Conor Bollins
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Beyond a charitable design? Robert Wallace as a theorist of poverty and population growth

Examining the decades before the 1790s uncovers key ‘Enlightened’ conversations that involved thinking anew about poverty that did not endure into the nineteenth century. As Conor Bollins shows, one important example here is the debate over ancient and modern demography. He investigates the mid-century activities of the Scottish minister and philosopher Robert Wallace (1697–1771), who developed a widow’s fund as a test policy for larger schemes of social insurance. Like many Enlightened thinkers, Wallace believed that modern Europe was experiencing depopulation and was facing the prospect of civilisational collapse. He attributed this to rising poverty. In response, Wallace developed both new theories and concrete solutions to create a more equitable distribution of land and resources, in the hope of encouraging families to grow. Demography emerges as a separate field of discourse to political economy in which issues of poverty were debated and the means for its amelioration or alleviation proposed. Moreover, Wallace was an innovative thinker working out schemes of social insurance, with some success, long before the radicalism of the 1790s.

Robert Wallace returned home victorious in 1744. As a minister based in Edinburgh, he had been formally commissioned by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to travel to London. Here, he was to convince the Parliament of Great Britain to grant legal status to the first Scottish widows insurance scheme.1 The scheme offered to provide cover for the widows of members of Scottish universities and churches. Not only had Wallace helped underwrite the scheme, but he also went on to successfully lobby Scottish Members of Parliament to unanimously promote it as a bill in the House of Commons. Much to the delight of the General Assembly, this was then passed into legislation and the fund was established. This was a personal achievement for Wallace, which cemented his reputation among his contemporaries.

Wallace travelled to London alongside George Wishart, who was a friend from his time as a student at the University of Edinburgh. William Grant, a Scottish politician, judge and one-time clerk to the General Assembly, was among those who wrote to Wallace and Wishart to offer congratulations upon the completion of their task.2 Indeed, Wallace’s overall reputation was greatly improved as a result of this endeavour. Many of the collaborators involved with setting up the widows’ fund subsequently maintained a strong network of political, academic and religious contacts. For Wallace, however, there was a much more profound significance to their success. Within a few years of his involvement with the scheme, Wallace suggested that the fund could feasibly provide a template for creating social insurance on a national scale. In his wider work, Wallace went as far to envisage a society that sought to eradicate poverty and enjoy a far more equitable distribution of wealth. In fact, he believed that the survival of Scottish society depended on such proposals.

The work of Wallace and his collaborators marked one of the most serious attempts to confront how best to ameliorate national poverty in early eighteenth-century Scotland. Curiously, however, Wallace has rarely been the subject of focused scholarly attention. Nicholas Phillipson, it should be said, identified Wallace as having belonged to the circle of intellectuals responsible for the development of a culture of improvement that came to characterise what has become known as the Scottish Enlightenment. For Phillipson, Wallace’s generation established the institutional and cultural style of discussing the improvement of Scottish society that paved the way for the intellectual breakthroughs of the period between the 1750s and the 1770s.3 For John Robertson, in Scotland and elsewhere, the Enlightenment was chiefly defined by an interest in securing human betterment in the material world, and one of the ways that this manifested itself was through the emergence of political economy as a field of enquiry.4 Returning to Wallace provides an interesting case study in not only how Scotland’s culture of improvement linked to broader Enlightenment currents of thought, but also concrete policy proposals. Moreover, as I shall argue, Wallace’s work was concerned with tackling the specific, immediate and concrete issue of poverty rather than economic improvement or human betterment in a more general or abstract sense. Therefore, revisiting Wallace may even reinvite a reappraisal of how poverty was itself conceptualised in the eighteenth century.

Although there is very little detailed scholarship on Wallace, there has always persisted a vague sense that there was a significance to his debate with David Hume about the populousness of the ancient world.5 In a paper delivered to the Edinburgh Philosophical Society, Wallace argued that the ancient world had enjoyed a vaster human population than existed in the present. Against this, Hume contended that the world had become more densely populated since antiquity.6 Ultimately, Wallace feared that the world was suffering from extensive population decline and that this represented widespread ruination. For Wallace, as I shall show, poverty was fuelling this level of depopulation. Due to the fact that Europe actually went on to experience an increase in population growth that has more or less continued to the present day, and because of the nineteenth-century interest in overpopulation, earlier fears about depopulation have come to be seen as antiquated, inaccurate or even bizarre to subsequent generations of historians.7 Wallace’s work has been largely neglected for this reason. Increasing population growth and reducing poverty were the two most central, interlinked themes of Wallace’s work. Taking Wallace’s fears about depopulation seriously provides the key to understanding his broader political and theoretical aims. This chapter will explore how Wallace’s desire to see an increase in population growth correlated to his attitude towards poverty. This will require a contextualisation of Wallace’s work in relation to the social and economic context of early to mid eighteenth-century Scotland. I will focus on Wallace’s major projects of the 1740s to illustrate his solutions to depopulation and poverty. I hope for this to offer a fresh perspective on the importance of Wallace’s contribution to Scottish Enlightenment debates about poverty.

Wallace had interests in politics, mathematics, history and theology. As a divinity student, he had been involved with setting up an informal society known as the Rankenian Club. This group was founded in around 1717 and based in Edinburgh, where Wallace later became a minister. Members of the Rankenian Club had a stake in the Calvinist theological debate over whether charity provided a stronger bond between Christians than agreement on particular points of doctrine.8 Wallace became involved in the management of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Kirk of Scotland, from around 1742 until 1746. This was only shortly after the Porteous Affair of 1736 to 1738, which had seen many Kirk ministers refuse to comply with a statute requiring them to condemn the riots of 1736.9 Nevertheless, in this period, many fellow ministers such as Alexander Webster used their sermons to preach in defence of the recently consecrated Hanoverian regime.10

Over the course of his life, many of Wallace’s published and unpublished writings addressed how to provide stability to the British polity. Wallace described himself as a Whig. Even into the 1750s, his work regularly included defences of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 as well as the 1707 Acts of Union between England and Scotland. That is not to say that Wallace was uncritical of the Hanoverian regime or its political and constitutional underpinnings. Yet, particularly in the 1740s, he remained acutely aware that the permanence of the regime could not be taken for granted and implied that its implosion would be a disaster. Similarly, Wallace’s perspective on any particular state or its government has to be studied alongside his broader position on the depopulation of the modern world. Wallace consistently sought to demonstrate that the social, economic and moral foundations of the entire European state system was responsible for population decline. So, it stood to reason that he hoped to see reforms take place in Britain.

Wallace articulated his ideas about the relationship between population growth, poverty and political stability in his most well-known text. This was his Dissertation on the Numbers of Mankind in Ancient and Modern Times. Although published in 1753, it is important to note that this text was first drafted in around 1745. The original manuscript provided the material that Wallace shared with the Edinburgh Philosophical Society as the aforementioned paper. Accurately dating the text is important for a number of historiographical reasons. Chiefly, it establishes that Wallace’s Dissertation should be read in the context of the turmoil of the 1740s. As I shall show, this helps to explain why Wallace felt that the situation was so dire for Scotland, Britain and even Europe at large.

From the outset, Wallace’s Dissertation summarised his views on the populousness of the modern world. He proclaimed that: ‘in most of those countries whose antient and present state is best known, there have been fewer inhabitants in later ages, are fewer at present, than were in more antient times, and that these countries were better peopled before the Roman empire was established, than they have ever been at any succeeding period’.11 This verdict echoed sentiments that had been previously expressed by Montesquieu, especially in his Lettres persanes of 1721. Although Wallace conceded that ‘an opinion in favour of antiquity may be carried too far’,12 he largely subscribed to the conceptual basis of Montesquieu’s contention that the ancient world had been more densely populated.13

Unlike Montesquieu’s, Wallace’s history of human population growth took into consideration the ‘first peopling of the world’14 narrated in sacred history. At an early stage in the Dissertation, Wallace provided a series of calculations and tables of figures to depict how quickly he estimated human population sizes had grown following the creation of Adam and Eve described in the Book of Genesis, and then after the Flood. In short, these were designed to show that population growth occurred at an exponential rate under optimal conditions. According to Wallace, the ancient world only witnessed depopulation due to the ‘mighty change wrought on the world by the conquests of Alexander the Great, and his successors, and afterwards by the Roman Empire’.15 Thus, it remained for Wallace to investigate the reasons behind this ‘mighty change’ in the world’s total human population.

Wallace contended that these reasons behind the modern world’s ‘paucity of inhabitants, and [mankind’s] irregularity of increase, are manifold’.16 Essentially, they all coalesced around one central premise. Wallace explained that ‘the number of people in every nation depends most immediately on the number and fruitfulness of marriages’.17 As such, states with conditions that made it easier for people to marry and raise families would have higher populations. Wallace’s Dissertation explored at great length the theoretical circumstances under which individuals would be most likely to marry. For Wallace, the most significant influences on population growth were ‘moral causes, which arise from the passions and vices of men’.18 These ‘moral causes’ constituted the variables capable of stimulating population growth that were directly within the control of human societies or their governments.

Wallace looked at a wide variety of supposed moral causes of depopulation. For example, he was very interested in how different religious practices had affected marriage and propagation across regions and throughout history.19 For the purposes of this chapter, I will focus on the moral cause of depopulation that Wallace was most preoccupied with. Above all, Wallace deemed levels of poverty and access to subsistence good to be the most deciding factor as to why the modern world was less populous than its ancient counterpart. All other things being equal, Wallace argued, then:

In every country, there shall always be found a greater number of inhabitants […] in proportion to the plenty of provisions it affords, as plenty will always encourage the generality of people to marry.20

This argument presupposed that the most powerful impediment to marriage was related to people’s subsistence needs. Put simply, Wallace assumed that individuals afflicted by poverty would be unlikely to marry as they would not believe themselves capable of affording to raise a family. While Wallace had rebuked Montesquieu for being slightly too captivated with an image of an exceptionally densely populated antiquity, he also favoured the notion that the ancient world had been ‘more crouded and magnificent’.21 Primarily, Wallace reasoned, this was because ancient societies had displayed a greater aptitude for meeting the subsistence requirements of their inhabitants.

In practical terms, this meant that ancient societies had been better at both the production and the distribution of subsistence goods. Wallace’s fixation on the production of subsistence goods revealed a slight bias towards favouring agriculture over commerce. This was somewhat tempered in Wallace’s later work, but he largely remained of the opinion that agricultural production was too low in the modern world. In the Dissertation, he stated that, ‘to have the greatest possible number of inhabitants in all the world, all mankind should be employed directly in providing food’.22 Maximising food production would ensure that there was a greater amount of available resources to share amongst a society. Wallace found it self-evident that ‘if the lands of any country be neglected, the world in general must suffer’.23 Furthermore, he maintained that in a world insufficiently geared towards agriculture, ‘the earth must contain a smaller number of inhabitants, in proportion to the numbers which might be supported by these uncultivated lands’.24 Overall, Wallace concluded that the modern world had failed to produce the subsistence goods needed to prompt renewed population growth, and that this failure was international in scope.

Wallace conceded that there were also potential ‘physical causes’ of depopulation. Certain geographical factors, in other words, could prevent a state from producing subsistence goods at a desirable rate. Conceivably, the forces of nature could even cause ‘a fruitful land’ to ‘become a desart’.25 Plagues and famines had to be taken into consideration as well. Nevertheless, Wallace did not think that these physical factors could adequately explain the ‘phænomenon of so great a decay of people’26 that he perceived. Hypothetically, societies with strong social, economic and moral foundations should have been able to mitigate against the worst excesses of an injurious geography.

It was not simply a case of producing subsistence goods, however. For there to be population growth, these same goods also had to be adequately shared out among a state’s inhabitants. Wallace retained a commitment to advocating equality and redistribution throughout his life. In the Dissertation, he set out to defend the ‘institutions concerning the division of lands’27 that had existed in antiquity. Wallace asserted that:

when any antient nations 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 […] it must have abounded greatly in people.28

Owning farmland enabled families to tend to their own subsistence. It seemed to Wallace that divisions of land into small shares provided security to a greater number of married couples. In turn, this encouraged potential parents to raise children, and therefore contributed to population growth.

To Wallace, the Roman Republic epitomised the ‘superior populousness of many ancient nations’.29 The Dissertation portrayed the Roman Republic as a model of excellence whose ‘industry, which in ancient times was directed to the provision of food, caused a wonderful plenty’.30 Wallace conjectured that Rome had been heavily populated because this ‘wonderful plenty’ had also been equitably distributed. On the other hand, Wallace held the rise of the Roman Empire to be responsible for the collapse of this greatness. Under its excessive, acquisitive emperors, Rome acquired a taste for elegance and riches. Consequently, Wallace argued, Rome’s equality and focus on agriculture ‘decayed gradually, as luxury and a false taste prevailed’.31 This led to ‘great tracts of land being left uncultivated’, such that ‘food […] became scarce and dear’.32 As a result, the state began to depopulate as ‘many would not choose to subject themselves to the incumbrance of a family’.33 Ultimately, Wallace judged this chain of events to have set the preconditions for the low population growth of the modern world.

It could be said that Wallace’s analysis of population growth intersected with the wider eighteenth-century debate on the effects of luxury and commerce on modern society. In fact, Wallace even concluded his Dissertation with an attack on Mandeville. In his The Fable of The Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits, published first in 1714 and then again in 1723, Mandeville argued that a flourishing economy built upon the production and consumption of luxuries provided the basis of national power in the modern world.34 In contrast, Wallace had sought to show that ‘the introduction of a corrupted and luxurious taste […] contributed in a great measure to diminish the numbers of mankind in modern days’.35 Wallace regarded his work as having demonstrated that a predilection towards agriculture, frugal manners and a great degree of equality could guarantee a high level of population growth. It was this formula, he concluded, which makes the public flourish: and […] private vices are far from being, what a notable writer has employed the whole force of his genius to demonstrate them to be, public benefits’.36

Conversely, Wallace did not necessarily mean that there was no place for commerce and the manufacture of luxuries in a thriving society. He conceded that ‘whenever the earth shall happen to be as richly cultivated as is possible, then there will be room for those arts that tend only to ornament’.37 At the right historical moment when there was a surplus of foodstuffs compared to the population, then it would make sense for certain people to seek alternative forms of employment. While it was true that ‘a variety of manufactures diverts the attention of mankind from more necessary labour, and prevents the increase of the people’,38 if there were sufficient amounts of subsistence goods then this would be less of a problem.

Ultimately, however, Wallace concluded his Dissertation on a melancholic note. Towards the end of the text, he reiterated that modern Europe faced an urgent depopulation crisis. Wallace then reflected on how there appeared to be ‘not even the smallest chance, that there shall be any sudden increase of mankind’.39 As I have indicated, this alarmed conclusion both echoed sentiments previously expressed by thinkers such as Montesquieu and was presented as a product of an historical investigation. Yet, Wallace was also quite clear that his interest in depopulation intersected with his identity as a private citizen of Scotland. As such,Wallace’s concern with poverty and population decline has to be understood in the context of the social, economic and intellectual climate that existed in Scotland between the 1690s and the start of the 1750s.

First and foremost, it is essential to highlight that Scotland’s population did in fact decline in this period. This was due to three main reasons. These were famine, war and migration. The stretch of dearth and famine that took place in the last decade of the seventeenth century had lasting effects up until the period that Wallace wrote his Dissertation. The famine’s origins lay with desperately poor weather, which had always posed a substantial risk to early modern societies predominately built around subsistence farming.40 The famine became popularly known as King William’s ‘Seven Ill Years’, owing to contemporary comparisons between this occasion of suffering and the seven years of Egyptian blight mentioned in the Book of Genesis. It can be more accurately dated as having started in 1695, in the wake of a deficient harvest.41 There was also dearth in certain regions prior to this and the impact of the famine was felt long after it subsided in around 1700.42

In 1691, it is believed, Scotland’s population had been just over 1.23 million.43 Social and demographic historians now generally agree this figure was drastically reduced by the events of the 1690s. The famine itself caused many deaths due to both starvation and, in particular, disease. It is understood that higher levels of malnourishment left individuals more susceptible to typhus and smallpox, which spread as epidemics. In addition, one can reasonably speculate that nutritional deficiencies also had an adverse effect on fertility, pregnancies and child mortality.44

The effects of the famine were compounded by the realities of war. Throughout the reign of William II of Scotland and III of England, Scotland was effectively a strategic frontline state in a much larger European theatre of war.45 This was due to the ongoing conflict with Louis XIV of France. Scotland was significant because of the threat to the stability of the British state posed by Jacobitism. War also led to an intensification in the use of punishing tariff restrictions by rival nations. The high tariffs imposed by Scotland’s more powerful neighbours made it difficult for the smaller and commercially weaker country to export goods.46

The economic setbacks caused by international politics exacerbated the fragile conditions of a society beset with famine. It was hoped that the Darien Venture offered a chance to bring prosperity to poverty-stricken Scotland. The plan had been to set up a trading colony on the Isthmus of Panama and the first expeditionary fleet left from Leith in July 1698, with around 1,200 men.47 No later than October 1700, however, it was confirmed that the colony had been abandoned. It had failed because of poor management, death caused by foreign illnesses and opposition from England as well as Spain. Contemporaries projected that 200,000 Scots, around one in five people, were directly or indirectly financially concerned with the project.48 It has been estimated that between one-sixth and one-quarter of Scotland’s liquid capital was lost due the failure of the Darien Venture.49

Together, these conditions impacted levels of migration. Economic hardship created dislocation and encouraged many to seek better prospects elsewhere.50 As Sir Robert Sibbald observed in his account of the famine, it was not just ‘wandering Beggars […] but many House-keepers, who lived well by their Labour and their Industrie’ that were ‘now by Want forced to abandon their dwellings’.51 People also moved overseas to escape the famine. Destinations included the American colonies across the Atlantic and, of course, Darien. Larger numbers even still moved to Ulster in Ireland. It has been argued that Ulster’s largest seventeenth-century influx of Scots occurred in the 1690s and not during the earlier Plantation period.52 Hostilities with the Jacobites caused many Irish tenants to desert their holdings, leaving cheap land available for Scots fleeing the famine. Thus, approximately 50,000 Scots crossed to Ulster in the years between 1690 and 1698. In total, due to migration and increased mortality, up to 15 per cent of Scotland’s population was devastated as a result of this period.53

Overall, social historians understand that population growth stagnated in Scotland in the century prior to 1750 in a way that it did not in England. This could have been because England was comparatively wealthier, but it is also likely that Scotland’s population continued to be affected by the political turmoil of the first half of the eighteenth century.54 In short, the Jacobite Uprisings continued to have a demographic as well as a political impact on Scotland. Primarily, this would have been due to troop movements. When Stirling had been a centre of activity during the 1715 Rebellion, for example, there was an increase in mortality due to different troops overcrowding the area and spreading unfamiliar infections.55 Furthermore, poor weather remained a constant problem for Scottish farmers. Between 1738 and 1741, poor harvests prompted danger on a national scale for the first time since the 1690s.56 This, of course, was only a few years before Wallace first drafted his Dissertation.

Addressing this economic backwardness supplied the content of much intellectual discussion in the immediate decades either side of the Acts of Union being passed in 1707. In turn, this provided the impetus for the culture of improvement that took root in cities such as Edinburgh. With the loss of political institutions that the Acts of Union entailed, including the disbanding of the Scottish Parliament, participation in the country’s literati and engagement in discussion about how best to improve Scotland’s situation provided a new social role for an elite bereft of previous forms of public life.57 It is within this context that learned societies such as the Rankenian Club to which Wallace belonged were formed.58 Another notable organisation was the Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture founded in 1723. Indeed, it has been noted that the Kirk, University of Edinburgh and these various learned societies or academies acted as an almost interlocking institutional setting for the dissemination of ideas associated with the Scottish Enlightenment.59 As I have indicated, Wallace’s personal network spanned all of these institutions. For the purposes of this chapter, particular attention has to be paid to the Edinburgh Philosophical Society as this was body where Wallace first presented the initial version of his Dissertation.

Established around 1737, the Edinburgh Philosophical Society sought to improve the arts and understanding of the natural world. There was a heavy emphasis on the pursuit of new truths through the experimental method and the application of knowledge.60 Likely, many of its members saw this approach as in keeping with wider efforts to improve Scottish society. Similar organisations across Europe, including the Royal Society of London, acted as model templates. Colin MacLaurin had been the key figure in the establishment of the Edinburgh Philosophical Society. MacLaurin had been a pupil of Isaac Newton’s and enjoyed an international reputation as a mathematician.61 His appointment as Chair of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh had been an important moment in the institution’s history as a result. MacLaurin had been keen to ensure that the Edinburgh Philosophical Society was inclusive of individuals with technological, improving and historical interests as well as figures associated with natural philosophy, mathematics and medicine.62 It is for this reason that Wallace was able to become a member of the Edinburgh Philosophical Society. In many ways, Wallace’s Dissertation was in keeping with the society’s overarching preoccupations with the search for truth through scholarly enquiry. Above all, as I shall demonstrate, all of Wallace’s projects of the 1740s sought to offer practical solutions in line with Scotland’s culture of improvement and in response to the country’s economic distress. For Wallace, a theoretical interest in the history of human propagation coincided perfectly with a drive to eradicate poverty and increase population growth.

Despite his gloomy predictions about current rates of depopulation, Wallace’s Dissertation offered at least some solace. In theory, Wallace maintained, the world could physically ‘support a much greater number than actually live[d] upon it’.63 Heavenly forces had, he reasoned, designed the world for it to do so. It was of paramount importance, then, that ‘proper schemes were proposed for putting things on a better footing’.64 In short, Wallace claimed that government action could viably remedy a state’s level of depopulation. Moreover, he argued, this now had to take place. Although he admitted that only those ‘employed in the administration of public affairs’ could ‘carry such schemes into execution’,65 Wallace was himself prepared to put forward plans that could be implemented to this purpose. He presented himself as a citizen able to ‘employ himself in speculations, about such matters as may tend to the good of his country’.66 This was the ‘only apology’ he made for finishing the Dissertation with ‘a few observations on the state of Scotland’.67 These observations included a proposal to tackle Scotland’s levels of poverty through the creation of pension schemes. Naturally, these suggestions have to be seen in the context of Wallace’s own involvement with setting up a sophisticated ‘charitable design’.

As I have shown, the relationship between marriage, population growth and subsistence needs was the central preoccupation of Wallace’s Dissertation. Indeed, it was pivotal to his political and economic thought at large. Wallace argued that, just like many other Europeans, there were many Scottish men that ‘either imagine themselves not to be, or in reality are not able to maintain families’.68 In part, this was a problem for the younger sons of nobility who could not offer potential brides the same lifestyle as could those set to inherit vast estates. More pressingly, Scottish agriculture remained too unproductive as there were ‘great tracts of land [left] uncultivated’.69 Wallace even expressed his fear that, out of the little foodstuffs that there was, too much grain was exported overseas. Furthermore, this lack of wealth and of subsistence goods meant that ‘Many of our youth leave the country’.70 Wallace speculated that these young people had felt it prudent to ‘go abroad to push their fortunes, because […] they either cannot have business at home, or cannot raise such fortunes as will satisfy their ambition’.71 Hence, Wallace saw the route to Scottish prosperity to lie with using government to restore the confidence of those that were most likely to raise families in their native country.

Indeed, for Wallace, it was reasonable to expect governments interested in preventing depopulation to actively lift families out of conditions of poverty. In practice, it seems, this meant that it had to be a responsibility of government to assure potential providers that they would be able to fulfil their duties towards their families. Expanding the use and prevalence of pension schemes for widows would fit these criteria nicely. Wallace recognised that, even though some breadwinners may have been able to prevent their dependents from falling into poverty during their lifetimes, in many circumstances, individuals ‘cannot leave a sufficient provision for their families after their death’.72 The same intuition informed Wallace’s involvement with setting up a fund for the widows and children of Scottish professors and ministers.

This project was the fruition of considerable hard work and a number of collaborators had been involved. Notably, this included Alexander Webster and Colin MacLaurin. As well as being a minister, Webster was a keen statistician who was known to his friends as Dr Bonum Magnum due to his fondness for claret.73 Together, Wallace and Webster underwrote the actuarial basis for the fund. Extensive notes and calculations from the early 1740s still exist intact and testify to how much effort went into the realisation of this project. A letter from MacLaurin, who had provided assistance with setting up the fund, gives some indication as to how time consuming the preparations for the fund must have been. Writing to Wallace in May 1743, MacLaurin described having been ‘wholly employed in pursuing the calculations’.74 MacLaurin requested letters with additional information to be returned to him by Wallace ‘or copied for me by one of your sons today’.75

Around the time of MacLaurin’s letter, the General Assembly approved plans to set up the fund. Shortly thereafter, Wallace was able to secure the support of the Scottish MPs. Their support would ensure that the fund was granted legal status. The draft bill that Wallace read at a meeting with these MPs laid out the purpose of the scheme and the strategy to put it into execution. To set the scene, the bill’s preamble explained that:

the widows & children of the Ministers of the Church of Scotland & of the heads, Principals, & Masters, in the universities in that part of Great Britain called Scotland are often left in indigent circumstances, without any provision for their Subsistence or Education.76

Evidently, the framing of the bill resonated with the key themes of Wallace’s wider intellectual endeavour with its emphasis on preventing families from falling into destitution. Wallace told the Scottish MPs that ‘all the Charitable designs that have heretofore been proposed, & E’ssay’d, for the supply of such widows & orphans have proved ineffectual’.77 These proposals could be differentiated from previous attempts to assist the families of deceased ministers by the extent of their ambition and the collective commitment to their execution.

The ambition of the scheme was exemplified by its mathematical sophistication, its overall design and its enactment into legislation. In a manuscript of the bill that was taken to the House of Commons, the act stated that it would:

oblige all the future Incumbents of Parishes in Scotland, and also all the future Principals & Heads of Colleges, Professors, & Regents or Masters of the said Universities, to contribute & pay certain annual Payments or Sums of Money therein specified, for, or towards, the erecting & compleating an annual Fund for the Relief of their Widows & Children.78

So, the longevity of the scheme would be secured by legally obliging members of its associated bodies to become active financial contributors. Wallace’s handwritten notes sketched out how each participant would ‘pay in yearly to this society what sum he thinks proper during his life & that his widow shall draw after his death a proportionable sum during her life’.79 In this sense, the project can be understood as an early experiment in insurance. In its final form, the scheme allowed for four levels of payments that participants could choose from.80

Ultimately, the fund’s transition into law resulted from its widespread support. MacLaurin wrote a note for Wallace in June 1743 that was seemingly meant to act as a circulated commendation of the scheme. It was enclosed with tables of sums showing how the fund would work in practice. In the note, MacLaurin explained how the ‘scheme for providing an Annuity for Minster’s Widows and a Stock for their children’ had been presented to the General Assembly and been approved ‘with the alterations and amendments made upon the scheme by the said assembly’.81 MacLaurin found himself ‘obliged to say that the Design is so good that minute objections against the perfection of the scheme seem to be improper after it has been so long under consideration’.82 The commendation suggests that, despite a few deliberations over detail, the decision of the Assembly represented a collective endorsement of the fund’s aim and scope. Crucially, as indicated by the Bill read to the Scottish MPs, the Assembly also intended for the: ‘Heads, Principals, & Masters of the four Universities in that part of Great Britain called Scotland’ to be ‘comprehended in the aforesaid charitable design, provided that the said universities did agree thereto’.83 The initial Bill narrated how ‘the said University of Edinburgh did apply to the said General Assembly’,84 in order to be included. This was followed by ‘the said Universities of St Andrews and Glasgow’85 requesting to be involved as well. In short, this commitment to the scheme quickly extended to both the Church of Scotland and to every Scottish university of the day.

Wallace’s next task was to have the scheme passed into legislation. Extracts from the records of the General Assembly indicate the gravity with which this course of action was pursued. The Assembly noted that, with the scheme approved, it ‘did resolve that application be made to the King and Parliament for an Act of Parliament to render the same effectual’.86 This was to be done ‘in such manner as to the wisdom of the legislature shall see fit’.87 To this end, the Assembly ‘did nominate the Reverend Mr Robert Wallace their moderator […] for prosecuting the said application’.88 Wallace, as mentioned, was to be joined by another minister and fellow Rankenian from Edinburgh called George Wishart. In November 1743, the Assembly instructed Wallace and Wishart to ‘repair, with all convenient Diligence, to London, and there by all lawful and Competent methods in name of this Commission’,89 convince Parliament to legally support the proposed fund. At the time, the trip to London was itself no mean feat. Much to the Assembly’s delight, the Bill passed through Parliament successfully. When Grant wrote to congratulate Wallace and Wishart, he said, ‘Your mission is now good as over, & I warmly congratulate you both on its success, & wish you a safe & agreeable return home.’90

It is fair to say that the passing of the Bill was an achievement for Wallace. The widows’ fund he had envisaged and organised had been supported by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, every Scottish university and now the Parliament of Great Britain. It would have been reasonable to expect Wallace’s ambition for the scheme to grow. Indeed, reflecting on the fund led Wallace to suggest that a more wholescale, national scheme could be implemented. This idea was explored in Wallace’s Dissertation, which was drafted not long after the trip to London. Moreover, Wallace explicitly stated that such a scheme could copy the template of ‘the model of that lately established by law, for a provision for the widows and children of the ministers of the church’.91 A national fund could be generated by setting up:

one large, or several small societies of married men, who should pay either all at once, or annually, during their lives, certain sums […] as they might judge convenient, on condition, that proportional sums be paid after their death to their widows or children.92

Here, Wallace’s phrasing evidently evoked the wording of the legal bill that had been passed when setting up the widows’ fund. It appears that Wallace’s efforts to establish the fund for the widows of Scottish ministers inspired or coincided with the solutions to the broader population crisis that he had identified.

Critically, Wallace recommended the formation of more of these types of funds because: ‘Such societies might be a security for the support of widows and children […] and be a great encouragement to marriage.’93 The primary justification for such funds, from Wallace’s perspective, was that they took away the fear involved in leaving behind family members that would be unable to feed or fend themselves. In turn, consistent with Wallace’s overarching logic, this would remove one of the chief obstacles to population growth. Thus, it seems fair to conclude that there was a perfect synergy between Wallace’s strenuous efforts to set up the widows’ fund for Scottish ministers and his drive to design a large-scale, politically structural response to depopulation.

In fact, Wallace’s comments in the Dissertation imply that part of the success of the widows’ fund for Scottish ministers rested on whether it could prove how practical and achievable national insurance schemes might be in the future. It seems that Wallace hoped the widows’ fund for Scottish ministers would act as an exemplar model, which could be followed by additional government-sanctioned projects. Surely, if Parliament could legislate in favour of one insurance fund, then it could legislate in favour of others. Potentially, this could work on a national scale. In summary, insufficient attention has been paid to the links between the Dissertation and the context of Wallace’s career as a whole. Analysing the text in relation to Wallace’s relationship to the widows’ fund for Scottish ministers reveals and clarifies aspects of his overall intellectual endeavour in the 1740s. Both Wallace’s involvement in the fund and his Dissertation shared a drive to end poverty at their core. This drive was embedded in a recognition that government could and would be required to bring about a more equitable system of distribution.

The Jacobite Uprising of 1745 saw a rebellious army invading and occupying Scotland’s capital. One effect of this was that it disrupted the proceedings of the Edinburgh Philosophical Society, which likely did not meet for a year as a result of these events. This means that one of the most important publications associated the Edinburgh Philosophical Society’s first decade of existence was Wallace’s Dissertation.94 It is right, therefore, that the significance and intentions of this text are properly studied. By situating Wallace’s Dissertation in its proper context, this current chapter has helped to show that the aims of this text were in keeping with the Edinburgh Philosophical Society’s wider endeavour. That is to say, Wallace shared in the pursuit of using fact-based enquiry to inform reforms designed to improve Scottish society. For Wallace, research into different societies across history was a terrain that could be explored in order to make conclusions about how best to facilitate population growth.

This present chapter has also demonstrated that Wallace’s thought on population can be usefully understood in relation to his work on the widow’s fund, which he fought to have passed into legislation in 1744. As I have shown, this was a link drawn by Wallace himself at a crucial moment in the text. This has highlighted that the amelioration of poverty was the improvement to Scottish society that Wallace was most personally preoccupied with. In this chapter, I have argued that Wallace’s Dissertation was overarchingly concerned with how to stimulate population growth in Scotland by making it more viable for individuals to raise families. For Wallace, this had to entail a reduction in poverty through the creation of a more equitable distribution of land and resources. Wallace’s work on the widow’s fund was partly seen as an experiment designed to help further this goal.

At a broader historiographical level, it is now worth establishing as to whether this exploration of Wallace may have given grounds for any kind of historical re-evaluation of eighteenth-century notions about the abolition of poverty. According to Gareth Stedman Jones’s influential argument, it was the convergence of late eighteenth-century political economy and ideals of democratic revolution that laid the foundations for the initial realisation that there could be an end to poverty.95 Stedman Jones critiqued scholarship that minimised the significance of this moment, which he dated to the revolutionary years of the 1790s.96 While this thesis may still largely hold up, it may be possible to nuance Stedman Jones’s account by highlighting the importance of the attempts in the 1740s to tackle chronic want through political reform that have been discussed in this chapter.

As Christopher Berry has usefully summarised, a cultural shift in attitudes towards poverty took place over the course of the Scottish Enlightenment. This involved critiquing the early modern view that poverty was in some way redemptive in a Christian or even a republican sense.97 Although Wallace did not accept that commerce and luxury were straightforwardly positive, his work marked a nexus point between the culture of improvement that defined early eighteenth-century Scotland and specific, detailed attempts to address the amelioration of poverty. Perhaps this emphasises the relevance of putting the earlier decades of the eighteenth century back into the picture in order to achieve a fuller historical appraisal of Enlightenment conceptualisations of poverty.

More pertinently, however, this chapter has unpacked the ways in which Wallace’s discussion about poverty was shaped by his fears of depopulation. In his Dissertation, Wallace directly linked his work on the widow’s fund to his thought on population growth. Over the course of the text, he contended that it was necessary for Scotland to reduce poverty in order to prevent further depopulation and avert catastrophe as a result. The idea that depopulation led to widespread ruination and that it was caused by poverty drove Wallace’s arguments in favour of the implementation of redistributive measures. While the focus of this chapter has been on Wallace’s work of the 1740s, it is worth mentioning that his later works were similarly characterised by interests in population growth and poverty.98 Of course, the view that population growth was desirable, and that poverty could cause depopulation by affecting marriage rates, was also shared by a number of Enlightenment heavyweights including Montesquieu and Hume. It seems to me that this suggests that anxieties about depopulation may have played a much more central role in Enlightenment discussions about poverty than historians have previously acknowledged. Further research into this area would likely show that ongoing eighteenth-century debates about how best to stimulate population growth were some of the most substantial avenues through which poverty was examined.


1 General Assembly of Church of Scotland, Extract from records of commission of General Assembly appointing Robert Wallace and George Wishart as their commissioners to apply to King and parliament for an act of parliament in favour of fund. 10th November 1743, National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh (Hereafter NRS), CH9/17/22.
2 William Grant, Letter from William Grant to Robert Wallace and George Wishart, Edinburgh. 3rd March 1744, NRS CH9/17/28.
3 Nicholas Phillipson, ‘Culture and Society in the 18th Century Province: The Case of Edinburgh and the Scottish Enlightenment’, in Lawrence Stone (ed.), The University in Society, Volume II: Europe, Scotland, and the United States from the 16th to the 20th Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974), pp. 407–448.
4 John Robertson, The Case for the Enlightenment: Scotland and Naples, 16801760 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
5 But see Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman: Studies in the Transmission, Development and Circumstance of English Liberal Thought from the Restoration of Charles II until the War with the Thirteen Colonies (New York, NY: Harvard University Press, 1968), pp. 199–211. The most complete review of Wallace’s political thought is Robert B. Luehrs, ‘Population and Utopia in the Thought of Robert Wallace’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 20:3 (1987), 313–335.
6 Also see: Donald Winch, Riches and Poverty: An Intellectual History of political economy in Britain, 17501834 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 85–87; M. A. Box and Michael Silverthorne, ‘The “Most Curious & Important of All Questions of Erudition”: Hume’s Assessment of the Populousness of Ancient Nations’, in Mark G. Spencer (ed.), David Hume: Historical Thinker, Historical Writer (Pennsylvania, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013), pp. 225–254; James A Harris, Hume: An Intellectual Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 283–286.
7 I explore this at greater length in Conor Bollins, ‘Propagating the Species: Political Economy and the Population Debate, 1699–1767’ (PhD Thesis, Queen Mary, University of London 2021).
8 There has been renewed interest in the Rankenian Club due to recent research on the theological debates of the Scottish Enlightenment. See, for example, Thomas Ahnert, The Moral Culture of the Scottish Enlightenment, 1690–1805 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), pp. 34–65.
9 Colin Kidd, Subverting Scotland’s Past: Scottish Whig Historians and the Creation of an Anglo-British Identity 1689–1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 186–187.
10 Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 17071837 (London: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 30–43.
11 Robert Wallace, A Dissertation on the Numbers of Mankind in Antient and Modern Times (Edinburgh, 1753), p. 32.
12 Ibid., p. 33.
13 For commentary on Montesquieu’s thought on depopulation, see Joseph J. Spengler, French Predecessors of Malthus: A Study in Eighteenth-Century Wage and Population Theory (London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 1942), p. 213; Robert Shackleton, Montesquieu: A Critical Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), pp. 42–45; David B. Young, ‘Libertarian Demography: Montesquieu’s Essay on Depopulation in the “Lettres Persanes”’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 36:4 (1975), 669–682; Judith N. Shklar, Montesquieu (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 46; Sylvana Tomaselli, ‘Moral Philosophy and Population Questions in Eighteenth Century Europe’, Population and Development Review, 14 (1988), 7–29; Carol Blum, Strength in Numbers: Population, Reproduction, and Power in Eighteenth-century France (Baltimore, MA: The John Hopkins University Press, 2002), pp. 11–20. Note that Montesquieu’s ideas about the populousness of antiquity have often been neglected or even denigrated by twentieth-century scholars. For a more recent account of Montesquieu’s thoughts on this subject, which seeks to offer a greater level of contextualisation, see Bollins, Propagating the Species, Chs 3–4.
14 Wallace, Dissertation, p. 2
15 Ibid. p. 114.
16 Ibid., p. 12.
17 Ibid., p. 19.
18 Ibid., p. 12.
19 Wallace also explored ideas about sex and sexuality in an unpublished pamphlet. Controversially, this text considered the benefits of more flexible divorce laws. Hypothetically, such laws could prove beneficial to population growth. See Robert Wallace, Of Venery, or of the commerce of the sexes, Edinburgh University Library LA.II.62012.
20 Wallace, Dissertation, p. 15.
21 Ibid., p. 33.
22 Ibid., p. 21.
23 Ibid., p. 18.
24 Ibid., pp. 18–19.
25 Ibid., p. 80.
26 Ibid.
27 Ibid., p. 17.
28 Ibid.
29 Ibid., p. 147.
30 Ibid.
31 Ibid., p. 115.
32 Ibid., p. 116.
33 Ibid.
34 For further discussion of Mandeville, see E. J. Hundert, The Enlightenment’s Fable: Bernard Mandeville and the Discovery of Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). For a broader overview of the luxury debate, see Istvan Hont, ‘The Early Enlightenment Debate on Commerce and Luxury’, in Mark Goldie and Robert Wokler (eds), The Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 379–418.
35 Wallace, Dissertation, p. 160.
36 Ibid., p. 160.
37 Ibid., p. 21.
38 Ibid., p. 25.
39 Ibid., p. 147.
40 Karen J. Cullen, Famine in Scotland: the ‘Ill Years’ of the 1690s (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), pp. 14–19.
41 Michael Flinn (ed.), Scottish Population History from the 17th century to the 1930s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 167.
42 Cullen, Famine in Scotland, pp. 20–22.
43 Christopher A. Whatley, The Scots and the Union, Then and Now (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), p. 199.
44 Cullen, Famine in Scotland, p. 19.
45 Eric J. Graham, A Maritime History of Scotland, 16501790 (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2002), pp. 63–65.
46 T. C. Smout, Scottish Trade on the Eve of Union, 16601707 (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1963), pp. 244–250.
47 Douglas Watt, The Price of Scotland: Darien, Union and the Wealth of the Nations (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2006), pp. 132–133.
48 Ibid., pp. 82–83.
49 Smout, Scottish Trade on the Eve of Union, p. 252.
50 Cullen, Famine in Scotland, pp. 157–168.
51 Robert Sibbald, Provision for the Poor in time of Dearth and Scarcity (Edinburgh, 1699), p. 3.
52 Patrick Fitzgerald, ‘“Black ‘97”: Reconsidering Scottish Migration to Ireland in the Seventeenth Century and the Scotch-Irish in America’, in William P. Kelly and John R. Young (eds), Ulster and Scotland, 16002000: History, Language and Identity (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2004), pp. 71–84.
53 Flinn, Scottish Population History, p. 164.
54 D. F. Macdonald, Scotland’s Shifting Population, 17701850 (Glasgow: Jackson, 1978), pp. 1–15.
55 Flinn, Scottish Population History, p. 212.
56 Ibid., pp. 216–223; Philipp Robinson Rössner, ‘The 1738–41 Harvest Crisis in Scotland’, The Scottish Historical Review, 90:229 (April 2011), 27–63.
57 Here, I am drawing on the influential formulation of the Scottish Enlightenment put forward by Nicholas Phillipson. See Nicholas Phillipson, ‘The Scottish Enlightenment’, in Roy Porter and Mikuláš Teich (eds), The Enlightenment in National Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 19–40. For commentary on Phillipson’s interpretation, see Colin Kidd, ‘The Phillipsonian Enlightenment’, Modern Intellectual History, 11:1 (2014), 175–190.
58 Phillipson also placed an emphasis on the role of the Rankenian Club. See Phillipson, ‘The Case of Edinburgh’, pp. 432–437.
59 Christopher J. Berry, The Idea of Commercial Society in the Scottish Enlightenment (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), pp. 1–31.
60 Roger L. Emerson, ‘The Philosophical Society of Edinburgh, 1737–1747’, The British Journal for the History of Science, 12:41 (1979), 154–191.
61 Phillipson, ‘The Case of Edinburgh’, pp. 440–441.
62 Emerson, ‘The Philosophical Society of Edinburgh’.
63 Wallace, Dissertation, p. 148.
64 Ibid.
65 Ibid.
66 Ibid.
67 Ibid.
68 Ibid., p. 150.
69 Ibid., p. 149.
70 Ibid.
71 Ibid.
72 Ibid.
73 The Scots term ‘Bonum Magnum’ referred to a measurement of claret. Webster was also known for his temper. For biographical details, see James Gray Kyd (ed.), Scottish Population Statistics Including Webster’s Analysis of Population 1755 (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1952), pp. xiii–xxxiii; Thomas Thomason, Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen, vol. iii, half vol. vi (Glasgow, 1875), pp. 506–508.
74 Colin MacLaurin, Letter from Colin MacLaurin to Robert Wallace, with opinion of scheme. 24th May 1743, NRS CH9/17/16/1.
75 Ibid.
76 Robert Wallace, Bill read by Robert Wallace in meeting of Scots members at the House of Commons when they unanimously agreed to promote it. 1743, NRS CH9/17/5.
77 Ibid.
78 Adam Anderson, A bill drawn by Adam Anderson from the scheme given him by Robert Wallace and George Wishart. 1743, NRS CH9/17/8.
79 Robert Wallace, Proposals in Dr. Wallace’s hand for raising a fund for jointures to the widows of such gentlemen as have not land estates nor great sums of money, but live by their business or yearly income which depends on their lives. 1743, NRS CH9/17/10, p. 1.
80 For an account of Wallace and Webster with a different set of emphases, see Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (London: Penguin Books, 2008), pp. 190–199.
81 Colin MacLaurin, Letter from Colin MacLaurin to Robert Wallace, with opinion of scheme. 3rd June 1743, NRS CH9/17/16/2.
82 Ibid.
83 Wallace, Bill read by Robert Wallace, NRS CH9/17/5, p. 2.
84 Ibid.
85 Ibid.
86 General Assembly of Church of Scotland. NRS CH9/17/22.
87 Ibid.
88 Ibid.
89 Ibid.
90 William Grant, Letter from William Grant to Robert Wallace and George Wishart, Edinburgh. 3rd March 1744, NRS CH9/17/28.
91 Wallace, Dissertation, p. 154.
92 Ibid.
93 Ibid.
94 For an overview of the state of the Edinburgh Philosophical Society by 1747, which alluded to the significance of Wallace’s contribution, see Emerson, ‘The Philosophical Society of Edinburgh’, pp. 180–183.
95 Gareth Stedman Jones, An End to Poverty? A Historical Debate (London: Profile Books, 2004).
96 For a differing account of eighteenth-century ideas of poverty, see Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (London: Faber and Faber, 1984).
97 Berry, Idea of Commercial Society, pp. 78–85.
98 For Wallace’s later work, see Robert Wallace, Characteristics of the Present Political State of Great Britain (Dublin, 1758), and Robert Wallace, Various Prospects of Mankind, Nature, and Providence (London, 1761). For further analysis of these texts, see Bollins, Propagating the Species, Chs 9 and 11.
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