Robert Dale Owen.

Moral physiology; or, A brief and plain treatise on the population question online

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of population, when it cannot go on unrestrained without
producing one or other of two most undesirable effects,
either drawing an undue portion of the population to the
mere raising of food, or producing poverty and wretched-
ness, it is not now the time to enquire. It is, indeed,
the most important practical problem to which the
wisdom of the politician and the moralist can be ap-
plied. It has, till this time, been miserably evaded by
all those who have meddled with the subject, as well as
by those who were called upon by their situation to find
a remedy for the evils to which it relates. And yet, if
the superstitions of the nursery were disregarded, and
the principle of utility kept steadily in mew, a solution
might not be very difficult to be found ; and the means
of drying up one of the most copious sources of human
evil a source which if all other sources were taken



away, might alone suffice to retain the great mass of
human beings in misery, might be seen to be neither
doubtful nor difficult to be applied."

Let my readers bear in mind, that this is from the pen
of one of the most justly admired writers of the present
day; a man celebrated throughout all Europe, for his
works on political economy, and whose writings are not
unknown even on this side the Atlantic. He considers the
question now under discussion to involve " the most im-
portant problem to which the wisdom of the politician
and moralist can be applied." This question, he admits,
has ever been " miserably evaded." Yet even a man so
influential and enlightened as Mill, must himself yield to
the weakness he reprobates ; must speak in parables, as
the Nazarene reformer did before him ; and, even while
commenting on the " miserable evasion" of a subject so
engrossingly important, must imitate the very evasion
he despises.

I will not imitate it. I am more independently situa-
ted than the English economist ; and I see, as clearly as
he does, the extreme importance of the subject. What
he saw and declared ought to be said, I will say.

Before concluding this chapter, let me state distinctly,
that I by no means agree with Malthus and other poli-
tical economists in believing, that, at this moment, there
is an actual excess of population in any country (China
perhaps excepted) in the known world. I believe that
there is more than enough land in every country of
Europe to support, in perfect comfort, all its present
inhabitants. That they are not supported in comfort,
is, in my opinion, attributable, not to overpopulation, but
to mal-government. Monopolies favour the rich, taxes
oppress the poor, commercial rivalry grinds its victims to


the dust. To such causes as these, and not to over-
population, at the time being, is the mass of distress (felt
more or less over the civilized world) to be attributed.
Thus, if the enemies of reform would but let us alone f
we might long postpone to other and more important
discussions, this population question. But they will not.
They force it upon us. And though it might have
evinced want of judgment to obtrude it unnecessarily
or prematurely on the public, it would betray cowardice
to evade it now, when thrust upon us.

Besides, though it be undeniable that iniquitous laws
and a vicious order of things often produce the result
that is falsely attributed to overpopulation, it is yet equal-
ly undeniable, that the most perfect system of laws in
the world could not ultimately prevent the evils of a
superabundant population. And it is no less certain,
that, in the meantime, the pressure of a large family on
the labouring man greatly augments the evil, and often
deprives him of that very leisure which he might em-
ploy in devising constitutional means to better his condi-
tion, instead of leaving public business in the hands of
political gamblers. Thus an answer to the population
question is offered as an alleviation of existing evils, not
as a cure for them. Population might be but half what
it is, and unjust legislation and vicious customs would
still give birth, as they now do, to luxury and want.
The laws and customs ought to be, must be changed ;
but, while the grass is growing, let us prevent the horse
from starving, if we can.

Enough has been said, probably, in this chapter, to de*
termine the question, whether it is, or is not, desirable, in
a political point of view, that some check to population
be sought and disclosed some " moral restraint" that
shall not, like vice and misery, be demoralizing, nor,
like late marriages, be ascetic and impracticable.




This is by far the most important branch of the ques-
tion. The evils caused by an overstocking of the world,
if even inevitable, are distant ; and an abstract view of
the subject, however unanswerable, does not come home to
the mind with the force of detailed reality.

What would be the probable effect, in social life, if
mankind obtained and exercised a control over the in-
stinct of reproduction ?

My settled conviction is and I am prepared to defend
it that the effect would be salutary, moral, civilizing ;
that it would prevent many crimes and more unhappi-
ness ; that it would lessen intemperance and profligacy ;
that it would polish the manners and improve the moral
feelings ; that it would relieve the burden of the poor,
and the cares of the rich ; that it would most essentially
benefit the rising generation, by enabling parents general-
ly more carefully to educate, and more comfortably to pro-
vide for, their offspring. I proceed to substantiate as I
may these positions.

And first, let us look solely to the situation of married
persons. Is it not notorious, that the families of the
married often increase beyond what a regard for the


young beings coming into the world, or the happiness of
those who give them birth, would dictate ? In how many
instances does the hard-working father, and more espe-
cially the mother, of a poor family, remain slaves through-
out their lives, tugging at the oar of incessant labour,
toiling to live, and living only to die ; when, if their off-
spring had been limited to two or three only, they might
have enjoyed comfort and comparative affluence ! How
often is the health of the mother, giving birth every year
to an infant happy, if it be not twins ! and compelled
to toil on, even at those times when nature imperiously
calls for some relief from daily drudgery how often is the
mother's comfort, health, nay, her life, thus sacrificed ! Or,
if care and toil have weighed down the spirit, and at last
broken the health of the father, how often is the widow
left, unable, with the most virtuous intentions, to save her
fatherless offspring from becoming degraded objects of
charity, or profligate votaries of vice !

Fathers and mothers ! not you who have your nurse-
ry and your nursery maids, and who leave your children
at home, to frequent the crowded rout, or to glitter in
the hot ball-room ; but you by the labour of whose hands
your children are to live, and who, as you count their
rising numbers, sigh to think how soon sickness or mis-
fortune may lessen those wages which are now but just
sufficient to afford them bread fathers and mothers in
humble life ! to you my argument comes home, with the
force of reality. Others may impugn may ridicule it.
By bitter experience you know and feel its truth.

It will be said, that government ought to provide for the
support and education of all the children of the land.
No one is less inclined to deny the position than I.
But it does not support and educate them. And, if it
did, a period must come at, when even such an act


of justice would be no relief from the evils of over-

Yet this is not all. Every physician knows, that
there are many women so constituted that they cannot
give birth to healthy sometimes not to living children,
Is it desirable is it moral, that such women should
become pregnant? Yet this is continually the case,
the warnings of physicians to the contrary notwithstand-
ing. Others there are, who ought never to become pa-
rents ; because, if they do, it is only to transmit to their
offspring grievous hereditary diseases ; perhaps that
worst of diseases, insanity. Yet they will not lead a
life of celibacy. They marry. They become parents,
and the world suffers by it. That a human being
should give birth to a child, knowing that he transmits
to it hereditary disease, is, in my opinion, an immorality.
But it is a folly to expect that we can ever induce' all
such persons to live the lives of Shakers. Nor is it ne-
cessary : all that duty requires of them is, to refrain from
becoming parents. Who can estimate the beneficial
effect which rational moral restraint may thus have, on
the health, beauty, and physical improvement of our
race, throughout future generations !

But, apart from these latter considerations, is it not most
plainly, clearly, incontrovertibly desirable, that parents
should have the power* to limit their offspring, whether
they choose to exercise it or not ? Who can lose by
their having this power ? and how many may gain !

* It may perhaps be argued, that all married persons have this power
already, seeing that they are no more obliged to become parents than
the unmarried ; they may live as the brethren and sisters among the
Shakers do. But this Shaker remedy is, in the first place, utterly im-
practicable, as a general rule ; and, secondly, it would chill and embitter
domestic life, even if it were practicable.


may gain competency for themselves, and the opportuni-
ty carefully to educate and provide for their children !
How many may escape the jarrings, the quarrels, the dis-
order, the anxiety, which an overgrown family too often
causes in the domestic circle !

It sometimes happens, that individual instances come
home to the feelings with greater force than any gene-
ral reasoning. I shall, in this place, adduce one which
came immediately under my cognizance.

In June, 1829, I received from an elderly gentleman
of the first respectability, occupying a public situation
in one of the western states, a letter, requesting to know
whether I could afford any information or advice in a
case which greatly interested him, and which regarded a
young woman for whom he had ever experienced the
sentiments of a father. In explanation of the circum-
stances to which he alluded, he enclosed me a copy of a
letter which she had just written to him, and which I
here transcribe verbatim. A letter more touching from
its simplicity, or more strikingly illustrative of the unfor-
tunate situation in which not one, but thousands, in mar-
ried life, find themselves placed, I have never read.

L***, KENTUCKY, MAY 3, 1829.


The friendship which has existed between you and
my father, ever since I can remember; the unaffected
kindness you used to express towards me, when you re-
sided in our neighbourhood, during my childhood ; the
lively solicitude you have always seemed to feel for my
welfare, and your benevolent and liberal character, in-
duce me to lay before you, in a few words, my critical
situation, and ask you for your kind advice.

It is my lot to be united in wedlock to a young me-


chanic of industrious habits, good dispositions, pleasing
manners, and agreeable features, excessively fond of our
children and of me ; in short, eminently well qualified to
render himself and family and all around him happy,
were it not for the besetting sin of drunkenness. About
once in every three or four weeks, if he meet, either acci-
dentally or purposely, with some of his friends, of whom,
either real or pretended, his good nature and liberality
procure him many, he is sure to get intoxicated, so as to
lose his reason ; and, when thus beside himself, he
trades and makes foolish bargains, so much to his dis-
advantage, that he has almost reduced himself and fami-
ly to beggary, being no longer able to keep a shop of his
own, but obliged to work journey work.

We have not been married quite four years, and have
akeady given being to three dear little ones. Under pre-
sent circumstances, what can I expect will be their fate
and mine ? I shudder at the prospect before me. With
my excellent constitution and industry, and the labour
of my husband, I feel able to bring up these three little
cherubs in decency, were I to have no more : but when
I seriously consider my situation, I can see no other al-
ternative left for me, than to tear myself away from the
man who, though addicted to occasional intoxication,
would sacrifice his life for my sake ; and for whom, con-
trary to my father's will, I successively refused the hand
and wealth of a lawyer and of a preacher ; or continue
to witness his degradation, and bring into existence, in
all probability, a numerous family of helpless and desti-
tute children, who, on account of poverty, must inevita-
bly be doomed to a life of ignorance, and consequent vice
and misery.

The dreadful sentence pronounced against me by my
father for my disobedience, forbids me applying to him,


either for advice or any thing else. My husband being
somewhat sceptical, my father attributes his intemper-
ance to his infidelity ; though my brother, as you know,
being a member of the same church with my father, is
nevertheless, though he does not fool away his property,
more of a drunkard than my husband, and ranks among
the faithful. You w r ill therefore plainly see, that for
these and other reasons, I stand the more in need of your
friendly advice ; and I do hope and believe, you will
give me such advice and counsel as you would to your
own daughter, had you one in the same predicament
that I am. In so doing, you will add new claims to the
gratitude of your friend, M. W.

J^eed I add one word of comment on such a case as
this ? Every feeling mind must be touched by the amia-
ble feeling and good sense that pervade the letter. Every
rational being, surely, must admit, that the power of pre-
venting, without injury or sacrifice, the increase of a
family, under such circumstances, is a public benefit and
a private blessing.

"Will it be asserted and I know no other even plau-
sible reply to these facts and arguments will it be as-
serted, that the thing is, in itself, immoral or unseemly?
I deny it ; and I point to the population of France, in
justification of my denial. Where will you find, on the
face of the globe, a more polished or more civilized na-
tion than the French, or one more punctiliously alive to
any rudeness, coarseness, or indecorum ? You will find
none. The French are scrupulous on these points, to a
proverb. Yet, as every intelligent traveller in France
must have remarked, there is scarcely to be found, among
the middle or upper classes, (and seldom even among
the working classes,) such a thing as a large family ]



very seldom more than three or four children. A French
lady of the utmost delicacy and respectability will, in
common conversation, say as simply (ay, and as in-
nocently, whatever the self-righteous prude may aver to
the contrary) as she would proffer any common remark
about the weather : " I have three children ; my hus-
band and I think that is as many as we can do justice to,
and I do not intend to have any more."*

I have stated notorious facts, facts which no traveller
who has visited Paris, and seen any thing of the domes-
tic life of its inhabitants, will attempt to deny. However
heterodox, then, my view of the subject may be in this
country, I am supported in it by the opinion and the
practice of the most refined and most socially cultivated
nation in the world.

Will it still be argued, that the practice, if not coarse,
is immoral ? Again I appeal to France. I appeal to
the- details of the late glorious revolution to the innu-
merable instances of moderation, of courage, of honesty,
of disinterestedness, of generosity, of magnanimity, dis-
played on the memorable " three days," and ever since ;
and I challenge comparison between the national charac-
ter of France for. virtue, as well as politeness, and that
of any other nation under heaven.

It is evident, then, that, to married persons, the power
of limiting their offspring to their circumstances is most
desirable. It may often promote the harmony, peace,
and comfort of families ; sometimes it may save from
bankruptcy and ruin, and sometimes it may rescue the
mother from premature death. In no case can it, by

* Will our sensitive fine ladies blush at the plain good sense
and simplicity of such an observation ? Let me tell them, the
indelicacy is in their own minds, not in the words of the French


possibility, be worse than superfluous. In no case can
it be mischievous.

If the moral feelings were carefully cultivated, if we
were taught to consult, in every thing 1 , rather the wel-
fare of those we love than our own, how strongly would
these arguments be felt ! No man ought even to desire
that a woman should become the mother of his children,
unless it was her express wish, and unless he knew it to
be for her welfare, that she should. Her feelings, her
interests, should be for him in this matter an imperative
law. She it is who bears the burden, and therefore with
her also should the decision rest. Surely it may well be
a question whether it be desirable, or whether any man
ought to ask, that the whole life of an intellectual, culti-
vated woman, should be spent in bearing a family of
twelve or fifteen children ; to the ruin, perhaps, of her
constitution, if not to the overstocking of the world. No
man ought to require or expect it.

Shall I be told, that this is the very romance of morali-
ty ? Alas ! that what ought to be a matter of every day
practice a common-place exercise of the duties and
charities of life a bounden duty an instance of do-
mestic courtesy too universal either to excite remark or
to merit commendation alas-! that a virtue so humble
that its absence ought to be reproached as a crime,
should, to our selfish perceptions, seem but a fastidious
refinement, or a fanciful supererogation !

But I pass from the case of married persons to that
of young men and women who have yet formed no ma-
trimonial connexion.

In the present state of the world, when public opinion
stamps with opprobrium every sexual connexion which
has not received the orthodox sanction of an oath, al-
most all young persons, on reaching the age of maturi-


ty, desire to marry. The heart must be very cold, or
very isolated, that does not find some object on which
to bestow its affections. Thus, early marriages would
be almost universal, did not prudential considerations in-
terfere. The young man thinks, " I must not marry
yet. I cannot support a family. I must make money
first, and think of a matrimonial settlement afterwards."
And so he goes to making money, fully and sincerely
resolved, in a few years, to share it with her whom he
now loves. But passions are strong, and temptations
great. Curiosity, perhaps, introduces him into, the com-
pany of those poor creatures whom society first reduces
to a dependence on the most miserable of mercenary
trades, and then curses for being what she has made
them. There his health and his moral feelings alike
make shipwreck. The affections he had thought to
treasure up for their first object, are chilled by dissipa-
tion and blunted by excess. He scarcely retains a pas-
sion but avarice. Years pass on years of profligacy
and speculation and his first wish is accomplished ; his
fortune is made. Where now are the feelings and re-
solves of his youth ?

Like the dew on the mountain,

Like the foam on the river,
Like the bubble on the fountain.

They are gone and for ever !

He is a man of pleasure a man of the world. He
laughs at the romance of his youth, and marries a for-
tune. If gaudy equipages and gay parties confer hap-
piness, he is happy. But if these be only the sunshine
on the stormy ocean below, he is a victim to that sys-
tem of morality, which forbids a reputable connexion
until the period when provision has been made for a


large, expected family. Had he married the first object
of his choice, and simply delayed becoming a father until
his prospects seemed to warrant it, how different might
have been his lot ! Until men and women are absolved
from the fear of becoming parents, except when they
themselves desire it, they ever will form mercenary and
demoralizing connexions, and seek in dissipation the
happiness they might have found in domestic life.

I know that this, however common, is not a universal
case. Sometimes the heavy responsibilities of a family
are incurred, at all risks ; and who shall say how often
a life of unremitting toil and poverty is the consequence?
Sometimes if even rarely the young mind does hold
to its first resolves. The youth plods through years of
cold celibacy and solitary anxiety ; happy, if before the
best hours of life are gone, and its warmest feelings
withered, he may return to claim the reward of his for-
bearance and his industry. But even in this compara-
tively happy case, shall we count for nothing the years
of ascetical sacrifice at which after-happiness is pur-
chased ? The days of youth are not too mkny, nor its
affections too lasting. We may, indeed, if a great object
require it, sacrifice the one and mortify the other. But
is this, in itself, desirable ? Does not wisdom tell us,
that such sacrifice is a dead loss to the warm-hearted
often a grievous one ? Does not wisdom bid us tem-
perately enjoy the spring-time of life, " while the evil
days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when we shall
say, * We have no pleasure in them T J:

Let us say, then, if we will, that the youth who thus
sacrifices the present for the future, chooses wisely be-
tween two evils, profligacy and asceticism. This is
true. But let us not imagine the lesser evil to be a
good. It is not good for man to be alone. It is for no


man's or woman's happiness or benefit, that they should
be condemned to Shakerism. It is a violence done to
the feelings, and an injury to the character. A life of
rigid celibacy, though infinitely preferable to a life of
dissipation, is yet fraught with many evils. Peevish-
ness, restlessness, vague longings, and instability of cha
racter, are among the least of these. The mind is un-
settled, and the judgment warped. Even the very in-
stinct which is thus mortified, assumes an undue im-
portance, and occupies a portion of the thoughts which
does not of right or nature belong to it ; and which,
during a life of satisfied affection, it would not obtain.

I speak not now of extreme cases, where solitary vice*
or disease, or even insanity, has been the result of asceti-
cal mortification. I speak of every day cases : and I
am well convinced, that, (however wise it often is, in the
present state of the world, to select and adhere to this al-
ternative,) yet no man or woman can live the life of a
conscientious Shaker, without suffering, more or less,
both physically, mentally, and morally. This is the
more to be regretted, because the very noblest portion of

* For a vice so unnatural as onanism there could be no possible
temptation, and therefore no existence, were not men unnatural-
ly and mischievously situated. It first appeared, probably, in
monasteries ; and has been perpetuated by the more or less
anti-social and demoralizing relation in which the sexes stand to
each other, in almost all countries. In estimating the consequen-
ces of the present false situation of society, we must set down to
the black account the wretched, wretched consequences (termi-
nating not unfrequently in incurable insanity) of this vice, the
preposterous offspring of modern civilization. Physicians say
that onanism at present prevails, to a lamentable extent, both in
this country and England. If the recommendations contained in
this little treatise were generally followed, it would probably to-
tallv disappear in a single generation.


our species the good, the pure, the high-minded, and
the kind-hearted are the chief victims.

Thus, inasmuch as the scruple of incurring heavy
responsibilities deters from forming moral connexions,

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Online LibraryRobert Dale OwenMoral physiology; or, A brief and plain treatise on the population question → online text (page 3 of 7)