Population and contraception: the William Godwin, Thomas Malthus, and Francis Place debate

William Godwin: A Political Life by Richard Gough Thomas, published by Pluto Press in 2019 reviewed by Alan Thornett.

This biography is well written and informative. It is a good summary of William Godwin’s personal life as well as his considerable contribution to the politics of the Enlightenment. It is published as a part of Pluto Press’s revolutionary lives series.

Godwin’s life spanned the early years of the industrial revolution and of British capitalism and the brutal social conditions they both generated.

He was born in East Anglia in 1756 to a religious family. He initially went into the ministry but resigned after five years, having become an atheist. Having been profoundly influenced by the American war of independence with its challenge to the British Empire and then by the French revolution of 1789 with its challenge to absolutism, he became a key figure of the Enlightenment and the radicalism of the 1790s. He was a philosopher, political thinker, biographer, novelist, journalist, and children’s writer. He was an anarchist and a utopian socialist. He was also the founder of philosophical anarchism, or anarcho-communism as it is sometimes called.

His contemporaries included revolutionaries such as Thomas Paine and Thomas Spence, as well as social reformers such as Jeremey Bentham, Robert Owen and Francis Place. Also, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley – who was strongly influenced by Godwin’s work.

Frederic Engels, in The Conditions of the Working Class in England (published in 1845), references Godwin and Bentham as: ‘the two great practical philosophers of the latest date’ and Godwin in particular as ‘almost exclusively the property of the proletariat’…

Godwin was also a contemporary – and indeed the principle contemporary critic of – the Reverend Thomas Malthus who was (and remains) notorious for his views on the rising human population of the planet and what to do about it.

Godwin was married twice, firstly to the feminist and writer Mary Wollstonecraft, for which he is mostly known today. They had initially avoided matrimony, which they both repudiated, but found this impossible to maintain in 1797, when Mary became pregnant, because of the prejudice both Wollstonecraft and her daughter would have had to face. Mary Wollstonecraft tragically died ten days after the birth of baby Mary due to complications. Mary Godwin herself later famously eloped with and then married the poet Shelley. She went on, equally famously, to write Frankenstein.

Godwin was plagued by debt for most of his life and struggled to keep out of the debtor’s prison. Although more a thinker than an activist, Godwin campaigned on behalf of the radicals persecuted during the crack-down on supporters of these revolutions.

The government of William Pitt the Younger was terrified that the French Revolution might spread to England, and issued a proclamation against seditious writings. Those targeted included Thomas Paine. He was pursued for his pamphlet Common Sense in support of American independence, but he fled the country before he could be arrested.

Paine went on to author The Rights of Man in defence of the French revolution. Others were arrested and sentenced to deportation but acquitted after Godwin’s intervention. Godwin himself escaped persecution possibly because his ‘seditious writings’ were contained within lengthy philosophical tracts rather than short punchy pamphlets.

Political Justice

Godwin’s seminal philosophical work was An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Modern Morals and Happiness published in 1793 at the height of the French revolution. It was a two-volume response to Edmund Burke’s conservative Reflections on the Revolution in France published in 1790. Richard Gough Thomas describes Political Justice as ‘a timeless classic of political philosophy clearly born of the revolutionary atmosphere of 1790s Europe.

The book questioned the fundamental nature of authority and raised important questions about the right to self-determination, how opinions and judgements are formed. Godwin argued that in the end the powers assumed by governments are illegitimate even when it is given a mandate by the people because:

“…an individual might grant a leader or government the power to tell them what to do, but if that power can be withdrawn the first time the individual disagrees with their orders, said ‘power’ is little more than the right to make suggestions. The true power of government lies in its ability to use force”.

It also advocated the abolition of the monarchy as well as marriage and the equalisation of property rights.

Godwin was not a revolutionary, at least not in practice. He argues specifically, in Political Justice, against the revolutionary overthrow of tyrannical regimes by force – which he terms ‘tyrannicide’.

He argued that if a nation is not ready for a state of freedom:

“the man who assumes to himself the right of interposing violence may indeed show the fervour of his conception, and gain a certain notoriety; but he will not fail to be the author of new calamities to his country.”

In the end Godwin’s anarchism emerged mainly as individualism. He rejected both collectivism and was against taxation and the redistribution of wealth and land more pernicious than the disease they were intended to cure.

In the latter part of the 1790s, Godwin was shaken by the deflection of several of his key political allies who renounced the Enlightenment in favour of the status quo and denounced the French revolution. These included James Mackintosh, a prominent radical who had authored of one of the best-known replies to Edmund Burke, Vindicae Gallicae, published in 1791.

Now in 1799, in a series of public lectures, Mackintosh renounced the French Revolution in the harshest terms:

“I profess publicly and unequivocally, that I abhor, abjure, and for ever renounce the French revolution, with its sanguinary history, its abominable principles, and forever execrable leaders”.

Another close friend and ally who broke with Godwin at this time was the social reformer Samuel Parr. He made a similar public statement denouncing the Enlightenment and supporting the views of Mackintosh on the French Revolution.

Thomas Malthus

The most famous challenge to Godwin and Political Justice came from the Reverend Thomas Malthus in the shape of his book An Essay on the Principles of Population published in 1798. Malthus rejected Godwin’s egalitarian view of the world arguing that misery and poverty were naturally occurring phenomena rather than a product of social inequality or political failure. Richard Gough Thomas summarises the views of Malthus very well:

“He considers Godwin’s Enlightenment future to be dangerously naïve: the abolition of marriage would lead to rampant promiscuity and uncontrolled population growth; the equalisation of property would only demonstrate that there was insufficient usable land to support the population in equal levels of comfort. Central to Malthus’s argument is the assumption that a fair and just society would fail catastrophically without the checks that the present (unjust) society provides. As is well known today the central point of The Principles was that when unchecked populations grew geometrically (doubling every generation) whilst food production could only grow arithmetically. According to Malthus famine and disease were natural checks that prevented over-population. The misery suffered by the poor was unavoidable since all attempts to alleviate it would only make things worse”.

Malthus saw humans as selfish short-sighted beings who ran out of control without a guiding force to keep them in check whilst Godwin thought that human society could better itself through reason and compassion. Richard Gough Thomas quotes a letter from Malthus to Godwin explaining his position:

“I only approve the present form of society, because I cannot, according to the laws of just theory, see any other form, that can, consistent with individual freedom, equally promote cultivation and population. Great improvements may take place in the state of society, but I do not see how the present form, or system, can be radically changed, without the danger of relapsing into barbarism.”

Although the debate between Godwin and Malthus on population rumbled on, it was not until 20 years later, in 1820, that Godwin decided, while he still had time the time and energy, to write a more substantial, and enduring, challenge to Malthus on population. This came in the form of his book: Of Population – An Enquiry Concerning the Power of Increase in The Numbers of Mankind, Being an Answer to Mr Malthus’s Essay on That Subject – published in 1820 which ran to 700 pages. Godwin had expected Malthus’s arguments to fade away but they did not and, as he says in the Preface “I cannot contented go out of this world, without attempting to put into a permanent form what has occurred to me on the subject of population.”

Of Population, while it ran to 700 pages, did not really tackle Malthus’s basic thesis that the population grew geometrically whilst food production could only grow arithmetically. This was partly due to the dearth of empirical demographic data in the 18th century, which was eased a bit with the census figures for 1801 and 1811. This allowed Godwin to argue that overall the global population was not in fact rising and that in parts of the world where it was it was not leading to the results disastrous that Malthus predicted. In fact, the biggest part of the book consists of Godwin’s own demographic research.

Francis Place

An important contemporary intervention into this debate came from Francis Place – an acquaintance of Godwin, and a supporter of Malthus. Richard Gough Thomas only mentions Place in terms of his dealings with Godwin, but Place is more significant than that. He was not only a radical social reformer – he was the chair of the London Corresponding Society, led several trade unions, and later became a Chartist – but was also an important early advocate of contraception and the right of women to control their own fertility.

This meant that whilst he supported Malthus on the implications of rising population he departed sharply from him when it came to the solution. He opposed the demonisation of the destitute and rejected Malthus’s strictures of moral restraint to control fertility. He called instead for contraception services to be made available to women – both to improve their lives and also to mitigate against rising population. He claims to have won over Malthus, who had always ruled it out on religious grounds, to the idea of contraception,– though Malthus did not change his opposition to poor relief.

Place expounded his ideas on all this in his book Illustrations and Proofs of the Principle of Population: Including an Examination of the Proposed Remedies of Mr Malthus, and a Reply to the Objections of Mr. Godwin and Others, published in 1822 – at least for ‘married persons’. He puts it this way:

“If, above all, it was once clearly understood, that it was not disreputable for married persons to avail themselves of such precautionary means as would, without being injurious to health, or destructive to female decency, prevent conception, a sufficient check might at once be given to the increase of population beyond the means of subsistence; vice and misery, to a prodigious extent, might be removed from society…”

Norman E. Himes, an American medical historian, and the editor of the 1967 reprint of Illustrations, in his introduction to the book, argues that the contribution of Place on the issue of contraception wider significance in the struggle for birth control, both in Britain and internationally, particularly in the United States, that had not hitherto been recognised. He argues that this had not been fully recognised by Place’s earlier biographer in 1908, Graham Wallas. He puts it this way:

“Although Graham Wallas early recognised in his excellent biography the nobility and penetrating influence of Place’s career, including his efforts on behalf of birth control … the international effects of his efforts in founding the modern birth control movement not alone in England but in America has not hitherto been recognised.”

In his own book Medical History of Contraception, published in 1930, Himes makes the following comment on Place:

“Though many preceded Francis Place in discussing the technique of contraception, he seems to have been the first to venture, at first alone and unaided, upon an organized attempt to educate the masses. Place, holds, therefore, the same position in social education on contraception that Malthus holds in the history of general population theory . . . it was Place who first gave birth control a body of social theory”

This dispute Between Godwin and Malthus continued with Malthus revising The Principles through six editions. It continued beyond the time when a dramatic rise in agricultural productivity that came with the introduction of chemical fertilisers in the mid-19th century which removed any rationale that Malthusianism might have had. In fact, remarkably, it continues today on the radical left with Malthusianism routinely raised against those who regard today’s escalating population as a problem for the ecology of the planet.

Data available today shows that Malthus’s predictions over-estimated global population growth in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even in the 20th and 21st centuries, during which the global population has risen to 7.6 billion it as not doubled with every generation – though it is now a serious problem for the planet. (The global population rose to 2 billion by 1930, to 3 billion by 1960, to 4 billion by 1974, to 5 billion by 1987, to 6 billion by 1999, and to 7 billion by 2012. In other words, it tripled in 60 years.)

The final years

William Godwin died in London in 1836. His final years had been more comfortable. With new publishers taking on his books resulting in increased sales the spector of the debtor’s prison went away. In 1830 the Duke of Wellington’s conservative government fell to a vote of no confidence bringing in a reforming Whig government led by Earl Grey, which went on to extend the right to vote via the Great Reform Act of 1832 and to abolish slavery in the British Empire in 1833. Godwin wrote to Grey looking for a job in the administration – he had known him for many years – and much to his surprise he was appointed to the office of keeper and yeoman usher of the receipt of the exchequer, a job that came with £200 a year and a house in New Palace Yard.

It was a rather strange end to a life dedicated to the ideas of anarchism. But this does not detract from the contribution he made in the struggle for the ideas of the Enlightenment, in defence of the revolutions that took place during his lifetime, and indeed against the reactionary propositions of Thomas Malthus in relation to the human population of the planet.

This review was first published by Socialist resistance in July 2019.


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