Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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MALTHUS, Thomas Robert, was born at Rookery, near Dorking, in the county of Surrey, England, Feb. 14, 1766, and died at Bath, Dec. 29, 1834. His father, Daniel Malthus, was in comfortable circumstances, but as he was obliged to leave his fortune to his eldest son, he had Thomas Robert enter upon an ecclesiastical career. He first confided him to Richard Graves, author of "The Spiritual Don Quixote"; then he sent him to the Warrington academy, in Lancashire; but this institution not having been able to maintain itself, he had him complete his studies with Gilbert Wakefield, who enjoyed a great reputation in England. At eighteen years of age, young Malthus entered Jesus college, Cambridge; he took his degree there in 1788, and the following year entered holy orders. After remaining at home for some time, he received a curacy in the neighborhood.


—This was a time when men's minds were in a state of fermentation in Europe, on account of the philosophic movement and the events of the French revolution. William Godwin, a publicist already well known, had just published his book on political justice, in which he claimed that moral evil and all the calamities of the human race were due solely to the defects of governments, and he proposed the establishment of an equality of conditions as a means to prevent the effects of bad political institutions. This work of Godwin had in England both adversaries and partisans. Among the latter was Daniel Malthus, Thomas Robert, his son, on the contrary, had learned from the study of history and of political economy (Adam Smith had published his book in 1776, and David Hume, who had been received into the family with J. J. Rousseau, had published his essays,) that, if defective governments contribute to make men vicious and miserable, the ignorance and degradation of the lower classes contribute powerfully either to form or to maintain bad governments. Malthus was therefore far from harboring any illusions as to the results which might be expected from public reforms.


—Godwin published, in 1797, a collection of essays called "The Inquirer," upon education, morals and literature. One of these essays, upon prodigality and avarice, induced Malthus, then in the prime of youth, to take up his pen, and he answered by an "Essay on the Principle of Population," which he published anonymously, and which must be considered less as a first edition, than as an essay toward the celebrated work printed five years later.


—Malthus opposed those writers in whose eyes the perfectibility of men and of political and social institutions was unlimited, and reduced almost to nothing the influence of bad governments; he defended property and opposed the various socialistic systems which had been already produced by utopians and others; he showed that society had never encountered but two obstacles to its progress, vice and misery; and he pointed out as the chief cause of these obstacles the too rapid increase of population relatively to the means of subsistence.


—This book, which demolished the utopias and systems imagined for the happiness of the human race by popular writers, and which showed the various social phenomena in a new light, was attacked and defended with spirit, as Godwin's had been before it. This incited Malthus thoroughly to examine the subject once more. He first made use of the works of Hume, Wallace, Smith and Price. He examined what influence the principle of population, which he had brought to light, had exercised over nations in the different epochs of history; and desirous to add to the lessons of the past those of his own, he undertook a journey through a part of Europe.


—In the spring of 1789 he departed from England with three other members of Jesus college, Cambridge, (among whom was Daniel Clark, known by his travels in different parts of Europe), and visited Denmark, Sweden and a part of Russia; he subsequently visited Switzerland and Savoy. The result of his travels was the publication of the second edition of the "Essay on the Principles of Population," in 1803, which excited attack even more than did the first. In this work, which was born of the first, but which was new in many respects, Malthus gave a fuller exposition of his ideas by their more complete development, and by the recital of numerous facts borrowed from history and from the situation of different countries; he applied his observations to institutions which had always been considered benevolent, and showed the dangers of an unintelligent philanthropy; he pointed out to the working classes that the best means of permanently raising the rate of wages was to exercise great circumspection in the matter of marriage, etc. We give here only a very slight summary of his ideas, which will be more completely set forth in the article POPULATION—A year after the publication of his work, Malthus was appointed professor of history and of political economy at the college of the East India company, at Ailesbury, near London: it was also about this time that he married. He fulfilled for thirty years his duties as professor and also as minister of the gospel; and it was during this period of his life that he three times revised his celebrated work, that he meditated upon the questions with which science concerns itself, and that he was led to publish his other writings: upon the corn laws (1814 and 1815), upon rent (1815), upon the principles of political economy (1819), upon definitions in political economy (1827), etc.


—Despite its title, the book upon the principles of political economy is not a complete treatise, but only a collection of dissertations relative to the questions to which he had devoted the greatest share of attention, and which he discussed particularly with Ricardo and J. B. Say. He attempted to establish in this book how important it is not to hastily draw general principles from partial observations, and how essential it is to verify general laws by rigorous examination of the facts. He concluded, therefore, that what is absolutely true in principle is far from being always completely applicable in practice, and that, in the imperfect state of society, it is necessary to understand how to sacrifice, in a certain measure, the truth to the needs of prudence and order. This book is far from having had the same celebrity as that on population; this is due, in the first place, to the nature of the subject, and also, in our opinion, to the relative inferiority of the work. But it is enough glory for one man to have discovered a fundamental law, and to have elucidated it by such remarkable research and such profound observations. The dissertations of Malthus, however, have contributed much to the elucidation of many politico-economic principles, and notably to the theory of rent, to which Ricardo's name has been attached. The latter says, in the preface of his "Principles": "In 1815 the true doctrine of rent was published for the first time by Mr. Malthus, in a book entitled, 'An Inquiry into the Nature and Progress of Rent, etc.,' and by a fellow of the university of Oxford, in his 'Essay on the Employment of Capital in Agriculture,' (Dr. West)." M'Culloch had besides pointed out the same doctrine in a writing on the corn trade, published in 1777 by Anderson. This is not the place to examine into the relation of the theory of rent to these times; we only wish here to call attention to the value which Ricardo put upon this part of the works of Malthus, and also to the modesty with which he submitted his own ideas to the public.


—What distinguishes Malthus is love of truth. "This love of truth," says Charles Comte, "which never contradicts itself, produced and developed in him the private virtues which distinguished him: justice, prudence, temperance and simplicity. He had a sweet character. He had such a great control over his passions, he was so indulgent to others, that people who lived near him for more than fifty years declared that they hardly ever saw him disturbed, never in anger, never excited, never cast down. No harsh word, no uncharitable expression, ever escaped his lips against a human being: and, although he was more the object of injustice and calumny than any writer of his age, perhaps of any age, he was rarely heard to complain of this kind of attack, and he never retaliated. He was very sensible to the approbation of enlightened and wise men; he placed a great value upon public esteem. But unmerited outrage affected him very little; he was as much convinced of the truth of his principles and the purity of his views, as he was prepared for contradictions and even for the repugnance which his doctrines could not fail to inspire in a certain class. His conversation naturally turned on those subjects which touch the well-being of society, and which he had made the special object of his studies; such conversation found him always attentive, serious, easy to move. He gave expression to his opinions so clearly and so intelligibly, that it was easy to see they were the result of profound reflection. Moreover, he was naturally gay and lively, and as ready to take part in the innocent pleasures of the young as to encourage them and direct them in their studies. He was among the most zealous partisans of parliamentary reform, and desired to see the government enter on the path of progress. Faithful to his political opinions at a time when they were far from leading to fortune, he did not make them a claim to favor when they triumphed; he had no thought of making science a stepping-stone to fortune. When his principles became the foundation of the law which reformed the poor laws, calumny and insult by the enemies of reform were not lacking for him. His adversaries tried to make the responsibility for the defects which they pointed out in the government's measure fall upon him; on the other hand, the partisans of that measure overloaded him with eulogy in the discussions which it gave rise to in parliament; but there the gratitude of his political friends and national munificence stopped. I must add that no one ever heard him complain either of the insults of the former or of the neglect of the latter."


—Charles Comte speaks here of the reform of the poor laws. Despite the exaggerations of party spirit in favor of, and against it, Malthus' book vividly impressed all men endowed with a sense of justice, who sincerely desired to better the condition of the masses, and called the attention of men to the dangers of the poor laws. Propositions of reform were made at various times, and notably in 1817 by Mr. Samuel Withbread, and in 1821 by M. J. Scarlett, a learned lawyer; but it was not till 1834 that parliament decided to modify the legislation, after a celebrated inquiry, which confirmed most of the truths Malthus had proclaimed.


—It must have been a great joy to the illustrious economist to see the public action of his country inspired by that one of his opinions which had been most violently attacked. Malthus was then in his sixty-seventh year, and apparently in the enjoyment of very good health. But about the middle of December, 1834, on his arrival at Bath from London, to pass the Christmas holidays with his children at the house of his father-in-law, he became indisposed; a disease of the heart declared itself, and he died on the 29th of the same month.


—Malthus is one of those writers whose ideas have been most misrepresented. We have only been able to indicate them here in a very summary manner; they will be more amply developed in the article POPULATION.


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