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On the Propriety of affording a free and equal
Option of Marriage to all Classes of the Com. munity.
THE following passage occurs in the eleventh chapter of the fourth book of Mr. Malthus's Essay.
Nothing can be more clear than that it is within the power of money and of the exertions of the rich adequately to relieve a particular family, a particular parish, or even a particular district. But it will be equally clear, if we reflect a moment on the subject, that it is totally out of their power to relieve the whole country in the same way, at least, without providing a regular vent for the overflowing numbers in emigration, or without the prevalence of a particular virtue among the poor, which the distribution of this assistance tends obviously to discourage.” The preceding chapters may, perhaps, have satisfied the reader that a power does exist of relieving a whole country without providing for overflowing numbers by emigration; because numbers will not, in fact, overflow. It is the object of the present chapter to show to what extent the prevalence of the particular virtue among the poor, which the exercise of charity is said to discourage, affects the principle of population, and consequently whether the option of marriage may not be afforded to the lower ranks of society upon moral considerations only, and be left perfectly free upon grounds of expediency, and even upon those of political arithmetic.”
On this subject, conclusions the most important to the moral good and general happiness of the people depend upon the truth or falsehood of the principles maintained in this treatise. The following proposition has been repeatedly drawn from the principle of population, as it is laid down by those writers whom it is my object to oppose; viz. moral restraint, that is, involuntary abstinence from marriage by those who cannot support a family of the average number, (accompanied by abstinence from irregular intercourse,) until the pecuniary affairs of the parties are absolutely in a condition to support a family of the size that may eventually be born to them, is the only method of escaping the vice and misery incident to a redundant population. Now as the lower orders are evidently the only part of a people who cannot support a family, if they choose to give up other enjoyments in exchange for the domestic, it follows that the rule of involuntary abstinence from marriage applies exclusively to them, and that it is necessary to the public welfare that they should continue single, and of course unpolluted, to a comparatively advanced period of life. At the same time the advocates of this opinion are compelled to admit that such a general system of restraint among the lower orders is, from the nature and constitution of mankind, extremely difficult and improbable; and that supposing the abstinence from marriage only to be attained, there would be great danger of encouraging the worst vices among them. The attempts to weaken this Cobjection to the system consist principally of a comparison of its result with other crimes and vices to which it is asserted that the opposite course of conduct, or the encouragement of marriage, would lead;
which are said to be great, but which I must beg leave to think (from an extensive observation of the lower orders) by no means the greater of the two. Again, they are compelled to admit, that, “ considering the passion between the sexes in all its bearings and relations, including the endearing engagement of parent and child resulting from it, it is one of the principal ingredients of human happiness;” and we may surely add, that its lawful gratification is the great constituent of the happiness of the lower orders, who do not profit in proportion with the rest of the community by the progress of civilization : at least it does not afford to them, as it does to the higher ranks of society, any mental substitute for these interdicted gratifications. Even an attentive peruşal of Mr. Malthus's confessedly Utopian state of society, described in his chapter on “ the effects which would result to society from the general practice” of such double abstinence as is above described, will undoubtedly show that almost all the moral advantages and happiness resulting from it attach exclusively to the feelings and condition of the higher orders. The people should therefore be entitled to retain that which they possessed in the earlier stages of society, and for which its further advancement has afforded them no substitute.
But, say the supporters of the new opinions, if the lower orders do not alter their conduct in this respect with the progress of society, an increase of misery, and a multiplication of deaths by famine and various other diseases, must be the inevitable consequence. To prevent this lingering misery, therefore, if we attempt to facilitate marriage as a point of the first consequence to the morality and happiness of the
people, to act consistently, we should facilitate and not impede the production of mortality. Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage the contrary habits; we should make our streets narrower, and implore the return of the plague; we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and encourage settlements in bogs and morasses. We should above all reprobate those benevolent, but much mistaken men, who have foolishly thought they were doing a service to mankind, by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders. Truly, according to the dilemma here stated, it appears that great and irremediable vice and misery, in some shape or other, is what a reasonable man must expect to find the lot of the larger portion of his fellow-creatures, even supposing them to practise the degree of virtue and morality which has been found to exist in the best regulated and most civilized societies; and that one great and inevitable source of vice and misery is gradually increased among the lower orders, without any counterpoise, in proportion as the situation of the other ranks is ameliorated.
But can this be the ordination of Providence ? Has he made the attainment of moral virtues so unequally possible among men? It is impossible to believe it upon any authority less than his own positive declaration. Nor is it any defence of the justice of such an arrangement to say, “ that at some particular periods in the progress of society men are more strongly tempted in a particular manner than at others ;" for it is evident that, according to the preceding exposition of the plan of Providence, it is not a substitution of one species of temptation for
another, but an exoneration of a degree of temptation from the higher orders, to place the burthen upon
the shoulders of the lower. It seems that the last are the only persons to whom the option of early marriage is to be denied, though they have at thė same time fewer enjoyments to substitute for it, and infinitely fewer means of avoiding the temptations to vice, which an involuntary abstinence from marriage necessarily multiplies. Their mental resources being most deficient, they are more in want of other gratifications, and of the means of humanizing their minds by the enjoyments of the social affections. Whereas the higher and middle orders, who want it least, have a perfectly free option of marriage.
The denial of this fact, which is sometimes attempted, cannot, I think, be maintained. That their pride, their desire to retain the enjoyments attached to a life of celibacy, the profits arising from pursuits with which the care of a wife and family is incompatible, the various pleasures and advantages, in short, which in a civilized state men in the higher and middle classes must sometimes resign upon marriage, prevent them from entering into that contract for fear of losing those advantages, is very certain ; and the result forms one of the leading arguments in the first book of this treatise. But they have evidently the power of choice. If they choose to sacrifice one enjoyment for the sake of the other, by descending a degree in the scale of society, they may gratify their wishes with innocence, and exchange a part of their pecuniary or other advantages for the comforts of a family. If they prefer the ease and disincumbrance of a single life to the social comforts of the marriage state, they can never have