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The life of Francis Place, 1771-1854 online

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has produced very important effects. And the good which
has resulted from this knowledge has happily been such
that ignorance will never more obtain the ascendency.
How much more good the principles advocated by the
political economists will do this country, it is quite im-
possible for any one to predict, but that they will be
very great, no reasonable man can doubt. The poli-
tical economists are the great enlighteners of the people.
Look at their works from the time of the great man
Adam Smith to the ' Essay on Wages,' just published
by Mr. M'Culloch, and see if they have not, all along,
deprecated everything which was in any way calcu-
lated to do injury to the people ; see if they have
not been pre-eminently the advocates for increasing the
knowledge of the working classes in every possible way,
and then let any man say, if he can, that they have
1 " Autobiography."


not been as pre-eminently the best friends of those
classes." l

Place was, however, far from being one of the mere
"practical" politicians, of whom he often spoke with
unmeasured scorn. He strove by severe and minute
study to acquire a consistent intellectual basis for his
work. The beautifully written notes which he made
when reading Ricardo's "Principles of Political Eco-
nomy" are nearly as long as the book itself. He
was an industrious collector of tables of wages, statistics
of population, and any other information by which an
old generalisation could be tried or a new one suggested. 2
And he brought to this work an experience of industrial
life which saved him from some of the characteristic
faults of the Rlcardian school. He never consciously or
unconsciously looked upon the mass of the people merely
as instruments for enriching a " nation " of capitalists and
landlords. His anger was always most vehemently excited
by the cheap accusations of idleness and vice, which news-
papers and members of Parliament were never tired of
bringing against the whole working class. In a pamphlet
written in 1829, he says: "A labouring man should have
no fits of idleness ; so says pride, wilfulness, and ignorance.
He who of all men, the negro slave excepted, has the fewest
inducements to constant, unremitted toil, should be free
from idle feelings. This is impossible. Every man has
his fits of idleness. No man in any class has always the

1 The Trades' Newspaper and Mechanics' Weekly Journal, No. 52,
June 1 8, 1826.

2 Cf. e.g., the tables of wages from 1777, collected by Place and
published in the Gorgon, 1818, and a letter from Place to James
Mill (September 9, 1814). "Have you seen the Corn Reports of the
Lords' Committee? I have been comparing parts of them with the
returns to the Population Acts, 1811, [and] the tables of progressive
increase of the population in the last century. The table of births,
burials, and baptisms when compared with the price of bread and the
wages of labour, exhibits some curious and important phenomena."


same desire for exertion or investigation ; no, nor even for
the pursuit of pleasure, when even pleasure alone is the
object of his useless life. No man at all times follows even
the most gratifying pursuit or inquiry with the same zeal ;
relaxation becomes absolutely necessary, and this is sought
in change in his pursuits and in change of place, by every
one whose means enable him to indulge in what is, in
relation to the working-man, called idleness the word
being used in respect to him in its worst and most oppro-
brious sense. The working-man must have no relaxation ;
he who drudges constantly against his will, must have no
such propensities as are allowed and cherished in his supe-
rior ; the unintellectual man must exert greater powers of
mind than the intellectual man ; must show by his conduct
that his is the superior understanding, or he is condemned
.as unworthy ; and this is called judging him fairly. The
most painstaking, saving, industrious man is not free from
the desire of leisure ; there are times when he is unable to
bring himself to the conclusion that he must continue
working. I know not how to describe the sickening aver-
sion which at times steals over the working-man, and
utterly disables him, for a longer or shorter period, from
following his usual occupation, and compels him to indulge
in idleness. I have felt it, resisted it to the utmost of my
power, but have been so completely subdued by it that, spite
of very pressing circumstances, I have been obliged to submit
and run away from my work. This is the case with every
workman I have ever known ; and in proportion as a man's
case is hopeless will such fits more frequently occur and be
of longer duration. The best informed amongst the workmen
will, occasionally, solace themselves at such times with liquor;
the uninformed will almost always recur to the same means
to procure the excitement which must be procured." l

1 " Improvement of the Working People," by Francis Place, Sen.
.(London, 1834), pp. 13-15. A misprint in the second line is corrected
by Place in the copy preserved in 27,825 (217-225).


He had been himself secretary of several trade unions,
and refused to denounce as fools or criminals those who
would face any suffering rather than accept less than the
trade union rate of wages. In 1815 he told the Committee
on Mendicity that "When journeymen tradesmen in the
Metropolis were unemployed, and however long the period
they remained unemployed, they never would work for less
than the full wages." Lord Lascelles, the chairman of the
committee, called out, "Here is the evil. Do you not
think, Mr. Place, that this is very wrong?" "No," he
answered, " it is the perfection of wisdom in them. Let us
suppose there were 40,000 men unemployed, and 40,000
employed. All the work required is, at the time, done by
40,000 men, and there is no demand for any more. If the
40,000 unemployed men were so unwise as to undersell the
others, they might displace them. But these in their turn
would be displaced, and they would soon be reduced to
the situation to which you have reduced the agricultural
labourer. They would all be paupers, and being so in this
large city, they would lose all the independence and self-
respect they now possess; they would no longer dress
decently and becomingly: they would lose all the admir-
able intelligence they possess ; they would become vicious
and beastly, and full of crimes of all sorts; cruel, vindic-
tive, and miserable beyond all example ; and the whole
nation would feel the sad consequences. Gentlemen need
not be alarmed ; there can be no reason for concealment ;
you, not they, are ignorant of these things. They know
them well, understand them thoroughly, and act most
wisely. No danger can therefore arise from their seeing in
print what they already know." l

In the same way, though he defends Malthus' general
position, he turns to denounce the crude statement in the

1 Place to James Mill, July 20, 1815. This evidence was omitted
from the official report as irrelevant.


" Principles of Population," that no man has a " right " to
public support, and that therefore the system of Poor Relief
should be entirely abolished. " Mr. Malthus denies to the
unemployed poor man the right to eat, but he allows the
right to the unemployed rich man. He says, ' Every man
may do as he will with his own ' ; and he expects to be
able to satisfy the starving man with bare assertions of
abstract rights. Mr. Malthus is not speaking of legal right,
for, he says, the poor have a legal rigid, which is the very
thing he proposes to destroy. It is an abstract right which
is denied to the poor man, but allowed to the rich ; and
this abstract, which has no meaning, although dignified
with the title of the 'law of nature, which is the law of
God,' is to be explained and taught to the poor, who are
to be fully convinced.' " 1

Again, when, in 1815, all his friends were clamouring for
the repeal of the income tax, he opposed them, on the
ground that the burden would be " shifted from the rich
to the other classes. . . . The rich will be relieved, the
middle classes injured, and the labourer distressed." 2 In
the same year a Mr. Benett of Warminster, in advocating
the Corn Law, " threatened the meeting that, unless the
Parliament passed an Act to protect his property, he would
remove to a country where his diminished income would
support him as it ought to do." Place added, " One thing
he omitted to say, which was, to threaten to take the land
away." 3 Again and again he denounces the great land-
lords of his time. " All they cry out against is the high
wages of labour, and they exult at every opportunity to
reduce them. They (as Paine said some years ago) depend
more on breaking the spirit of the people by poverty, than

1 " Illustrations and Proofs of the Principle of Population " (London,
1822), p. 137.

2 Place to Mill, February 15, 1815.

3 Place to Mill, January 16, 1815.


they fear goading them into insurrection by oppression.
Thus the whole value of all the improvements in agricul-
ture goes to the landowners, and the price, so far as it is
advanced by the increased rent, is levied by them upon
the people, who are unable to purchase necessaries with
the miserable pittance they receive for their labour." l

With all his courage and industry and sympathy,
Place never attained, perhaps never could have attained,
the intellectual force required for original and creative
economic thought. He was to the end a disciple rather
than a maker, and a disciple who accepted without
reserve the one doctrine from which the classical politi-
cal economy followed as a series of corollaries, Malthus'
celebrated "Principle of Population." Replying, in 1818,
to Ensor, who was just about to publish his essay on
population, 2 and who boasted that it contained, among
other things, " a refutation of Malthus," 3 Place says :
"As for your answer to Malthus, I shall judge of it
when I see it. I do not know exactly what you mean
wheti you say, ' I have refuted Malthus.' His propositions,
assumed at random, may be easily refuted ; they were
assumed for the purpose of illustration, and are necessarily
incorrect. Much, too, of his reasoning may be refuted.
But I do not expect to see what I call the principle dis-
proved ; namely, that in all old settled countries the popu-
lation presses against starvation, and is kept from increasing
with the rapidity which, but for the want of produce, it
would increase." 4

It is difficult at the present time to appreciate with
anything like justice the fears of those who studied the
population question at the beginning of this century.

1 Place to James Mill, October 17, 1814.

2 "An Inquiry Concerning the Population of Nations," &c., by
George Ensor (London, 1818).

3 Ensor to Place, January [N.D.] 1818.

4 Place to Ensor, January 18, 1818.


Food-stuffs can now be brought in time of peace from
thinly populated to thickly populated countries with an
ease then undreamt of, and whole populations can, as far
as transport is concerned, move in search of food with
equal ease. The population question has become inter-
national rather than national, and its merely numerical
urgency has been at least postponed for some centuries.
The increase of wealth per head has, during the last
half -century, been greatest just in those countries in
which population has increased most rapidly. In addi-
tion to this, both in Europe and America, the birth-
rate during recent years has been steadily falling, while
in France population has remained almost stationary.
Social distress is still everywhere to be found, but it has no
apparent relation either to population per acre, or to excess
of births over deaths. Compare with this the facts acces-
sible to those who had to study the results of the first
three English censuses of 1801, 1811, and 1821. All
statistics went to show that population throughout Europe
had been growing at a geometrical ratio, which actually
increased during the period of the Napoleonic wars.
Emigration hardly existed. There were no railways and
no steamships. Each nation had to look to its own fields
for its own subsistence, and the law of diminishing returns
to agriculture was believed to be already operative in every
part of Europe. The English economists saw continually
before them the state of Ireland, which had then nearly
two million one hundred thousand more inhabitants than
at the present time, 1 and where the congestion of population
most undoubtedly did keep down the standard of comfort.
In England the increase of population had been accom-

1 The census of 1821 was the first which was taken in Ireland by
the Census Commissioners. Their report returned a population of
6,801,827. The census of 1891 gave a population of only 4,704,750, a
decrease of 30.87 per cent.


panied by a rapid improvement of industrial processes ; and
yet Place, in 1826, referring to the trade depression of the
preceding winter, could say that " a race has been run be-
tween the improvement of machinery and the increase
of population, and population has beaten machinery." 1
Ricardo, sitting in his study, could quietly prophesy that
this would go on until the " natural " point was reached,
at which, either from the distress consequent on the fall
of wages, or from a decrease of marriages, the death-rate
of the working classes overtook their birth-rate. 2

But to Place, a merely " scientific " attitude was impos-
sible. When he thought of the "working classes," he
pictured to himself an endless procession of men such as
he had been, with wives and children like his own. The
lowering of wages to their " natural " level meant to him
the repetition, millions of times over, of the starvation
and weariness and despair which he had gone through,
before he had been willing to give up his skilled trade
and apply for work as a parish scavenger. He, like other
political economists, believed that population was in Eng-
land already redundant, and that no permanent social
improvement could be looked for until its increase had
been checked. But, unlike the others, he was filled with
a burning sense that something had to be done, and done
immediately, and done by him, to check it. Malthus had
expressed a hope that late marriages would become the

1 Diary, July 19, 1826.

2 Ricardo, in his "Principles of Political Economy" (London, 1817),
p. 90, says : " The natural price of labour is that price which is neces-
sary to enable the labourers, one with another, to subsist, and to per-
petuate their race, without either increase or diminution." In the
same sense Place writes : " The real wages of the labourer in a redun-
dant population are no more than, according to the habits of the country,
will enable him to subsist and propagate his race, and he must have
the same real wages, and will have no more, while the population is
redundant, whether the taxes remain or are all repealed." (Diary,
October 12, 1826.)


rule. But Place was convinced that for the working
classes, and, indeed, for all classes, delay of marriage was
harmful, even if it were possible.

To go even as far as Malthus and Mill had gone was
dangerous. Careful as Malthus had been, his name was
already spitten upon by almost every decent and religious-
minded man or woman in the country. To doubt that
" God sent food for every mouth which He sent into the
world " was blasphemous ; to inquire further was obscene.
With all Place's dogged courage,' it must have cost him
a struggle before he entered, as he did about 1820, upon
a deliberate propaganda of neo-Malthusianism. In a book
which he published in 1822, he plainly, though carefully,
stated his position, and in the introduction said: "The
author is perfectly aware that he has exhibited views and
proposed remedies which will with some persons expose
him to censure ; but he is also aware of the utility of thus
exposing himself." J

From this time forward Place continually advanced
the neo-Malthusian position in argument with every
working-man whose confidence or gratitude he could earn
in every working-class newspaper that would admit his
letters, and in his correspondence with private friends
and public acquaintances. As a consequence his name, for
twenty years, was hardly ever mentioned in print without
some reference, deprecatory or abusive, to his notorious
opinions. Good men refused to be introduced to him,
and, in 1834, his help was declined on this ground alone
by the strongly liberal "Society for the Promotion of
Useful Knowledge." *

1 " Illustrations and Proofs of the Principle of Population," by
Francis Place (London, 1822), p. 12.

2 Of. the MS. account of matters relating to "Essays for the People,"
1834. The rest of the inner circle of the Benthamites seem to have
shared Place's opinion, though he alone faced the public scandal. See
the letter from Bentham to Place on p. 81, James Mill's article on


Among the leaders of the workmen he met. with but
little success. "All were opposed," he says, "to the
' Malthusian doctrine,' as they called the ' Principle of
Population,' plain and simple as it is, namely, ' The people
have the power to increase their number.' All disregarded
the fact that the people had increased and were increasing,
and over-running the means of subsistence ; and that under
the hindrances opposed by the landlords to the improve-
ment of husbandry by the application of chemistry and
machinery to land, the actual increase of produce was very
small, whilst the increase of people was very great, that
the disproportion would continually increase, until the time
should come when a stop would be put to all increase of
capital, and consequently of employment, and the working
people be reduced to the mud cabins and potato diet of the
Irish cottars, and ruin follow in its train, or that the people
should generally revolt, produce a frightful revolution, in
which would be sacrificed an incalculable amount of property,
and the extirpation of the aristocracy in all its branches." l

Place was often accused of invincible prejudice on this
point. "On all other subjects but Malthusianism, Mr.
Place is a close, a candid, and a most even - tempered
reasoner; but doubt the infallibility of his anti-population
creed, and he is ready to treat you as the Homoousian
Christians did their diphthongal controvertists, the Homoi-
ousians, in the fifth century. The only answers he will
condescend to give are, 'You don't understand political
economy ; your words have no sense in them ; they con-
tain no distinct ideas.' " 2

Colonies in the supplement to the "Encyclopaedia Britannica," 1824,
vol. iii. p. 257, and the incident recorded of John Mill by Christie.
("John Stuart Mill and Mr. Abraham Hay ward, Q.C.," by W. D.
Christie, London, 1873, p. 9). For Place's neo - Malthusianism, see
letter to Burdett, May i, 1824, and also 27,823 (337).

1 27,819(74).

2 The Northern Liberator, December 30, 1837, in an article by
A. H. Beaumont.


This is not the occasion to enter upon that unwritten
chapter of English working-class history which begins
with Robert Dale Owen and Francis Place, and ends with
Charles Bradlaugh. But without reference to it, it is im-
possible to understand Place's general position with regard
to social reform. His desire was, not that population
should be stationary, but that its increase should be slower
than the probable improvement in methods of production
in his phrase, that " machinery should be allowed to
beat population in the race." He could Avork for educa-
tion, democracy, freedom of combination, everything that
tended to the general diffusion of knowledge and self-respect,
because he believed that knowledge and self-respect were
not only good in themselves, but likely to lead to a restraint
of population. Once men had become wise on that one
point, he was prepared to welcome economic equality,
though on an individualistic basis, as readily as political
equality. But so long as population continued without
restraint, a more equal distribution of wealth would, he
thought, simply drag every one down to a common level. 1
" No doubt," he wrote in 1 8 1 8, " a somewhat better mode
of producing, accumulating, and enjoying might be desired,
but the time when this will be understood and acted upon
is, I fear, very distant. ... It is not of much consequence
whether England contains twelve or fifteen millions of
bipeds, or Ireland six or eight millions of similar animals,
but of much importance it is that they should be well
instructed and well governed, and made comfortable ; but
these desirable purposes can only be accomplished by
restraining their increase." - Or again, when arguing
against Ensor in the Trades Newspaper, he says : " In
Ireland there are 365 persons to every square mile, while
in England there are not more than 200. In England,

1 Cf. the same argument in J. S. Mill's " Principles of Political
Economy" (London, 1865, 2 vols.), vol. i. pp. 238, 239.

2 Place to Ensor, January 1 8, 1 8 1 8.


with 200 persons to a square mile, there are always a con-
siderable number of poor persons; but in Ireland, with
365 persons to a square mile, a large proportion of the
whole population is constantly in a state of such extreme
wretchedness that there is no parallel to it in England,
except in some few instances, and on some extraordinary
occasions. The misery which has some time past prevailed
in portions of our manufacturing districts always exists
in Ireland. . . . ' But,' says Mr. Ensor, ' there is sufficient
food for all the people, if that food was distributed as God
intended it should be, for the use, and not the abuse, of
the idle and the aristocratic.' This is another fallacy a
misleading, mischievous fallacy. Mr. Ensor's proof that
there is food enough is that the people have subsisted.
True enough it is that the people who have subsisted have
subsisted ; and true enough it is that by a better arrange-
ment of society, capital might have increased somewhat
faster than it has increased; but if the population had
increased as rapidly as capital increased, the people would
have been precisely in the same relative situation as they
now are; all the difference would have been that the
number of sufferers would have been greater than it is.
Strange it is that Mr. Ensor should not have seen through
his fallacy. That there has been, and that there is, the
means of subsistence for the people, is proved by their
being alive. But the political economists are not satisfied
with this; they want something better for the people;
they are not satisfied that those who exist should barely
exist that they should have low wages, and no leisure,
and no pleasure, no recreation, and no instruction. They
are not satisfied that their number should be constantly
kept up to the starvation point, and that hunger, disease,
and misery should be the only means of keeping down
their number." l He opposed, on Malthusian grounds, the
1 The Traded Newspaper and Mechanics' Weekly Journal, Jan. 18, 1826.


encouragement of allotments or small holdings; 1 but though
he argued against any immediate alteration in the distribu-
tion of land, he was for the greater part of his life a land
nationaliser. He had been converted in the old days by
Thomas Spence, and hoped that when the population
difficulty had once been settled, private property in land
would come to an end. 2

On such immediate legislative proposals as could not be
judged merely by their effect on the growth of population,
Place followed the economists of his time in leaning strongly
towards individual freedom. He gave evidence, for instance,
before the Committee on Drunkenness in 1834, in favour
of absolute free trade in the liquor traffic. But to the end
of his life he was too much influenced by the habits of
thought which he had learned as a trade union secretary,
to be either comfortable or consistent in preaching absolute
freedom of industrial contract. He strongly urged, for
instance, the trade unions in the factory districts to ex-
clude Avomen and children from the mills, 3 and to lower
the hours of labour by general action. He even advocated
the exclusion of children and girls under twenty-one by
law. 4 On the other hand, the Ten Hours Bill, which
proposed to shut the factories outright at the end of the

Online LibraryGraham WallasThe life of Francis Place, 1771-1854 → online text (page 14 of 39)