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People, People Everywhere!

The combination of new farming techniques, new crops, new devices, and better livestock contributed to a population explosion in Europe during the eighteenth century, particularly after 1750. However, there was more at work than just agricultural and dietary factors.

War, famine, and disease had always kept the European population in check, but all three declined in the eighteenth century. The construction of roads and canals throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries reduced the significance of crop failure by allowing more access to surplus resources from other locations. Each of these factors set off a chain reaction that resulted in population increases in many if not most European nations.

The Chain Reaction

Historians and population experts agree on only general factors that contributed to the population boom. Agricultural advances led to a higher yield per acre. More and better food in the European diet led to improved immune systems. Better immune systems, along with the decline of deadly diseases and catastrophic warfare, contributed to lower death rates. Better immune systems coupled with a lower marriage age for some women resulted in higher birth rates and perhaps lower infant mortality rates. Some historians have speculated that the draining of marshes and swamps led to a decrease in the number of disease-carrying insects such as mosquitoes. Others have pointed to improved sewage systems.

Taking all these factors into consideration, two conclusions have been made over and over. First, the single most important contributor to the population boom was simply the drop in the mortality rate across Europe. Second, as much as humanists would like to credit humans with the boom, the population explosion was a combination of manmade and naturally occurring phenomena.

Limiting Population Growth

Dating as far back as classical Greece and Rome, thinkers have worried about overpopulation. In nature, overpopulation results in sick, weak animals that eventually die off leaving only the strong as survivors. Those concerned about overpopulation have always feared the same result in the human population. For eighteenth-century contemporaries, that fear was very real.

In reality, the population boom probably contributed greatly to the birth of industrialization (see Chapter 17) in Britain. While historians can see that in retrospect, contemporaries like Thomas Malthus could not. Malthus (1766-1834) expressed his concerns in Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. Malthus, an ordained Anglican minister and a pessimist by nature, believed that if not checked, the human population would continue to expand at a greater rate than the supply of food. Malthus feared that war, famine, and disease were nature’s, and therefore God’s, ways of keeping population in check.

Continental Quotes

“Hard as it may appear in individual cases, dependent poverty ought to be held disgraceful."

—Thomas Malthus

If man hoped to keep these checks to a minimum, he must work to keep the population down. According to Malthus (the second of eight children), the best way to do this was to limit human reproduction, preferably through abstinence but also through marrying later in life. The pessimist in him blamed the poor for most of society’s woes and he doubted that the poor were capable of showing the restraint necessary to do as he prescribed. If Malthus and his followers had gotten their way, British legislation would have prevented the poor from marrying and having kids altogether.

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