Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Malthus, Thomas Robert

MALTHUS, THOMAS ROBERT (1766–1834), political economist, second son of Daniel Malthus, was born on 17 Feb. 1766 at his father's house, the Rookery, near Guildford. Daniel's eldest son, Sydenham. Malthus, grandfather of Colonel Sydenham Malthus, C.B., died in 1821, in his sixty-eighth year. Daniel Malthus, born in 1730, entered Queen's College, Oxford, in 1747, but did not graduate. He lived quietly among his books, and wrote some useful but anonymous pieces (Otter, p. xxii). He had some acquaintance with Rousseau, and according to Otter became his executor. He was an ardent believer in the 'perfectibility of mankind,' as expounded by Condorcet and Godwin (ib. p. xxxviii), and some ' peculiar opinions ' about education were perhaps derived from the ' Emile.' He was impressed by his son's abilities, and undertook the boy's early education himself. He afterwards selected rather remarkable teachers. In 1776 Robert (as he was generally called) became a pupil of Richard Graves (1715-1804) [q. v.], well known as the author of the 'Spiritual Quixote,' 1772, a coarse satire upon the methodists. Malthus's love of 'fighting for fighting's sake,' without the least malice, and his keen sense of humour, were described by Graves to the father (ib. p. xxx), and he appears to have been afterwards a cricketer and a skater (ib. p. xxv), and fond of rowing (Ricardo's Letters to Malthus, p. 158). He kept up his friendship for Graves, and attended his old schoolmaster's deathbed as a clergyman. He was afterwards a pupil of Gilbert Wakefield, who became classical master of the dissenting academy at Warrington in 1779. Malthus attended the academy for a time, and after its dissolution in 1783 remained with Wakefield till he went to college. A letter appended to Wakefield's 'Life' (ii. 454 - 63) is attributed by Mr. Bonar to Malthus, and if so Malthus highly respected his tutor, and kept up a long friendship with him. On 8 June 1784 Malthus was entered a pensioner of Jesus College, Cambridge, of which Wakefield had been a fellow, and probably began residence in October. One of his tutors was William Frend [q. v.], who, like Wakefield, became a Unitarian. Malthus read history, poetry, and modern languages, obtained prizes for Latin and Greek declamations, and was ninth wrangler in the mathematical tripos of 1788. After graduating he seems to have pursued his studies at his father's house and at Cambridge. On 10 June 1793 (not in 1797) he was elected to a fellowship at Jesus, and was one of the fellows who on 23 June 1794 made an order that the name of S. T. Coleridge should be taken off the boards unless he returned and paid his tutor's bill. He held his fellowship until his marriage, but only resided occasionally (information from the Master of Jesus). He took his M.A. degree in 1791, and in 1798 he was in holy orders, and held a curacy at Albury, Surrey. Malthus's opinions were meanwhile developing in a direction not quite accordant with those of his father and his teachers. He wrote a pamphlet called 'The Crisis' in 1796, but at his father's request refrained from printing it. Some passages are given by Otter and Empson. He attacked Pitt from the whig point of view, but supported the poor-law schemes then under consideration in terms which imply that he had not yet worked out his theory of population. Godwin's 'Enquirer,' published in 1797, led to discussions between Malthus and his father about some of the questions already handled by the same author in his 'Political Justice,' 1793. Malthus finally resolved to put his reasons upon paper for the sake of clearness. He was thus led to write the 'Essay on Population,' published anonymously in 1798. Godwin had dreamt of a speedy millennium of universal equality and prosperity. He had already briefly noticed in his 'Political Justice' the difficulties arising from an excessive stimulus to population. Malthus brought them out more forcibly and systematically. He laid down his famous principle that population increases in a geometrical, and subsistence only in an arithmetical ratio, and argued that population is necessarily limited by the 'checks' of vice and misery. The pamphlet attracted much notice. Malthus was replying to an 'obliging' letter from Godwin in August 1798 (Paul, Godwin, i. 321). In 1801 Godwin replied to Malthus (as well as to Parr and Mackintosh) in his 'Thoughts on Dr. Parr's Spital Sermon.' He was both courteous and ready to make some concessions to Malthus. Malthus soon came to see, as his letter to Godwin already indicates, that a revision of his arguments was desirable. In 1799 he travelled in order to collect information. He went with E. D. Clarke [q. v.], J. M. Cripps [q. v.], and William Otter [q. v.] to Hamburg, and thence to Sweden, where the party separated. Malthus and Otter went through Sweden to Norway, Finland, and Russia. Malthus added some notes to the later editions of Clarke's 'Travels.' His father died in 1800. In 1802 he took advantage of the peace to visit France and Switzerland. In 1800 he had published a tract upon the 'High Price of Provisions,' and promised in the conclusion a new edition of his essay. This, which appeared in June 1803, was a substantially new book, containing the results of his careful inquiries on the continent and his wide reading of the appropriate literature. He now explicitly and fully recognised the ' prudential ' check implicitly contained to some degree in the earlier essay, and repudiated the imputation to which the earlier book had given some plausibility. The 'checks 'no longer appeared as insuperable obstacles to all social improvement, but as defining the dangers which must be avoided if improvement is to be achieved. He always rejected some doctrines really put forward by Condorcet which have been fathered upon him by later Malthusians. He made converts, and was especially proud (Empson) of having convinced Pitt and Paley.

On 13 March 1804 Malthus married Harriet, daughter of John Eckersall of Claverton House, St. Catherine's, near Bath. At the end of 1805 he became professor of history and political economy at the newly founded college of Haileybury. He took part in the services of the college chapel, and he gave lectures on political economy, which, as he declares, the hearers not only understood, but 'did not even find dull.' The lectures led him to consider the problem of rent. The theory at which he arrived is partly indicated in two pamphlets upon the corn laws, published in 1814 and 1815, and is fully given in the tract upon 'The Nature and Progress of Rent' (which was being printed in January 1815). The doctrine thus formulated has been generally accepted by later economists. A similar view had been taken by James Anderson (1739-1808) [q. v.] The same doctrine was independently reached by Sir Edward West, and stated in his 'Essay on the Application of Capital to Land … by a Fellow of University College, Oxford,' published in the same year as Malthus's pamphlet. Ricardo, in an essay on 'The Influence of a Low Price of Corn on the Profits of Stock,' while replying to the two tracts in which Malthus had advocated some degree of protection, substantially accepted the theory of rent, although they differed upon certain questions involved (see Bonar, pp. 238-45). Malthus's 'Political Economy,' published in 1820, sums up the opinions to which he had been led upon various topics, and explains his differences from Ricardo, but is not a systematic treatment of the subject.

Malthus lived quietly at Haileybury for the rest of his life. He visited Ireland in 1817, and in 1825, after the loss of a daughter, travelled on the continent for his own health and his wife's. He was elected F.R.S. in 1819. In 1821 he became a member of the Political Economy Club, founded in that year by Thomas Tooke ; James Mill, Grote, and Ricardo being among his colleagues. Professor Bain says that the survivors long remembered the ' crushing' attacks of James Mill upon Malthus's speeches. He was elected in the beginning of 1824 one of the ten royal associates of the Royal Society of Literature, each of whom received a hundred guineas yearly during the life of George IV, William IV declining to continue the subscription (Jerdan, Autobiography, iii. 159, 162). He contributed papers to the society in 1825 and 1827 upon the measure of value. He was also one of the first fellows of the Statistical Society, founded in March 1834. He wrote several papers and revised his 'Political Economy' during this period, and he gave some evidence of importance before a committee of the House of Commons upon emigration in 1827, but added nothing remarkable to his previous achievements in political economy.

Malthus died suddenly of heart disease on 23 Dec. 1834, while spending Christmas with his wife and family at the house of Mr. Eckersall at St. Catherine's. He was buried in the Abbey Church at Bath. He left a son and a daughter. The son, Henry, became vicar of Effingham, Surrey, in 1835, and of Donnington, near Chichester, in 1837. He died in August 1882, aged 76. Brougham asserted (M. Napier, Correspondence, p. 187) that he offered a living to Malthus, who declined it in favour of his son, 'who now has it' (31 Jan. 1837).

Malthus was a member of the French Institute. He was elected in 1833 one of the five foreign associates of the Academie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, and a member of the Royal Academy of Berlin. A portrait by Linnell was engraved for the 'Dictionnaire de l'Economie Politique' (1853).

Malthus appears to have been a singularly amiable man. Miss Martineau, in her 'Autobiography' (i. 327), gives a pleasant account of a visit to him at Haileybury in 1834. She says that although he had a 'defect in the palate' which made his speech 'hopelessly imperfect,' he was the only friend whom she could hear without her trumpet. He had asked for an introduction, because, while other friends had defended him injudiciously, she had interpreted him precisely as he could wish. (Mr. Bonar identifies the passage referred to as that in 'A Tale of the Tyne,' p. 56.) He also told her (Autobiography, p. 211) that he had never cared for the abuse lavished upon his doctrine 'after the first fortnight,' and she says that he was when she knew him 'one of the serenest and most cheerful' of men. Otter says that during an intimacy of nearly fifty years he never saw Malthus ruffled or angry, and that in success he showed as little vanity as he had shown sensibility to abuse. Horner and Empson speak in similar terms of his candour and humanity. His life was devoted to spreading the doctrines which he held to be essential to the welfare of his fellows. He never aimed at preferment, and it would have required some courage to give it to a man whose doctrines, according to the prevalent opinion, were specially unsuitable to the mouth of a clergyman, and therefore gained for him Cobbett's insulting title of 'Parson Malthus.'

Politically he was a whig, though generally moderate and always a lover of the 'golden mean.' He supported catholic emancipation, and accepted the Reform Bill without enthusiasm. He objected to religious tests, and supported both of the rival societies for education (Horner, ii. 97). He was a theologian and moralist of the type of Paley. Though a utilitarian he did not, any more than Bentham, accept the abstract principle of laissez-faire which became the creed of Bentham's followers. He was in favour of factory acts and of national education. He was convinced, however, that the poor laws had done more harm than good, and this teaching had a great effect upon the authors of the Poor Law Bill of 1834. In political economy Malthus objected to the abstract methods of Ricardo and his school, although he was personally on the most friendly terms with Ricardo, and carried on a correspondence, Ricardo's share of which was edited by Mr. Bonar in 1889. He followed Adam Smith in the constant reference to actual concrete facts. Malthus's doctrine of population had been anticipated by others, especially by Robert Wallace, who had replied to Hume's 'Essay on the Populousness of Ancient Nations' in 1753, and published in 1761 his 'Various Prospects of Mankind, Nature, and Providence.' In 1761 had also been published J. P. Süssmilch's 'Gottliche Ordnung,' from which Malthus drew many statistics. In the preface to the second edition Malthus says that the only authors whom he had consulted for the past were Hume, Wallace, Adam Smith, and Dr. Price; he had since found discussions of the same topic in Plato and Aristotle, in the works of the French economists, especially Montesquieu and in Franklin, Sir James Stewart, Arthur Young, and Joseph Townshend, the last of whom published in 1786 a 'Dissertation on the Poor Laws,' and whose 'Travels in Spain' (1786-7) are noticed by Malthus as making a fresh examination of the same country unnecessary.

Although more or less anticipated, like most discoverers, Malthus gave a position to the new doctrine by his systematic exposition, which it has never lost. Francis Place [q. v.], the radical friend of James Mill, supported it in 1822 in 'Illustrations and Proofs of the Principle of Population.' It was accepted by all the economists of the Ricardo and Mill school, and Darwin states (Life, i. 63) that Malthus's essay first suggested to him the theory which in his hands made a famous epoch in modern thought. In spite of his own principles, Malthus had no doubt stated the doctrine in too abstract a form; but the only question now concerns not its undeniable importance, but the precise position which it should occupy in any scientific theory of social development. In his own time Malthus's theory was exposed to much abuse and misrepresentation. He was attacked on one side by the whole revolutionary school, Godwin, Hazlitt, and Cobbett; and on the other, for rather different reasons, by the conservatives, especially such 'sentimental' conservatives as Coleridge and Southey. The 'Edinburgh Review' had supported Malthus; while the 'Quarterly,' after attacking him in 1812, had come round to him as an opponent of its worst enemies (see Bonar, p. 364). Among the opponents to whom Malthus himself replied may be noticed Godwin, who attacked him again in 1820, James Grahame ('Enquiry into the Principle of Population,' 1816, which gives a list of previous writers at p. 71), John Weyland ('Principles of Population,' 1816), Arthur Young, and Robert Owen. A review by Southey in Aikin's 'Annual Review' for 1803 embodies notes by Coleridge in a copy of the second edition now in the British Museum (see Bonar, p. 374. Southey and Coleridge were living together at Keswick when the review was written. Southey claims the review, Life, &c,., 1850, ii. 251, 284, 294). Among others may be mentioned W. Hazlitt's 'Reply to Malthus,' 1807; Michael T. Sadler's 'Treatise on the Law of Population' (1830), answered by Macaulay in the ' Edinburgh Review' for July 1830, and again, in answer to a reply from Sadler, in the 'Edinburgh' for January 1831 (Macaulay, Miscellaneous Writings); Poulett Scrope, 'Principles of Political Economy' (1833); Archibald Alison, 'Population' (1840); and Thomas Doubleday, 'True Law of Population' (1842). Attacks by later socialists are in Marx's 'Capital' and Mr. Henry George's 'Progress and Poverty.' An argument as to the final cause of Malthus's law, which agrees in great part with a similar argument (afterwards omitted) in the first essay, was expounded by J. B. Sumner (afterwards archbishop of Canterbury) in 'A Treatise on the Records of Creation … with particular reference … to the consistency of the principle of population with the wisdom and goodness of the Deity' (2 vols. 8vo, 1816).

Malthus's works are:

  1. 'Essay on the Principle of Population as it affects the future Improvement of Society' (anon.) 1798. The title in the second edition (1803) is, 'Essay on the Principle of Population, or a View of its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness, with an Enquiry into our Prospects respecting the future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils which it occasions. The third edition (1806) contains various alterations mentioned in the preface; the fourth (1807) is apparently a reprint of the third; the fifth (1817) recasts the articles upon rent; the sixth (and last in his lifetime) appeared in 1826. A seventh edition was published in 1872; and an edition, with life, analysis, &c., by G. T. Bettany, in 1890.
  2. 'On the High Price of Provisions,' 1800.
  3. 'Letter to Samuel Whitbread, M.P., on his proposed Bill for the Amendment of the Poor Laws,' 1807.
  4. 'Letter to Lord Granville …' (in defence of Haileybury), 1813.
  5. 'Observations on the Effects of the Corn Laws,' 1814.
  6. 'Grounds of an Opinion on the Policy of Restricting the Importation of Foreign Corn,' 1815.
  7. 'An Inquiry into the Nature and Progress of Rent, Principles by which it is regulated,' 1815.
  8. 'Statements respecting the East India College …' (fuller explanation of No. 4), 1817.
  9. 'Principles of Political Economy considered with a View to their Practical Application,' 1820 (2nd ed. revised, with memoir by Otter, 1836).
  10. 'The Measure of Value stated and illustrated, with an Application of it to the Alteration in the Value of the English Currency since 1790,' 1823.
  11. Article on 'Population' in supplement to the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica,' 1824; reissued with little alteration as 'Summary View of the Principle of Population,' 1830.
  12. 'On the Measure of the Conditions necessary to the Supply of Commodities,' 1825, and 'On the Meaning which is most usually and most correctly attached to the term Value of Commodities,' 1827, two papers in the 'Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature.'
  13. 'Definitions in Political Economy,' 1827.

Malthus contributed to the 'Edinburgh Review' of July 1808 an article upon Newenham's ' Population of Ireland,' and some others (see Empson), including probably an article upon the bullion question in February 1811. He wrote another upon the same question in the 'Quarterly Review' of April 1823 (see Bonar, p. 285), and reviewed McCulloch's 'Political Economy' in the 'Quarterly' for January 1824. A correspondence with Malthus, which forms the appendix to two lectures on population by N. W. Senior (1829), is of some importance in regard to Malthus's opinions.

[Malthus and his Work, by James Bonar, 1885, gives a full and excellent account of Malthus's life and works, with references to all the authorities. The chief original authorities for the biography are a life by W. Otter, afterwards bishop of Chichester, prefixed to the second edition of the Political Economy (1836), and an article by Empson in the Edinburgh Review for January 1837, pp. 469-506. See also Miss Martineau's Autobiography, i. 209-11, 327-9; Homer's Memoirs, 2nd ed. 1853, i. 433, 446, 463, ii. 69, 97, 220, 222; Charles Comte's Notice Historique sur la vie et les travaux, in Transactions of the Acad. des Sciences Morales et Politiques, 28 Dec. 1836; Dictionnaire de l'Économie Politique, 1853; Macvey Napier's Correspondence, 1879, pp. 29, 31, 33, 187, 198, 226, 231; Ricardo's Letters to Malthus (Bonar), 1889.]

L. S.