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Political Arithmetic and Sacred History: Population Thought in the English Enlightenment, 1660–1750

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 November 2013


Current approaches to the history of early modern population thought focus on the state and secular governance, while standard treatments of Restoration and Augustan “political arithmetic” emphasize its economic or social-scientific content. This article recovers nonsecular uses of demographic quantification, excavating the use of political arithmetic in religious polemic between ca. 1660 and ca. 1750. As a form of empirical natural philosophy, political arithmetic suited the polemical needs of latitudinarian Anglicans and others combating deism, atheism, and preadamism; the demographic regularities it revealed furnished evidence of providential solicitude, while the history of population growth was a potential prop for scriptural chronologies. A strand of “sacred” political arithmetic thus contributed to natural theology while modeling—albeit inconsistently—new historical applications for empirical methodology. The article concludes by considering possible causes for the decline of this “sacred” strand of demographic quantification, while suggesting connections between it and better-known secular forms of Enlightenment-era population thought.

Copyright © The North American Conference on British Studies 2013 

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80 Graunt, Observations, 63.

81 Focusing on Graunt's use of averages, Buchwald and Feingold (Newton, 44–106) downplay the significance of political arithmetic; but however flawed, Graunt's use of “doubling periods” to estimate of global population increase represented a new application of empirical methodology to history.

82 William Petty, “The Scale of Creatures,” Osborn Shelves MS fb.135, document 3, f. 8v, Beinecke Library. See Lewis, Rhodri, ed., William Petty and the Order of Nature: An Unpublished Manuscript Treatise (Tempe, 2012)Google Scholar; McCormick, William Petty, 224–30.

83 Petty to Southwell, 20 August 1681 and 17 February 1682/3, in PSC, 92, 115; Petty, Essays, 16–25. Letters from September 1685 discuss “full peopling” in relation to scripture; PSC, 143–68.

84 Petty, Essays, 25.

85 Ibid., 22; PSC, 115.

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88 Stillingfleet, Origines Sacrae, 556.

89 Ibid., 556–58.

90 Livingstone, Adam's Ancestors, 53–54; Egerton, “Longevity.”

91 Warren, Erasmus, Geologia; Or, A Discourse Concerning the Earth Before the Deluge (London, 1690), 273–79Google Scholar; Beaumont, John, Considerations on a Book, Entituled the Theory of the Earth (London, 1693), 8897Google Scholar; Miln, Robert, A Course of Physico-Theological Lectures Upon the State of the World, From the Creation to the Deluge (Carlisle, 1786), 256.Google Scholar

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93 Hale, Primitive Origination, 204.

94 Ibid., 92.

95 Ibid., 97–110.

96 Ibid., 131.

97 Ibid., 145. See Livingstone, Adam's Ancestors, 53.

98 Bentley, Richard, The Folly and Unreasonableness of Atheism (London, 1693)Google Scholar. See Jacob, Newtonians, 162–200.

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101 Burnet, Thomas, The Theory of the Earth (London, 1684)Google Scholar; Force, James, William Whiston, Honest Newtonian (Cambridge, 1985), 3340Google Scholar; Levine, Dr. Woodward's Shield, 18–47.

102 Burnet, Theory, 22–23.

103 Ibid., 17.

104 Ibid., 181.

105 Ibid., 185.

106 Whiston, William, A New Theory of the Earth, from Its Original to the Consummation of All Things (London, 1696).Google Scholar

107 Nicholls, William, A Conference with a Theist (London, 1696), 68Google Scholar. Nicholls seems to have authored a passage on racial difference (135–49) attributed by Livingstone (Adam's Ancestors, 54) to the Universal History (London, 1736).Google Scholar

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109 Ibid., 78.

110 Ibid., 79.

111 Whiston, New Theory, 174–98.

112 Ibid., 388; Petty, Essays, 18.

113 Warren, Geologia, 274, 279–80.

114 Beaumont, Considerations, 95–97.

115 Woodward, John, An Essay Toward a Natural History of the Earth (London, 1695).Google Scholar

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123 Jackson, John, Chronological Antiquities, 3 vols. (London, 1752), 1:50.Google Scholar

124 Bedford, The Scripture Chronology Demonstrated by Astronomical Calculations (London, 1730)Google Scholar, 205b. See Newton, Isaac, The Chronology of the Ancient Kingdoms Amended (London, 1728)Google Scholar; Mandelbrote, Scott, “Bedford, Arthur (bap. 1668, d. 1745),” in Oxford Dictionary of Natiopnal Biography (Oxford, 2004)Google Scholar, online edn., (accessed July 22, 2012).

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127 William Petty, Political Anatomy, 26.

128 Shuckford, Samuel, The Sacred and Prophane History of the World Connected, 3 vols. (London, 1728–1737)Google Scholar; Arnold, “Learned Lumber,” 1144–45; Preston, “Biblical Criticism,” 101.

129 Shuckford, History, 1:140.

130 Clayton, Robert, The Chronology of the Hebrew Bible Vindicated (London, 1747), 53.Google Scholar

131 Ibid., 51.

132 Ibid., 52. See Graunt, Observations, 45; Petty, William, Observations Upon the Dublin-Bills of Mortality, MDCLXXXI (London, 1683), 2Google Scholar; Swift, Jonathan, A Modest Proposal (Dublin, 1729), 9, 1112.Google Scholar

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135 Ibid., 61–62.

136 Worthington, William, The Scripture-Theory of the Earth (London, 1773), 210–11Google Scholar. Compare, however, Newton, Thomas, The Works of the Right Reverend Thomas Newton, D.D. Late Lord Bishop of Bristol, And Dean of St. Paul's, London (London, 1787), 157.Google Scholar

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138 Howard, Philip, The Scriptural History of the Earth and of Mankind (London, 1797), 162Google Scholar. This made sense of Sarah's pregnancy (see Genesis 17:16–19 and 18:10–19) at the age of 90—rather young for proponents of late puberty.

139 Hume, David, Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Miller, Eugene F. (Indianapolis, 1987), 377464Google Scholar; Arnold, “Learned Lumber,” 1164–65.

140 See de Secondat, Charles-Louis, de Montesquieu, baron, Lettres Persanes (Cologne, 1754), 88119Google Scholar; Buchwald and Feingold, Newton.

141 Sheehan, Jonathan, The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture (Princeton, 2005).Google Scholar

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143 Short, Thomas, A General Chronological History of the Air, Weather, Seasons, Meteors, &c. in Sundry Places and different Times, 2 vols. (London, 1749)Google Scholar, New Observations, and A Comparative History of the Increase and Decrease of Mankind in England, and Several Countries Abroad (London, 1767)Google Scholar; Rusnock, Vital Accounts, 143–72.

144 Short, New Observations, xi–xii.

145 Ibid., 13.

146 Ibid., 236–41.

147 Ibid., 1.

148 Ibid., 249–57.

149 Ibid., 259–61.

150 Malthus, Thomas Robert, An Essay on the Principle of Population, As It Effects the Future Improvement of Society (London, 1798).Google Scholar

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152 Each appears in Hale's Primitive Origination; see “Sir Matthew Hale.”

153 Derham, Physico-Theology, 177.

154 Ibid., 178.

155 Cockburn, Enquiry, 57. See also Parker, Benjamin, A Review of the State of the Antediluvian World (London, 1748), 5152.Google Scholar

156 Malthus, Essay, 365.

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