Question details: I am studying the new economics textbook “the core project” and it states that Malthusianism was the reason behind Nassau Seniors statement “he feared the famine of 1848 in Ireland would not kill more than a million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do much good.” It sounds questionable.
When I read your question, I had never heard of Nassau Senior, and thought “What an utter gobshite”. But curiosity struck and I went looking.
What I found gave me some pause: he may have been quoted out of context. Then I found this, which indicates that he was anti-Malthusian. OTOH, he also seems to have become a 1%er shill from the 1830s onwards, opposing regulations on child labour and working hours because they’d cut into employers’ profits, and reforming the Poor Laws in ways that even Margaret Thatcher would have balked at as a bit too harsh.
Thomas Carlyle – well, his posthumously-published Irish diary makes him out to be a typical upper-class English twit, which he was not. Charles Gavan Duffy, the Irish nationalist who accompanied him on this journey, thought highly of Carlyle and was shocked at by the diary, blaming its editor. Make of that what you will: he certainly seems to have all the prejudices of the era.
As regards Malthusianism, it certainly must have had an impact, though perhaps indirectly through its effect on the national psyche. More directly, though, Malthus himself supported the Corn Laws, which had to be repealed in order to import Indian (corn) meal from the US to support the starving. Other factors include:
- The ruling Whig Party’s policy of laissez-faire, which held that the market would provide for the starving – completely overlooking the fact that the starving masses, having no money, were not consumers likely to attract the market.
- Religion – Charles Trevelyan, in charge of relief efforts in Ireland, regarded the famine as “direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence,” and that “the judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson”. Presumably, God also had something against the Americans and Germans, who lost their potato crop before Ireland did.
- Compassion fatigue (for a given value of compassion>=0) – the potato crop in Ireland had failed twenty-odd times since 1800. It had never failed so disastrously and comprehensively, but there was a certain attitude of “oh, it must be Thursday” when word reached London of yet another famine in Ireland. Robert Peel, who destroyed his own career by repealing the Corn Laws, complained “There is such a tendency to exaggeration and inaccuracy in Irish reports that delay in acting on them is always desirable”.
In brief, always check such claims. They may turn out to be true, but should at least be backed up in the text by specific citations to further reading – otherwise they’re the opinions of a lazy textbook writer.