faster than agriculture can furnish food. And yet we have serious doubts whether one out of a thousand of the population of the British Islands knows who Mr. Malthus was, or, indeed, whether he was a Roman, or a citizen of modern Europe, at all. It is, therefore, we are convinced, very important to let his countrymen know that Thomas Robert Malthus was an Englishman; that he was a denizen of the 19th century; and that he lived most part of his life in the neighbourhood of London. Thomas Robert Malthus was born at the Rookery, near Dorking, in Surrey, in 1766. Those who are interested in the matter will do well to make a pilgrimage, as we have done, to the romantic birth-place of the discoverer of the law of population, the greatest (if we measure discoveries by their effect on human happiness) ever made. Malthus’ father was an able man, a friend and correspondent of the noble and unfortunate J. J. Rousseau, and one of his executors. Thomas Robert was his second son, and, as a boy, evinced so much ability that his father kept him at home and superintended his education himself. The son repaid his father’s care, and had awakened in him that spirit of independence and love of truth which were ever afterwards the characteristics of his mind. He had two tutors, in addition to his father, both men of genius—Richard Graves and Gilbert Wakefield—the former the author of the “Spiritual Quixote,” the latter the correspondent of Fox, and well known in his day as a violent democratic writer and politician. In 1784, when 22 years of age, T. R. Malthus went to Cambridge; and, in 1797, became a Fellow of Jesus College. After this he took orders, and for a time officiated in a small parish near his father’s house, in Surrey. In 1798, appeared his first printed work, which may be seen in the British Museum. It is entitled “An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it affects the future Improvement of Society; with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, Mr. Condorcet, and other Writers.” The writer in the Encyclopædia Britannica, from whom these details of Malthus’ life are taken, informs us that the book was received with some surprise, and excited considerable attention, as being an attempt to overturn the prevalent theory of political optimism, and to refute, upon philosophical principles, the speculations then so much in vogue, as to the indefinite perfectibility of human institutions. In this remarkable essay the general principle of population, which Wallace, Hume, and others had very distinctly enunciated before him, though without foreseeing the consequences that might be deduced from it, was clearly expounded; and some of the important conclusions to which it leads in regard to the probable improvement of human society were likewise stated and explained; but his illustrations were not sufficient, and he, therefore, sought in travel further confirmation of his theories. In 1799 he visited Norway, Sweden, and Russia, and, after the peace of Amiens, France; in which countries he busily collected all the data he could bearing upon his researches. In 1815 he was appointed to the professorship of political economy and modern history at Haileybury, near London, which chair he occupied until his death in 1834, at the age of 70. He left behind him one son and one daughter. The son is, we believe, still alive, or was so a few years ago.