Malthus's Political Views in 1798: A 'Foxite' Whig?

Article excerpt

Abstract: The purpose of this paper is to examine Thomas Robert Malthus's early political views. He was an earnest sympathiser with Charles James Fox and his opposition party who regarded themselves as the defenders of English traditional civil and religious liberties. However, he was not simply a Foxite Whig. While Fox despised political economy for its speculative nature, Malthus admired Adam Smith's new economic science for its practical use. As a 'scientific' Foxite Whig, he endeavoured to add the vocabulary of political economy to that of the Foxite circle. His first Essay on the Principle of Population testified the birth of a new Whiggism by going beyond the linguistic tradition of the Foxite politics of the late 1790s.

1 Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to explore the historical context of Malthus's first Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) with particular reference to his political philosophy and party allegiance. It is widely known that one of the origins of this polemical work, as its subtitle makes clear, lies in the debate on human perfectibility that arose during the French revolution. It might therefore be expected that the serious Whig split of 1794, which was also triggered by different reactions to French revolutionary principles and the French war, had some influence on the shaping of Malthus's first Essay on Population. Surprisingly, however, there have been remarkably few assessments of the historical relationship between Malthus and the Whigs, except for a few fragmentary comments by Bonar (1966 [1924]: 338), Halevy (1966 [1934]: 338), Grampp (1986 [1974]: 30-2) and Winch (1987: 49; 1996: 253). Hence, Donald Winch commented:

   In terms of party labels, Malthus must be firmly placed in the Whig
   camp though at a time when the Whigs were divided into a number of
   factions, and alliances were fluid, this is not a particularly
   enlightening ascription. Judging his position from the fragmentary
   quotations from his unpublished pamphlet on The Crisis written in
   1796, it would seem that he was then a Foxite Whig, opposed to the
   repressive measures taken by the Pitt Ministry to curb the
   pro-French, anti-war, and reformist activities of the radical
   corresponding societies. (1987: 49)

Malthus's party allegiances at this time can be established from the fragments of an anonymous pamphlet on The Crisis ... which he hoped to publish in 1796. What these tell us is that Malthus, probably in common with his father, was some kind of Foxite Whig, critical of the way in which the Duke of Portland, together with Edmund Burke, had gone over to Prime Minister Pitt as soon as war with France had begun (Winch 1996: 253; see also 1992: viii).

Winch's description of Malthus as a 'Foxite Whig' may sound inconsistent since Charles James Fox (1749-1806) was famous as a most earnest sympathiser of the French revolution, whilst Malthus's first Essay on Population is widely known as a counter-revolutionary work, similar in some ways to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). In short, Malthus a 'conservative' is not easily reconciled with his being a Whig supporter of the 'radical' Fox. How can this apparent paradox be resolved? Winch's statements seem too sketchy to help us. An answer to this question will be given only by reconstructing Malthus's early political philosophy.

Though Winch only hinted at Malthus as a Foxite Whig, I will endeavour in this paper to clarify this aspect of his political position. Section 2 will first focus on Malthus's political beliefs during the constitutional crisis of 1782-4. Section 3 will then consider his response to the steady disintegration of the opposition Whig party in the 1790s. In section 4 the paper considers Malthus's position in connection to the poor relief controversy of the late 1790s. A short conclusion is provided in section 5.

2 Malthus and the Constitutional Crisis of 1782-4

Thomas Robert Malthus was born on 13 February 1766, the second son and sixth child of a well-to-do country gentleman, Daniel Malthus (1730-1800). …