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a major discovery in the history of economics - new letters by Thomas Robert Malthus

MALTHUS, THOMAS ROBERT. A collection of four autograph letters signed to Francis Horner

East India College, Hertford, 1811-1813

4to. 15 pages. Remnants of old guards at folds. Very good condition. Handsomely presented in a morocco album with an early photograph of an oil portrait of Malthus. Excellent condition.

In this outstanding series of unpublished letters, Thomas Robert Malthus discusses many of his principal interests including population, demography, gold bullion and the bullion controversy, controversies with David Ricardo, the prices of precious metals in world markets, and international trade.

Malthus, with Smith, Say, and Ricardo, is one of the founders of classical political economy. He wrote these letters from his home in Hertford, where in 1805 he became Professor of History and Political Economy at East India Company College. His Essay on Population, first published in 1798, had made him one of the best-known thinkers in England. In this file of correspondence Malthus discusses his original research into the most pressing economic issues of the day involving population, money, gold, and trade.

Malthus is most famous for his epochal Essay on Population. This collection includes an outstanding, long letter dated 24 February 1811 on the subject of population. Malthus, who carried out original research into the subject for much of his life, published six editions of the Essay, often with substantial revisions. In this letter Malthus discusses the problems of gathering data, both for setting public policy and for developing his own work. The recipient, Francis Horner, M.P., had evidently consulted his friend Malthus on planning the census of 1811, the second ever conducted in the United Kingdom. Malthus writes, “It would certainly be desirable to make the enquiries into the state of our population.” He goes on to describe minutely the problems facing census takers and researchers interested in understanding population. He makes substantive suggestions concerning the structure of families and the inferences that can be made from the work done by the head of the household. Warning of the shortcomings in sources of data, especially parish registers, Malthus suggests workarounds and offers improvements in the schedule of census questions.

Malthus weighs in on a central concern of England at this time – the price of gold bullion and the effect of the Napoleonic wars on the money supply and on international markets. In the letter dated 12 May 1811, Malthus investigates the problems of the cost of gold bullion and international exchange. He asks Horner, “Pray is it ascertained, from what quarters we have received our bullion lately. I can’t help thinking that for some periods during the last two years the real exchanges with parts of Europe have been either favourable, or at par; and could this be shown, the state of the nominal exchange would be at once decisive.”  He wonders about the impact of changing values on traders on the ground, commenting, “I should like to know whether it is considered by merchants that whenever the real exchange falls to the price of the transport of the precious metals, bullion is set in motion from some quarter or other. I think it must be so, as no one consulting his own interest would purchase a bill at a higher price than he could send the precious metals after all expences had been considered. But if there is so Bullion must pass backwards and forwards not very unfrequently.”

The workings of the financial markets fascinate Malthus. In his letter of 31 December 1813, Malthus returns to the subject, observing that “The year of 1811 was a year of great curiosity from the very extraordinary fall of the exchanges which took place.” He asks Horner to report on the prices of precious metals on the exchanges in Hamburg and Amsterdam. He notes, “I am disposed to go part of the way with the mercantile people, and I think that a considerable part of the extraordinary fall of the exchange with Hamburgh, which was afterwards recovered comparatively, under much higher market prices of gold, was occasioned by the occupation of Hamburgh by the French and there being in consequence few or no purchasers of English bills. Nothing seem to produce so sudden and violent an effect upon the exchange as a state of very great alarm. An effect peculiarly similar was produced last year in Russia by the approach of the French.”

Malthus is one of the most influential thinkers of the past 200 years. His Essay on Population shaped economic and social discourse for generations and founded the science of demography. William Godwin called him “the most daring and gigantic of all innovators.” Charles Darwin acknowledged Malthus’s fundamental place in the development of his theory of natural selection. John Maynard Keynes declared that “If only Malthus, instead of Ricardo, had been the parent stem from which nineteenth-century economics proceeded, what a much wiser and richer place the world would be today!”

The recipient of these letters, Francis Horner, M.P. (1778-1817), was a leading figure in economics and finance in Parliament in the 1810s. In 1810 the House of Commons named him to chair the Committee on the High Price of Gold Bullion to investigate why the price had risen during the Napoleonic Wars. The committee concluded in its famous Bullion Report there was “an excess in the paper circulation [due to] insufficient check and control in the issue of paper from the Bank of England; and originally to the suspension of cash payments [i.e. ending redemption of notes for bullion in 1797], which removed the natural and true control.” “The debate was the most famous in all history on money and its management” (John Kenneth Galbraith).

Three of these letters are unpublished, being unknown to both the editors of the Horner Papers (Edinburgh University Press, 1995) and John Pullen, author of “The Other Correspondence of T. R. Malthus” (2016). The 12 May 1811 letter appeared in the Memoirs and Correspondence of Francis Horner (1853).

Most of Malthus’s letters have been dispersed among the great university research collections. Clutches of correspondence to a single recipient addressing the central themes of Malthus’s work are virtually unknown in private hands.