Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind


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"Our colonies in America are blessed with land and resources in such abundant supply, that any man of modest means and diligent work may readily obtain his own estate and provide for his family. This opportunity enables earlier and more prolific marriage, such that our colonial populace doubles in number nearly every score of years - a rate of increase unheard of in the crowded nations of Europe."

—Benjamin Franklin

The prolific polymath Benjamin Franklin took keen interest in matters of political economy and demography within the British colonies of North America.

In 1751, amidst the colonies' rapid expansion, Franklin composed the insightful essay “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind” to comment on colonial population growth and its economic implications.

As an eminent scholar and diplomat, Franklin analyzed colonial demographic data and trends, finding that high birth rates and immigration were fueling remarkably rapid population doubling.

In the Observations, he systematically attributes this growth to ample land and resources available to settlers. Franklin argues such growth brings economic vitality, countering the era's prevailing absolutist views on restricting population.

With great optimism, Franklin asserts population strength meant increased productivity and wealth creation in the colonies.

He recommends policies to further encourage fertility and immigration. The Observations encapsulates Franklin's ideology of human liberty and ingenuity as paramount to economic development.

As a primary source, it provides a window into Franklin's progressive demographic philosophy and vision for an ascendant Colonial America.


Portrait of Benjamin Franklin
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Benjamin Franklin took a keen interest in matters of demography and political economy in the British colonies of North America.

In 1751, he penned his insightful essay Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind in response to the controversial views on population control espoused by the British political economist Thomas Malthus.

Malthus had recently published his pessimistic Essay on the Principle of Population, arguing that population growth, if unchecked, would outpace food production and lead to mass famine and hardship.

He advocated late marriage and sexual abstinence to restrict population growth.

Franklin vehemently disagreed with Malthus’ approach, believing that curbing population growth would only curb human potential.

In his Observations, Franklin laid out a systematic counterargument, asserting that people are not just consumers but also "productive machines" capable of generating abundance through work and innovation.

He saw America's rapid population growth as a sign of prosperity, not crisis.

There was ample fertile land for the taking, which settlers could cultivate to feed themselves and others. More people meant more farms, more commerce, more specialization—in essence, more wealth creation.

By encouraging early marriage and large families, Franklin believed colonial America could capitalize on its core strength—not just natural resources but human resources.

Rather than strict regulations, he advocated policies that incentivized industriousness and attracted immigrants with opportunity.

His optimistic vision revealed Franklin as a champion of human ingenuity and freedom over draconian control.


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As an astute observer of the American colonial experience, Franklin took great interest in the remarkably rapid population growth of the colonies in the 18th century.

Through his analysis of colonial census data, Franklin detected that the population had been consistently doubling every quarter century—a rate of growth far beyond that of Britain and the rest of Europe.

In seeking to explain this prolific growth, he directly attributed it to the unique abundance of fertile, arable land in the Americas along with the richness of resources available for harvesting and cultivating.

In Franklin's assessment, the expanse of pristine forests, soils, and waterways across the colonies provided nearly limitless opportunity for agriculture, hunting, fishing, and settlement.

Unlike the population pressure, land shortages, and resource constraints of the Old World, the Americas afforded common settlers a fighting chance at land ownership and self-sufficiency. Opportunities abounded for transplanted Europeans to stake new homes and farms with hard work and a modest capital investment.

The promise of socioeconomic advancement and relative freedom proved magnetic for waves of immigrants.

Franklin understood that these propitious environmental and economic conditions provided a safety valve for Europe’s landless lower classes, enabling rapid natural population increase.

With more marriages, more births, and more successful child-rearing, the colonial population was able to double in size consistently every quarter century—a feat unthinkable in the rigidly stratified societies of Europe.

Franklin saw this bounty as the underpinning of the colonies’ remarkable growth.


A steel mill in the 1800s
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Benjamin Franklin's keen observations on the economies of population scale reflected his practical understanding of early American colonial society and commerce.

He astutely noted that population growth generated amplifying benefits for productivity and economic output as a whole in the colonies.

A greater number of enterprising inhabitants meant more hands to work the land to produce surplus agricultural goods, more artisans and craftsmen to create products and tools, and more merchants and traders to deliver goods and services and facilitate regional and international exchange.

With more specialized workers across all trades—cooperative, interconnected, and mutually supportive—Franklin recognized that the collective potential for wealth creation would rise substantially. The whole would be greater than the sum of its parts.

More could achieve more.

In essence, Franklin saw that population growth created a virtuous cycle of expanded capabilities, expertise, and industry across the colonies.

This would enrich not just individual colonists in their pursuits but also strengthen the broader colonial economy and enhance the colonies' stature in the British empire.

A growing, industrious population that maximized opportunities would make the colonies increasingly vital for the empire's commercial needs. But importantly, it would also make them more prosperous, self-sufficient, and resilient.

For Franklin, these effects bore major long-term implications for the colonies' economic and political independence.

Population strength meant productive power and enriched communities.


A pregnant woman
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Benjamin Franklin's opposition to restrictive population control policies stemmed from his fundamental belief in the inherent value of human life and the boundless potential of human ingenuity.

As a renowned inventor and entrepreneur himself in colonial America, Franklin had the utmost faith that human creativity and industrious labor could overcome scarcity and create prosperity.

In Franklin's view, people were not merely extra mouths to feed, but rather productive agents—workers, artisans, cultivators, thinkers, and innovators.

Their skills, expertise and effort could generate new resources and means of sustenance if given the right liberties and incentives. This enlightened perspective saw human beings as the ultimate resource and solution rather than the problem.

As such, Franklin saw policies that sought to curb population growth as deeply misguided and limiting to human enterprise.

He argued that any pressures from population growth could be overcome by unleashing the industry, invention, and cooperation of that population.

More minds collaborating in a free society could find ways to expand commerce, agriculture, and satisfaction of needs.

Franklin also critiqued the restrictive impacts of policies controlling marriage and family size. He believed humans had a natural inclination towards industry, improvement and reproduction.

Suppressing these natural rights would only lead to moral decline and economic stagnation—far greater evils than the challenges of population growth.


London in the late 1700s
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Benjamin Franklin's famous conjecture that the American colonies' population growth would someday surpass that of the mother country of England was both bold and prescient.

As an expert in British American demography, Franklin observed that the colonies had vast stretches of untouched, arable land that could accommodate exponential population growth for generations to come.

By Franklin's own estimates, the colonies contained sufficient fertile, habitable territory to sustain a populace greater in number than all of Europe.

With no foreseeable limit to westward expansion on the frontier, colonists could continuously settle new lands, own property, and provision abundance for their large families.

Based on the trends Franklin noted, with the colonial population doubling every 20 to 25 years due to prolific birth rates and immigration, he projected major population milestones.

In just a century and a half, by 2000, the colonies could grow to over 80 million people and more than triple England's population at the time. By 2150, the colonies could surpass 150 million, becoming one of the most populous nations on Earth.

While staggering and hypothetical at the time, such projections underestimated the magnitude of American population growth in the centuries after independence.


A growing American family
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Always a pragmatic policymaker, Benjamin Franklin proposed various measures to sustain and accelerate early America's rapid population growth, which he saw as key to colonial prosperity.

To encourage marriage and reproduction, he advocated for changes that would facilitate affordable family formation.

Seeking to minimize financial hurdles, Franklin pushed to liberalize land acquisition by making small freehold plots available to poorer settlers.

He also endorsed providing financial incentives or tax exemptions for early marriage, along with social normalization of marriage immediately after reaching maturity.

At the same time, Franklin saw value in discouraging the extravagant materialism, idleness, and indulgent living that often delayed marriages among the emerging colonial gentry and merchant classes.

He suggested sumptuary laws that restricted ostentatious luxuries which diverted wealth away from supporting households.

While some proposals may seem regressive or paternalistic today, they were moderate for the era and intended to maximize opportunity for settlers to build families and productive households.

By easing land ownership and reducing indulgent excess, Franklin hoped to cultivate a society oriented toward industry, child-rearing, and communal stability.

Fundamentally, Franklin saw human productivity and population growth as essential to colonial development. H

is policy ideas, though debatable, aimed to create social and economic conditions for Americans to achieve their complete reproductive potential and build a thriving society of the future.