From the beginning of the eighteenth century until the Revolution, anxiety over what was thought to be a decrease in France’s population spawned an enormous literature in which schemes of all kinds were advanced to fortify the nation’s faltering reproduction. Particularly after Montesquieu’s brilliant improvisation on the theme in the Lettres persanes (1721), depopulation became a favorite arm of the philosophes in their attacks on the monarchy and the Church. However, by the end of the century, in 1798, another apocalyptic scenario was being invoked. Malthus warned against excessive demographic success, claiming that plagues, war, and famine awaited the people who permitted their reproduction to outstrip their resources.
In fact, not only was it untrue that France’s population was declining across the century, but from 1740 to 1790 it rose by about three and a half million, or 13.4%, despite the nation’s turn toward contraceptive practices. Thus, the alarmists in France were wrong, although only in absolute terms. In a relative sense their intuition was correct for the British, whose population is estimated to have risen over the same period by 38.8%, moving towards the abolition of the great numerical advantage France had once enjoyed in Europe and opening a new chapter in her history. Jacqueline Hecht’s article, “From ‘Be Fruitful and Multiply’ to Family Planning,” traces the paradoxical story of a nation increasingly controlling its fertility in private life while publicly declaiming the merits of demographic expansion. Many of the great eighteenth-century issues relating to populationism—celibacy, the effects of luxury, the military, and the problem of pauperism—are addressed by Revolutionary legislators, attempting to turn the demographic tide. As it has sometimes been observed, however, it is neither demographic theorists, nor statistical arguments, nor government edicts that make babies, but women. Christine Théré has brought together a large assortment of opinions from the period’s women authors, most of them unknown, who express their concerns about reproduction; not surprisingly, their focus is less on nationalistic and military predominance than on the practical realities of marriage, family, and the raising of children. [End Page 535]
In “‘More Men than Corn’: Malthus versus the Enlightenment,” Rudolph Binion discusses the concepts of limiting excessive growth by “moral restraint,” that is, celibacy, as opposed to the “immoral” kind, or artificial contraception, to which Malthus was sternly opposed and France evermore disposed. Binion concludes that Malthus, like the French prophets of depopulation, was probably wrong, although his error, like theirs, generated a great swell of central scientific theory in the nineteenth century. Malthus’s premise was faulty, we are told, because what seems like “overpopulation” is really the product of governmental inefficiency and problems in distributing resources. Yet, as we end the century that has seen history’s greatest population explosion and enter the next millennium in a world of endemic wars, uncontrollable pandemics, and widespread malnutrition, it is perhaps understandable that for many people Malthus is still very much alive.