An Essay on the Principle of Population | Study Guide

Thomas Robert Malthus

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An Essay on the Principle of Population | Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

Malthus now considers the situation of newly founded colonies, which experience vast population growth thanks to access to "plenty of rich land." From ancient times to the present, colonies have grown rapidly in the first centuries after their founding. Even severe taxation and an abusive legal system—such as Malthus attributes to the Spanish colonies—cannot thwart this tendency toward population growth.

The colonies that best illustrate this upward trend, in Malthus's view, are those of North America. Throughout these colonies, political freedoms combined with the "extreme cheapness of good land" to yield a "rapidity of increase probably without parallel in history." In some inland parts of the American colonies, the population doubled every 15 years; in many others, it doubled every 25 years. For Malthus, these varying rates go to show that population increases faster as "misery and vice" are removed. In the backcountry, people are free of the misery of city life, but in coastal colonies, many are forced to live in crowded, unhealthy conditions. Rapid population growth, Malthus warns, will eventually bring about the very types of misery that slow the growth rate down.

Analysis

The exceptional nature of the North American colonies was a common refrain in late-18th-century British writings. Malthus was far from the only writer to argue that the American colonies (by 1798, former colonies) were havens of political and economic freedom. Nor was he the only one to contrast the British colonies with those founded by Spain, where corruption and vice were said to run rampant. Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, whose ideas Malthus considers and critiques in the Essay, adopted a similar reading of colonial history in his treatise The Wealth of Nations (1776). Written as the American Revolutionary War was just getting underway, The Wealth of Nations included a call for Britain to let the colonies secede peacefully. The British crown, Smith held, was wasting huge amounts of money protecting and governing an unprofitable asset. Ultimately, both Smith and Malthus leave the impression that American colonists were "getting a good deal" under British rule. Other authors, including English-born Thomas Paine (1737–1809), begged to differ.

When reading Malthus's work—or Smith's, or Hume's—in the 21st century, it is easy to focus on what these Enlightenment-era thinkers failed to comprehend. Topical moments—such as Malthus's allusions to the North American colonies—serve as a reminder that these writings were products of a specific place and time. Although Malthus believed he was setting forth universal laws, his ideas were shaped by his own political and social milieu. From his point of view, the overcrowding of places such as London or Philadelphia was a plain and undeniable fact. The Industrial Revolution and the British Agricultural Revolution, however, were still underway, and Malthus could never have predicted their impact.

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