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La Mesure et l'excès

Under a perfect government […] the earth would soon be overstocked’: Measure and Excess in Robert Wallace’s Various Prospects of Nature, Mankind and Providence (1761)

Alexandra Sippel
p. 49-64


The question of how to regulate population in a utopia is most often addressed in terms of social control to ensure that all inhabitants abide by the rules that guarantee the community’s preservation. Wallace raises a different and original issue in his Various Prospects. Despite the admiration he voices for ancient and modern utopists and their equalitarian schemes, he points to the ultimate danger of a lack of measure of a mushrooming population that would necessarily result from a perfect constitution. His conclusion is that God allows evil and injustice to prevent worse consequences that the over-population of a finite earth would produce.

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1Gregory King was among the first in England to attempt to evaluate how populated the British Isles were. In the Preface to his Natural and Political Observations, he insisted that the “true state and condition of a nation, especially in the two main articles of people and wealth, [is] a piece of knowledge of all others, and at all times, most useful and necessary” (King 31). The association of “people” and “wealth” is typical of mercantilism, which relied on both a large population and large financial resources. Accurate information in these two fields furthermore allowed the proper redistribution of taxes that depended on the ratio between the rich and the poor, the busy and the idle.

2The issue of how populated Britain was gave rise to many debates in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as David Glass shows in “The Population Controversy in Eighteenth-Century England.” Two questions were discussed by the scientists in the Royal Society. One was to know whether the world had had more inhabitants in ancient times than in modern ones, and the other asked whether England was more or less populous in the eighteenth century than before the Glorious Revolution. In both cases, however, a larger population indicated the superiority of an era over another. Eighteenth-century optimists argued that Britain had more inhabitants in their time than in previous centuries, which supposedly demonstrated that the nation was not less virtuous than the ancient world. Though the possibility of carrying out censuses to know precisely how many people lived in the land was raised, it was dismissed for historical, geopolitical and religious reasons. First it brought back memories of the ill-famed Domesday Book among those who believed that the Norman Conquest had curtailed Anglo-Saxon liberties in England. Second, if the population was less numerous than expected, the nation might fall prey to its enemies. The religious argument rested on the command God had given Adam and Eve to people the Earth. Later, censuses were explicitly banned from David’s Israel and when the king disregarded the ban, a third of the population was lost to plague in retribution for his disobedience.

  • 1  Robert Wallace’s obituary in the Scots Magazine dated July 1771 signals that he was among the foun (...)

3Robert Wallace (1697-1771) was a mathematician and statistician as well as Presbyterian minister. He began teaching mathematics in 1720 and became a minister two years later. A Whig, he was also a prominent member of the famous Rankenian Club.1 He enjoyed the protection of the royal family because of his opposition to Walpole in the 1730s and turned to extensive writing after he lost favour in the 1740s. Like many of his contemporaries (including David Hume) he took part in the debate about whether the world was more populated in their own time or in Antiquity. Unlike Hume he concluded that it had been larger in Antiquity because the Ancients were more virtuous than the Moderns. He combined his talent for statistics and his occupation as a minister as he drafted his first social scheme: a pension fund for the widows and orphans of Church of Scotland ministers. This enabled the Church to allocate revenues to these families and his was the first successful venture of this kind in Britain. This attention paid to the most vulnerable in Scotland foreshadowed his admiration for utopists and utopian plans as expressed in Various Prospects of Mankind, Nature and Providence. According to historian J. K. Fuz:

This is a work which the age of Adam Smith can be proud of, and which although appearing in times most unfavourable, formed a noteworthy exception to the prevailing ideas and conceptions of welfare. It seems to us very interesting that just in the times of Adam Smith different ideas were also represented in a compact and clear form. Wallace’s work appeared at a time which was not open to this line of thought, and it is very characteristic that one of the Utopias in which some sound economic ideas of fundamental character were given, without a utopian feature, could not find recognition and was passed by without even rousing the interest of economists. (Fuz 71)

4Population is a recurring issue in Wallace’s writings. Like his contemporaries, he saw a large, growing population as indicative of good government. Yet Wallace’s writings on that question remain little known. Montesquieu and Rousseau in France, James Steuart, Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith in the United Kingdom have received much more attention from scholars. Population is a key element in their economic, political and ethical considerations. It features in Steuart’s and Smith’s economic theories (Akhtar, Rachid), in the debate over the consequences of parliamentary enclosures (Thompson), and in writings about moral philosophy (Tomaselli). Though Wallace addresses these many dimensions, it appears that only his Various Prospects have raised interest as they are one of the few texts prior to those by Malthus to focus specifically on population growth as a potential threat to human survival.

5In this paper, I intend to focus on Wallace’s reflections on the measure and excess of population in his time to show first that population growth is desirable as it points to a nation’s moral and economic health. I shall then turn to his utopian work, Various Prospects, to study how he praises Thomas More’s and James Harrington’s models – especially their agrarian laws – and how population growth appears as the ultimate threat to the perpetuation of a society based on an egalitarian distribution of lands.


6Like many non-conformist utopists of the modern period, Wallace tended to idealise the Ancients’ virtue that he saw as the natural consequence of their social and economic organisation. In his 1753 Dissertation on the Numbers of Mankind in Ancient and Modern Times, he argued that those who were more respectful of and dependent on agriculture than commerce were more virtuous and more numerous:

Hence we may conclude, that when any ancient nation divided its lands into small shares, and when even eminent citizens had but a few acres to maintain their families, tho’ such a nation had but little commerce, and had learnt but a few necessary arts, it must have abounded greatly in people. This was in a particular manner the case in Rome, for several ages. [...] But if the lands be divided into very unequal shares, and, in general, may produce much more than will decently support such as cultivate them, the country may, notwithstanding, be well peopled, if arts be encouraged and the surplus above what will support the labourers of the ground be allotted to such as cultivate the arts and sciences. [...] Hence it follows, contrary perhaps to what many may apprehend, that trade and commerce, instead of increasing, may often tend to diminish the number of mankind, and while they enrich a particular nation and entice great numbers of people into one place, may be not a little detrimental to the whole, as they promote luxury and prevent many usual hands from being employed in agriculture. (Wallace, Dissertation 18)

7My contention is that Wallace’s defence of ancient virtue belongs to the ongoing eighteenth-century debate over luxury that had been initiated by Bernard Mandeville who, on the contrary, described the thriving, trading hive as “well stocked with bees” (63) while the virtuous, frugal swarm at the end is small enough to fit in a hollow tree. Their turning their backs on trade and luxury causes the bees to become unable to support themselves and makes them fall prey – albeit determined ones – to the rival hives around them. Mandeville and his fellow freethinkers were the main targets of Wallace’s criticisms both in his sermons and in his written works. The preface to Various Prospects also addresses them to try and demonstrate that they are to blame for most of mankind’s miseries and for the fact that wise social schemes of the past were never implemented. Despite Fuz’s presentation of Various Prospects as a pure utopian scheme it could be argued that this text is not so much a radical plea for the establishment of an egalitarian society as a Whig defence of British liberties. Other writings by Wallace indeed point to the fact that the commercial era he was living in was quite propitious to population growth. In his 1758 Characteristics of the Present State of Great Britain and in his 1764 View of the Internal Policy of Great Britain, he shows how a commercial society relies heavily on an industrious body of people, and how industry begets population growth. A virtuous circle appears with the production of surpluses that increase the nation’s stocks in kind and in money. As in his other texts, he shows how the freedoms born of and secured by the 1688 Glorious Revolution were instrumental in guaranteeing that people’s labour should be safe from illegitimate appropriation. For Wallace too, there is a definite relation between the nation’s political, economic and ethical situation and its population.


8In his considerations on utopian plans in Various Prospects, Wallace firstly demonstrates that the best possible social and economic organisation is that of the Ancients as he already pictured it in his earlier works. According to this view, agrarian laws ought to secure an equal distribution of land and labour, in order to satisfy mankind’s few genuine needs. Population is a central issue in utopian schemes. What matters to most writers of utopias is how to control the people: how to choose and organise daily activities, how to ensure that nothing or no one threatens the established order so that the community can expect to live eternally without altering their perfect way of life. Wallace’s features among the rare texts addressing utopias and asking the question of how many inhabitants can live together in an isolated environment.

9The beginning of Various Prospects adopts the guise of a traditional utopia: a critique of existing institutions that accounts for mankind’s misery in Europe:

In short, Nature has furnished the richest materials for our comfort, and bestows them on mankind, with an amazing munificence. Neither is she wanting in her instructions to the sons of men, to make a proper improvement of such mighty advantages. She has endowed them with a discerning spirit, an acute genius, which teaches them to turn their riches to use for procuring the general happiness of society, and every individual member of this great community. (Wallace, Various Prospects 5)

10He then goes back to his favourite argument against the modern world’s lack of regard for truly agricultural labours. Writers of utopias like Thomas More (Utopia, 1516) or James Harrington (The Commonwealth of Oceana, 1656) did listen to the voice of nature and offer models that would have been adopted, had men been wiser. Wallace does not question More’s intentions and claims that his utopian scheme based on equality and common property is the only possible way to rid mankind of poverty. In the first lines of the second Prospect he asks the reader to contemplate the desirability of such a plan: “Let us not immediately take it for granted, that such a government is utterly impracticable. Let us suspend our judgment till once we have considered whether we can conceive a consistent idea of it. After this, it will be time enough to pronounce it impossible” (Wallace, Various Prospects 37). This organisation should be based on two essential premises:

Suppose that this plan was to be carried into execution by all the members of the society, in such sort that none of them would be idle, or wholly exempted from working, nor should any be over-burdened, or obliged to such hard and severe labour as might be prejudicial to their health, or indispose them for study and contemplation. […] [Suppose also] that there should be no private property. That every one should work for the public and be supported by the public. That all should be on a level, and the fruits of every one’s labours should be common for the comfortable subsistence of all the members of the society. (Wallace, Various Prospects 40, 46).

In this model, all men are equal citizens thanks to an equal distribution of labour that saves time for universal education. At a time when many figures of the Scottish Enlightenment saw the commercial age as the ultimate step in the history of mankind, Wallace added this final utopian stage as the true sign of human perfection. Yet, there were a human and a divine reason why this ultimate stage could not be reached:

Different maxims of government, different customs and notions are too deeply rooted ever to be eradicated in any ordinary way. One would be a madman to attempt it. Though Lycurgus and Solon, Plato and Aristotle, Demosthenes and Cicero, Sir Thomas More and Harrington, with the ancient and modern philosophers, law-givers and orators were to appear together, and endeavour to persuade the inhabitants of Great Britain or France, to establish such a government, their efforts would be in vain. In order to bring about such a grand revolution, there would be a necessity for real miracles and inspiration. (Wallace, Various Prospects 58)

For Wallace, God had good reasons not to perform that miracle.


11Whereas most writers of utopias consider that nothing can corrupt their ideal organisation as long as all the members of the community are convinced that their situation is the best possible, Wallace sees a threat in the very happiness that people would derive from their newly-gained equality. Most utopias are set in remote areas of the world, often protected by deep and wide rivers or oceans, or by high impassable cliffs or mountains. Separated from the rest of the world, their inhabitants can remain unspoiled. Besides, these bounded communities are of a convenient size similar to that of the small republics that many writers take as their ideal models. And yet, the question of how many inhabitants they can hold is rarely asked. In James Burgh’s An Account of the First Settlement, Laws, Form of Government, and Police of the Cessares, a People of South America (1756), to mention but one contemporary Scottish example, the Cessares – who had settled in Patagonia and whose organisation rested on an equal distribution of labour and property between all families – would experience demographic growth such that their population would double in each generation. They nevertheless expected to have enough unoccupied land around the first settlement to provide these new generations with enough land to support their families and their offspring’s families. They might later need to settle outside their original boundaries, but the perfection and happiness of their community would soon convince their potential neighbours that it was worth adopting their traditions, and utopian principles would naturally spread to larger areas of South America. In this case, a growing population was evidence of the perfection of this social organisation. Nowhere does Burgh raise the issue of a finite world that could be overburdened by a multiplying population.

12Wallace’s text is much more original insofar as he does insist on the finiteness of the Earth. At first, he argues, a community that adopts a utopian organisation would spread by convincing its immediate neighbours to abide by their principles. This expansion could even continue over boundaries (from Britain to France) and then over continents. At a time when British colonies were growing overseas and especially in North America, Wallace also celebrated the wise plans that had been set up by the first founders of Carolina and Pennsylvania. About the latter, he especially insisted that all citizens had an equal right to petition their authorities if they had been wronged, which meant that truly equitable justice was accessible to all:

Mr Penn began his settlement of Pennsylvania, seconded by the society of Quakers, among whom he was a leading man. [...] The government the Quakers had established as a people among themselves, and to which, without coercive force, all submitted, is perhaps as good a model of a republic as has ever been thought of. (Wallace, View 80)

13Even if the metropolis was too large to be reformed and to adopt fair rules, Wallace points to the economic (and hence demographic) advantages colonies brought to the mother country. They offered new markets and new sources of raw materials that were precious to the emerging commercial society. Besides, trade with the colonies reinforced industry at home, thus also reinforcing population growth. Unlike others, Wallace does not voice concerns at the emigration of British citizens to the colonies. Quite to the contrary, he seems confident that it will ultimately benefit Britain. His optimism is not blind to the possible decadence colonies can undergo, especially as he underlines that Penn’s institutions were lost over time, though they might still be regained (View 82-83). Perfect institutions would curb men’s evil passions, which would in turn secure the preservation of the institutions:

This is one of the peculiar advantages of such a constitution. It produces wisdom and virtue, as naturally as our imperfect governments produce vice and folly. All its maxims and rules conspire to this excellent purpose. Thus a government, once happily established upon equitable footing, may be as durable as any other, notwithstanding the love of distinction, and the powerful principle of ambition so conspicuous in human nature. (Wallace, Various Prospects 85)

14Ambition and the love of distinction cannot be crushed but would be satisfied as individuals competed for and gloried in their virtue instead of their social elevation. There would, however, come a time when the whole Earth would be inhabited by happy people who would continue to multiply beyond what nature could provide them with (Various Prospects 46-47). This could only end in utter disaster, as Robert Luehrs suggests:

Unfortunately all things must also decay, and in the case of utopia, its very success would eventually destroy it. The mushrooming population would eventually expand beyond the available resources, and the government would be forced to impose limits on marriages, the number of offspring, even lifespans. Such restrictions would violate both the fundamental principle of utopia and the natural passions of man, and social strife would reappear, bringing utopia to an end. (Luehrs 333)

Excess of population would cause a strain on resources even of the few necessaries that this reformed mankind would still produce and use, which would result in renewed competition and wars. The only solutions, Wallace argues, would lie in implementing inhumane and outdated traditions:

In such a cruel necessity, must there be a law to restrain marriage? Must multitudes of women be shut up in cloisters like the ancient vestals, or modern nuns? To keep a balance between the two sexes, must a proportionable number of men be debarred from marriage? Shall the Utopians, following the wicked policy of superstition, forbid their priests to marry; or shall they rather sacrifice men of some other profession for the good of the state? Or, shall they appoint the sons of certain families to be maimed at their birth and give a sanction to the unnatural institutions of eunuchs? If none of these expedients can be thought proper, shall they appoint a certain number of infants to be exposed to death as soon as they are born, determining the proportion according to the exigencies of the state? Or must they shorten the period of human life by law, and condemn all to die after they had completed a certain age, which might be shorter or longer, as provisions were either more scanty or plentiful? Alas! How unnatural and inhuman must every such expedient be accounted! (Wallace, Various Prospects 117-18)

Wallace had already discussed the various ways of keeping population within manageable proportions in his Dissertation on the Numbers of Mankind, concluding that these were pernicious and unnatural. Some of the “expedients” he discusses are easy to identify, like the Catholic traditions related to priesthood that he would condemn as a Presbyterian minister, or the Spartan custom of allowing only the fittest babies to live. What is particularly original in his text is that he considers the whole earth as finite, with obvious boundaries that are far more impassable than any ocean or mountain. Though there is little doubt as to his admiration for More’s or Harrington’s plans, as well as for their ancient counterparts, the threat of overpopulation leads him to conclude against utopian institutions on Earth: “The greatest admirers of such fanciful schemes must foresee the fatal period when they would come to an end, as they are altogether inconsistent with the limits of that earth in which they must exist” (Various Prospects 114).

15Utopias are nothing more than “fanciful schemes” and some passages suggest that they are likely in due time to be judged “impossible.” Overpopulation is the reason why God does not perform the miracle of rendering mankind more virtuous and thirsty for equality – and not depopulation as in Mandeville’s Fable. The faults of society as it is are a way to keep population down and to avoid any excesses:

There are certain primary determinations in nature, to which all other things of a subordinate kind must be adjusted. A limited earth, a limited degree of fertility and the continual increase of mankind are three of these original constitutions […] on which account it is more contrary to just proportion to suppose that such a perfect government should be established in such circumstances, than that by permitting vice, or the abuse of liberty in the wisdom of Providence, mankind should never be able to multiply so greatly as to overstock the earth. (Wallace, Various Prospects 122)

Injustice is a lesser problem than overpopulation:

How often do the most worthless enjoy great honours and estates from their ancestors, or by the foolish and indiscreet favour of princes, by the influence of friends, and by the wicked arts of party and cabal? […] By means of this tyranny, the lowest and weakest of the people are often oppressed; while those of higher rank, and of greater spirit and capacity are provoked. Hence such frequent murmurs, such dangerous convulsions, such fatal revolutions. What else can be expected? (Wallace, Various Prospects 98-99)

16Wallace’s considerations about the threat that overpopulation poses to a utopia form a theodicy. Evil and corruption are allowed in society only to prevent the worse evil of overpopulation and the exhaustion of finite resources. He concludes that “if it is the intention of the divine wisdom to carry human society to the greatest perfection of which it is capable on this earth, by means of a perfect government, the design may be laid so deep, and be carried on so slowly, as to require many ages for its accomplishment” (Various Prospects 71). What is paradoxical in this text is that overpopulation appears as a danger even though God’s very first command to Adam and Eve was to multiply and people the earth. Perfect happiness would lead to overpopulation, which is why God tolerates human injustice. This makes Wallace’s writings original, even more so as he does not dismiss the guiding principles of utopias but their feasibility. Emma Rothschild points out that some form of social justice was promoted by others who were not utopists:

A civilized society is one in which even the poor have the right to secure lives. […] But [Adam] Smith identifies security as the condition for industry among the labouring poor as well. The sense that the poor have their own security is of central importance to Smith’s account of wages and production, of consumption, and of instruction; it is also a principal justification for government regulation and government expenditure. Smith was a fervent supporter of high wages, to take a first illustration, which he considered as both cause for and effect of national prosperity. It was “abundantly plain,” he said, “that an improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks of the people” was of advantage “to the society.” (Rothschild 713-14)

Perhaps those who believed that commerce marked the ultimate stage of human progress also saw greater social justice as a sign of this progress. Such was at any rate Wallace’s vision.


17Wallace’s Various Prospects celebrates the virtues of civic humanism and praises the principles delineated by some ancient and modern writers of ideal constitutions. With James Harrington and others as his sources of inspiration, he delineates principles according to which labour should be distributed, with a few at the top in charge of governing the community and the vast majority of the people below allowed to own equal strips of land and to enjoy light labour, education and participation in the group’s defence. Though this text is more utopian than others in that there are only two social groups (who both own the same amount of property and who both labour a few hours a day), it is well in keeping with other essays by Wallace in which he describes society as a pyramid with an aristocracy at the top and wider and wider groups of population toward the bottom with the majority of uneducated and unarmed labourers at its base. There remains a sense of hierarchy in Wallace’s ideal organisation, even though egalitarianism is clearly described as an essential feature of this society. Like his contemporaries he saw the size of modern states as a major obstacle to the realisation of this model. Yet for this religious man, the real reason why virtue and equality could not be achieved was to be found in God’s will: only God could make mankind virtuous enough to alter its ways and adopt principles that would maintain harmony despite human limitations. In Wallace’s theodicy therefore, evil is allowed only to keep population down:

Meanwhile it is obvious, upon the slightest view, that those political systems, and those maxims of education which have prevailed universally hitherto, are altogether inconsistent with a perfect state of human society. The bad correspondence in which mankind live, the struggles for riches and power among the different nations into which human society is divided, the jealousies among the great, the ambition of kings and princes, their interfering interests, and their bloody wars, destroy millions, and prevent the earth’s being fully peopled. Poverty, which discourages great numbers from marrying, by rendering them unable to take proper care of families, is a great hindrance to the increase of mankind. Intemperance and debauchery have likewise a most fatal influence. (Wallace, Various Prospects 25-26)

Wallace was aware both of the faults of human institutions and of those of a perfect system that would foster exponential population growth. He embodied the two sides of the debate over population and utopia that was to be famously waged by Godwin and Malthus in the 1790s. Malthus famously published his Essay on the Principle of Population because he foresaw dire consequences if Godwin’s “political justice” was to become reality. Both men had read Wallace’s Various Prospects and both condemned the work, albeit for opposite reasons. Godwin was disappointed in Wallace’s lack of faith in the future:

An Author, who has speculated widely upon the subjects of government, has recommended equal, or, which was rather his idea, common property, as a complete remedy to the usurpations and distress which are at present the most powerful enemies of human kind, the vices which infect education in some instances, and the neglect it encounters in more, to all the turbulence of passion, and all the injustices of selfishness. But, after having exhibited this picture, not less true than delightful, he finds an argument that demolishes the whole, and restores him to indifference and despair, in the excessive population that would ensue. […] It would be truly absurd to shrink from such a scheme of essential benefit to mankind, lest they should be too happy and by necessary consequence at some period, too populous. (Godwin 391-92)

On the other hand, Malthus reproaches Wallace for indulging too much in the delightful vision of an egalitarian society:

Even Mr Wallace, who thought the argument of population itself of so much weight as to destroy this whole system of equality, did not seem to be aware that any difficulty would arise from this cause till the whole earth be cultivated like a garden, and was incapable of further increase of produce. Were this really the case, and were a beautiful system of equality in other respects practicable, I cannot think that our ardour in such a scheme ought to be damped by the contemplation of so remote a difficulty. An event at such distance might fairly be left to Providence. But the truth is, that if the view of the argument given in this essay be just, the difficulty, far from being remote, would be imminent and immediate. […] At every period during the progress of cultivation, from the present moment to the time when the whole earth was become like a garden, the distress for want of food would be constantly pressing on all mankind. (Malthus 45-46)

Later utopias like New Britain by George Ellis (1820) seemed to be influenced, if not by Wallace, at least by Malthus as they reconciled traditional utopian institutions based on common property and the cultivation of the earth as a garden with Malthusian safeguards based on a strict control of matrimony that would be determined by the availability of resources. In other words, they made the choice that Wallace refused when he dismissed the possibility of delaying or of prohibiting marriage to his utopians.

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King, Gregory. Observations and Conclusions upon the State and Condition of England. [1696]. English Historical Documents. 1660-1714. Ed. Andrew Browning. London: Routledge, 1953.

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Wallace, Robert. A Dissertation on the Numbers of Mankind in Antient and Modern Times: in which the Superior Populousness of Antiquity is Maintained, With an Appendix, Containing Additional Observations on the Same Subject, and Some Remarks on Mr. Hume’s Political Discourse, of the Populousness of Antient Nations. Edinburgh: G. Hamilton & J. Balfour, 1753.

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1  Robert Wallace’s obituary in the Scots Magazine dated July 1771 signals that he was among the founding members of this “society” of enlightened men who met in an Edinburgh tavern and took up the name of its master. The same document insists that “the Rankenians were highly instrumental in disseminating through Scotland freedom of thought, boldness of disquisition, liberality of sentiment, accuracy of reasoning, correctness of taste, and attention to composition; and that the exalted rank which Scotsmen hold at present in the Republic of letters is greatly owing to the manner and the spirit begun in that society” (341-42).

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Bibliographical reference

Alexandra Sippel, Under a perfect government […] the earth would soon be overstocked’: Measure and Excess in Robert Wallace’s Various Prospects of Nature, Mankind and Providence (1761)XVII-XVIII, 71 | 2014, 49-64.

Electronic reference

Alexandra Sippel, Under a perfect government […] the earth would soon be overstocked’: Measure and Excess in Robert Wallace’s Various Prospects of Nature, Mankind and Providence (1761)XVII-XVIII [Online], 71 | 2014, Online since 17 May 2016, connection on 12 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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