In 1822 English tailor, economist and political radical Francis Place published in London Illustrations and Proofs of the Principle of Population: Including an Examination of the Proposed Remedies of Mr. Malthus, and a Reply to the Objections of Mr. Godwin and Others. Place's book was the foundation work of the birth-control movement.
“Though many preceded Francis Place in discussing the technique of contraception, he seems to have been the first to venture, at first alone and unaided, upon an organized attempt to educate the masses. Place, holds, therefore, the same position in social education on contraception that Malthus holds in the history of general population theory . . . it was Place who first gave birth control a body of social theory” (Himes, Medical History of Contraception , 212-13).
Place, the son of an alcoholic London bailiff, overcame enormous economic hardship to become a successful master tailor. In his free time he taught himself mathematics, the law, history and economics; he also became involved in British radical politics, associating with such influential figures as Joseph Hume, Thomas Wakely, Sir Francis Burdett, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. David Ricardo had sent Place a copy of Malthus's work and Place sent Ricardo the manuscript of his book for comments in September 1821 to which Ricardo replied in a lengthy letter to Place dated September 9, 1821.
Place’s Illustrations and Proofs arose from the long-standing controversy between Thomas Malthus and the utopian socialist William Godwin over the nature of human society. Godwin held that there was no limit on human perfectibility, and that society, if freed from the evils of government and other man-made institutions, would advance to an ideal state, free of poverty and governed entirely by reason. Malthus countered Godwin’s utopian claims with his famous Essay on the Principle of Population (1798 and subsequent editions), in which he argued that humanity’s improvement was necessarily limited by the constant struggle between a population’s natural tendency to increase (which was not susceptible to control by reason) and the restraints on population growth, such as famine and disease, imposed by scarce resources. In the second edition of the Essay (1803) Malthus proposed that poverty and other miseries caused by these opposing pressures on populations could be mitigated by voluntary growth-limiting measures such as “moral restraint”; i.e. delayed marriage and sexual continence prior to marriage. Malthus explicitly condemned artificial methods of contraception, however, claiming they were unnatural and would lead to immorality.
Although a supporter of Malthus’s views on population, Place emphatically disagreed with Malthus’s condemnation of birth control. His own life experience had given him first-hand knowledge of both grinding poverty and licentious behavior, and he knew how hopeless a task it was to persuade England’s poor to refrain from sex until they were economically prepared to support a family. His own early marriage, at the age of 19, had rescued him from a life of debauchery; however, “experience . . . emphatically warned him that early marriage meant many children” (quoted in Hime, Introduction, p. 10)—a situation that kept poor families in poverty and led to such social evils as prostitution and child labor. “Thus it was that Place came to be dominated by the compelling persuasion, an opinion that amounted to an idée fixe, that Malthus’s remedy was impracticable, that it was as utopian in its own way . . . as Godwin’s notions of perfectibility. And thus it was that Place, feeling that he had a distinctive contribution to make to the discussion of population problems . . . came out unequivocally [in Illustrations and Proofs] for contraception as the best ‘means of preventing the numbers of mankind from increasing faster than food is provided’” (Himes, Introduction, p. 11). “It was a daring innovation in the history of economic thought . . . when, in 1822, Place published his Illustrations and Proofs of the Principle of Population, the first treatise on population in English to propose contraceptive measures as a substitute for Malthus’s ‘moral restraint’” (Himes, Medical History of Contraception, p. 213).
Place’s Illustrations sold poorly, which prompted him to use more direct methods of communicating his message. In 1823 he began distributing handbills advocating contraception, addressed to “The Married of Both Sexes,” “The Married of Both Sexes in Genteel Life,” and “The Married of Both Sexes of the Working People.” These “received considerable circulation not only in London, but in the industrial districts of the North; while the discussions which ensued caused them to be reprinted in several radical journals of the period . . . the handbills were in advance of modern medical opinion in maintaining that economic indications held a coordinate place with medical indications for contraception” (Himes, Medical History of Contraception, 213, 218).
Himes, “Editor’s introduction,” in Place, Illustrations and Proofs of the Principles of Population, ed. Himes (1930; repr. 1967), 7-63; Medical History of Contraception (1936), 212-20. J. Norman (ed) Morton's Medical Bibliography no. 1696.1.