Teeming Millions Origin

For some reason I got to wondering when and where the phrase “teeming millions” originated.

Playing with Google Books I found these:

There are earlier dates but they all seem to be bad OCR or other false hits. There is a hit in “A sermon delivered in Boston, Sept. 16, 1813 By Timothy Dwight, American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions” but it wasn’t printed until 1828 and the phrase appears in somebody else’s sermon.

Niles’ Weekly Register was the recordings of Congress, previous to the Congressional Register. So that’s two hits from legislators. That’s a source much more likely to be preserved and reprinted. Makes me wonder whether there wasn’t a contemporary source that they all were drawing on.

Any clues?

Great Job. I’m sure your Niles Weekly cite is from the correct date.

The Wentworth cite is almost certainly from a later(not much) edition.

The parliamentary debates is from later than 1824.

So, Niles it is!

Then we’re left with, why 1820?

Here’s a WAG. Malthus published his An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, but revised it into a more major work several times in the early 1800s. It was a huge topic in the thinking classes. In addition, Britain’s first properly constructed census took place in 1801 and was followed in 1811. That gave meaningful numbers to play with, one of the ways Malthus added 200,000 words to his original. He took the world and examined it almost country by country for population trends. And in 1820 William Godwin, whose earlier An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice was a work that Malthus was responding to in his essay, followed up with a country-by-country critique in On Population. Numbers of others also weighed in with commentaries of their own.

I think that all this gave the first smack-in-the-face realization of how many, many people the world contained. And the rapidly growing cities like London would offer a daily impression of bodies squashed together, yet in motion, that teeming would aptly describe.