Apocalyptic Economics and Prophetic Politics: Radical and Romantic Responses to Malthus and Burke

Article excerpt

   We will do some Michief if you don't lower the Brade for we cannot live....
   We have give you a fair offer to do it before you don have your Town &
   Towns set on fire ... we will begin on the One End and Continue to the
   other. Be all of one Mind we can do it because we cannot But be killed then
   & we shall die as it is. (1)

AT THE END OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, POOR PEOPLE WERE HUNGRY all over England. Rising prices, falling wages and increasing population produced many desperate threats to set towns on fire. To the comfortably-off, they seemed a menace. Real men and women became the frighteningly generalized "poor," a personified spectre haunting the imagination of the propertied. It was important not to provoke them: Jackson's Oxford Journal advised its readers to "give to no dog or other animal, the smallest bit of bread or meal." The King urged the rich to cut the oat rations of their pleasure horses. (2)

If the poor seemed a menace, they also felt like a burden. Under laws for their relief which dated from Elizabeth I's reign, local ratepayers were obliged to contribute to the welfare of deserving cases. As wages failed to keep pace with wartime prices, ratepayers found themselves subsidizing not only the disabled and elderly, but working men whose pay was too little to feed their families. Contributions soared from less than 2 million [pounds sterling] in 1783-85 to nearly 8 million [pounds sterling] in 1817. To the ratepaying (and voting) public, the poor were a national problem.

It was in a climate of fear and resentment that, in 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus first published An Essay on the Principle of Population. (3) Few books have had as immediate and as powerful an effect on social and political history. Malthus' argument that population increase, if not checked by misery, disease and famine, would necessarily exceed food supply rapidly persuaded William Pitt, the Prime Minister, to change government policy towards the poor. He had previously advocated giving laborers subsidies to support large families; after reading Malthus he abandoned the idea. (4) Later editions of the Essay spread Malthus' influence further still; his discussion of the Poor Laws shaped the legislation passed in 1834. (5) Malthus had made increase in population, once a government objective, into a problem that legislators tried to tackle by discouraging the poor from breeding.

Malthus shaped the political course of nineteenth century Britain; he also influenced its literary history. When the Essay appeared in 1798, it was read with particular attention by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a former undergraduate at Malthus' Cambridge college. Coleridge had reason to pay attention: not only was this a book by his former tutor but it was a refutation of the theories of William Godwin, a personal friend with whose thought he had become dissatisfied. Coleridge, then, might have been expected to welcome Malthus' demonstration that Godwin's secularized millenarianism was based on a logical fallacy. He did not. Nor did the other dissenting radicals in Coleridge's circle--some of whom had known Malthus at Cambridge. In this essay I shall explore some of the reasons why they did not, examining the reception of Malthus in the context of the language of politics (not least that of Cambridge Unitarians) and of political economy. Malthus, I shall argue, was received in the wake of Burke and in the context of Burke's rhetorical attacks on radicals and dissenters. And he was received not only in the explicit critiques which the radicals made of him, but in the alternative vision of nature that they attempted to elaborate. Malthus helped shape the rhetoric of romanticism.

I. Burke in the 1790s: the Sublime Language of Politics

The most powerful political discourse in 1790s Britain was Edmund Burke's. Burke had attacked the French Revolution, and British radicals who supported it, with an apocalyptic rhetoric. …