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Significant Scots
Dr Robert Wallace


WALLACE, (DR) ROBERT, celebrated as the author of a work on the numbers of mankind, and for his exertions in establishing the Scottish Ministers’ Widows’ Fund, was born on the 7th January, 1697, O.S. in the parish of Kincardine in Perthshire, of which his father, Matthew Wallace, was minister. [Scots Magazine, xxxiii. 340. ixxi. 591] As he was an only son, his early education was carefully attended to. He acquired Latin at the grammar-school of Stirling, and, in 1711, was sent to the university of Edinburgh, where he passed through the usual routine of study. He was one of the original members of the Rankenian club, a social literary fraternity, which, from the subsequent celebrity of many of its members, became remarkably connected with the literary history of Scotland. Mr Wallace directed his studies towards qualifying himself for the church of Scotland. In 1722, he was licensed to preach by the presbytery of Dumblane, and in August, 1723, the marquis of Annandale presented him with the living of Moffat.

Dr Wallace had an early taste for mathematics, to which he directed his attention while a student at the university, and on that study he bestowed many of his spare hours during his ministry. He has left behind him voluminous manuscript specimens of his labours; but it will probably be now considered better evidence of his early proficiency, that in 1720 he was chosen assistant to Dr Gregory, then suffering under bad health. Wallace was, in 1733, appointed one of the ministers of the Greyfriars’ church in Edinburgh. The countenance of the government, which he had previously obtained, he forfeited in 1736, by refusing to read in his church the act for the more effectually bringing to justice the murderers of Porteous, which the zealous rage of the ministry and the house of peers had appointed to be read from the pulpit. He was in disfavour during the brief reign of the Walpole ministry; but under their successors was intrusted with the conduct of ecclesiastical affairs. The revolution in the ministry happened at a moment when Dr Wallace was enabled to do essential service to his country, by furthering the project of the Ministers’ Widows’ Fund. The policy of that undertaking was first hinted at by Mr Mathieson, a minister of the high church of Edinburgh; Dr Wallace in procuring the sanction of the legislature, and Dr Webster, by an active correspondence, and the acquisition of statistical information, brought the plan to its practical bearing, by apportioning the rates, &c., and afterwards zealously watched and nurtured the infant system. As the share which Dr Wallace took in the promotion of this measure is not very well known, it may be mentioned, that it appears from documents in the office of the trustees of the Ministers’ Widows’ Fund, that he was moderator of the General Assembly in 1743, which sanctioned the measure. In the ensuing November he was commissioned by the church, along with Mr George Wishart, minister of the Tron church, to proceed to London, and watch the proceedings of the legislature regarding it. He there presented the scheme to the lord advocate, who reduced it to the form of a Bill. The corrections of Messrs Wallace and Wishart appear on the scroll of the Bill.

In 1744, Dr Wallace was appointed one of the royal chaplains for Scotland. He had read to the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh, of which he was an original member and active promoter, a "Dissertation on the numbers of Mankind in ancient and modern times," which he revised and published in 1752. In this work he was the first to apply to purposes of investigation one of those truisms which, however plain, are never stated until some active mind employs them as foundations for more intricate deductions, that the number of human beings permanently existing in any portion of the earth must be in the ratio of the quantity of food supplied to them. The explanation of this truth by Dr Wallace has been acknowledged by Malthus, and the work in which it was discussed has acquired deserved fame for the mass of curious statistical information with which the author’s learning furnished it; but in the great theory which he laboured to establish, the author is generally allowed to have failed. He maintained, as a sort of corollary to the truth above mentioned, that where the greatest attention is paid to agriculture, the greatest number of human beings will be fed, and that the ancients having paid greater attention to that art than the moderns, the world of antiquity must have been more populous than that of modern days. Were all food consumed where it is produced, the proposition would be true, but in a world of traffickers, a sort of reverse of the proposition may be said to hold good, viz., that in the period where the smallest proportion of the human beings on the surface of the earth is employed in agriculture, the world will be most populous, because for every human being that exists, a quantity of food sufficient to live upon must be procured; for procuring this food the easiest method will always be preferred, and therefore when the proportion of persons engaged in agriculture is the smaller, we are to presume, not that the less is produced, but that the easier method of providing for the aggregate number has been followed. The great engine of facilitating ease of production is commerce, which makes the abundance of one place supply the deficiency of another, in exchange for such necessaries and luxuries, as enable the dwellers on the fertile spot to bestow more of their time in cultivation than they could do, were they obliged to provide these things for themselves. Hence it is pretty clear, that increase of populousness has accompanied modern commerce. Previously to the publication of this treatise, Hume had produced his invaluable critical essay on the populousness of ancient nations, in which, on politico-economical truths, he doubted the authenticity of those authorities on the populousness of antiquity, on many of which Wallace depended. In publishing his book, Dr Wallace added a long supplement, discussing Hume’s theory with much learning and curious information, but leaving the grounds on which the sceptic had doubted the good faith of the authorities unconfuted. Wallace’s treatise was translated into French, under the inspection of Montesquieu and was republished in 1809, with a life of the author. Dr Wallace’s other published works, are "A Sermon, preached in the High Church of Edinburgh, Monday, January 6, 1745-6, upon occasion of the Anniversary Meeting of the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge;" in which he mingled, with a number of extensive statistical details concerning education, collected with his usual learning, and tinged with valuable remarks, a political attack on the Jacobite insurrection of the period, and the motives of its instigators, "Characteristics of the Present State of Great Britain," published in 1758; and "Various Prospects of Mankind, Nature, and Providence," published in 1761; in which he discussed the abstruse subjects of liberty and necessity, the perfectibility of human nature, &c. He left behind him a MS. essay on Taste, of considerable length, which was prepared for the press by his son, Mr George Wallace, advocate, but never published. From the new aspect which modern inquiries on this subject have assumed, in their adoption of the cumulative principle of association, this work can now be of little interest; but it may be worth while to know, that his "Principles of Taste," or sources from whence the feeling was perceived to emanate, were divided into, 1st, grandeur; 2nd, novelty; 3rd, variety; 4th, uniformity, proportion, and order; 5th, symmetry, congruity, or propriety; and, 6th, similitude and resemblance, or contrast and dissimilitude.

Dr Wallace died on the 29th of July, 1771, in consequence of a cold, caught in being overtaken in a walk by a snow storm. His son George, already mentioned, is known as the author of a work on the Descent of ancient Peerages, and "Principles of the Law of Scotland," which has fallen into obscurity.


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