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  • From “Be Fruitful and Multiply” to Family Planning: The Enlightenment Transition
  • Jacqueline Hecht* (bio)

In 1789, France was the “strong man” of Europe. Its high fertility insured it an overwhelming numerical superiority among the other competing nations. The imperative of Genesis, “be fruitful and multiply,” was supported by the political statement of Proverbs (14.28): “In the multitude of people is the King’s honour, But in the want of people is the destruction of the Prince.” The authority of Scripture had inspired the demographic conceptions of thinkers, as well as the population policies of sovereigns, a collective mentality long reflected in the submissive behavior of their subjects, who showed little inclination towards escaping their traditional fate: to accept all the children sent by God without thought of rebellion.

The Revolution in its first years did not break with this ideological consensus. The members of the Etats Généraux, as well as those of the Constituante, the Législative, or the Convention, wished to insure happiness, well-being, and freedom to the greatest number of citizens and they took many specific measures to these ends, deeply convinced that “the basis of any political society was happiness, and its goal, population.” 1 In 1793, they were still exalting the exploits of a “great nation possessed of all resources” supplied by “its courage and its population,” and in 1794, they continued to maintain that France would become “the most industrious, the wealthiest and therefore the most populous nation which could ever exist.” 2 Yet, the birth rate, which had in fact begun to fall regularly from the 1770s (38.6% between 1770 and 1775), was about to experience an abrupt deceleration from the crucial years 1795–98 and reach a low of 32% (1801–5). The Western pattern of marriage (that is, a late age at the first marriage), established in France since the sixteenth century, was almost entirely superseded by what was eventually to be called “birth control” or “family planning,” that is, contraceptive behavior outside or within marriage. With a slight time lag, this kind of behavior was ratified and advocated by certain French thinkers who, at the extreme end of the eighteenth century and in the first years of the nineteenth century, denounced “an evil greater than war,” the “excessive multitude of men,” and recommended avoiding procreation. 3 Within about a century, the religious and moral motto “be fruitful and multiply” had been replaced by the socioeconomic injunction of the economist J.-B. Say, “make savings, not children.” 4 This was not only an extraordinary transition; it was properly another Revolution to which the Enlightenment at its end had given birth. [End Page 536]

At this point, I would like to examine when, how, and why such a factual and ideological phenomenon could have occurred in a country long regarded as “the eldest daughter of the [Catholic] Church,” beginning with an analysis of the data of the demographic transition during the Enlightenment, and then an examination of how the evolution was understood by observers.

I. From Prolonged Celibacy to Birth Control in Marriage

As early as the nineteenth century, with the sociologist Frédéderic Le Play (1875), and above all in the twentieth century, with anthropologists and historians such as J. Hajnal and P. Laslett (1983), a Western pattern of marriage was identified. 5 Its characteristics were late marriage, neo-local residence, a nuclear household, and an exchange of children employed as servants prior to marriage. In the South of France the pattern prevailed of an extended family, living in a house or on a farm, which was passed on to a single offspring, usually the eldest son. In most of the provinces of France, characterized by equal inheritance among children, the nuclear family had been widespread since the Middle Ages. As J. Dupâquier pointed out, the whole system depended on three unwritten rules: no conception outside marriage; no marriage without the means to establish a household for the young couple; and no cohabitation between the new couple and the older generation. 6 Before being able to create a “nest” or start a family, the young man had to accumulate savings, and the young woman to...

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