A MODEST PROPOSAL
Historical Context and Contemporary Reactions
“A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public” -J. Swift
Although Jonathan Swift was born in Ireland, he did not consider himself very Irish. He was actually quite dismayed with Ireland and its people because of the way it allowed England to overtake and control it. He writes in a journal about Ireland:
“Remove me from this land of slaves,
Where all are fools and all are knaves;
Where every knave and fool is bought,
Yet kindly sells himself for naught;
Where Whig and Tory fiercely fight,
Who’s in the wrong, who in the right;
And when their country lies at stake,
They only fight for fighting’s sake,
While English sharpers take the pay,
And then stand by to see fair play.” (King)
Swift’s family moved to England after his birth, but at age 3, Swift returned to Ireland to live with his uncle. There he attended Trinity College in Dublin. Here he received his M.A. while being chastised, censored, and fined for causing trouble. Swift left Ireland in 1689 amidst the Glorious Revolution. He desired to gain religious and political power in England. (DeGategno)
Swift believed it was his duty to help maintain stability between political and religious forces in Ireland (as well as England). He was an advocate for Anglicanism, which had to resist the forces of Roman Catholicism and Protestant Dissenters. He began his political career as Whig, but rejected their association with the dissenters. After being recruited by the Tory Prime Minister, Swift became the chief Tory pamphleteer. However he rejected the Tory belief of the divine right of Kings, and thought that the ultimate political power of England should rest in the hands of the people. It was then maintained by the relationship between Parliament and Kings that protected individual rights and resisted tyranny.
After the Whigs regained power, Swift return to Ireland where he was attacked by Anglo-Irish Whigs. Political, economic, and religious struggles plagued England and Ireland in the mid 18th-Century. The rifts between the Catholics and the Protestants, competition for English farms and businesses, and the “legal impotence of the Irish government” put the Irish in a position of “economic prostration” under the power of the English. The English made laws to oppress and destroy the Irish economy by downright forbidding trade of high success industrial products such as woolen goods. In 1720, Swift protested against the current state of Ireland saying “We have just religion enough to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another” (Baker).
Concerned with the inequities of policies enacted by the Whig prime minister and the depletion of the Irish economy, Swift composed many politically driven works in hopes to restore Ireland socially, economically, and politically. A Modest Proposal, written in 1729, is a satire and perhaps the most popular and controversial of Swift’s works. This work attempts to free Ireland from what Swift believed to be its worst enemy; itself. (Damrosch) When Swift wrote A Modest Proposal streets of Dublin were swarming with mothers begging and seeking sustenance for their children. Most of these children would turn into thieves and end up selling themselves as slaves (DeGategno). In a letter to Pope, Swift described the situation: “There have been three terrible years’ dearth of corn, and every place strewn with beggars, but deaths are common in better climates, and our evils lie much deeper.” (Damrosch) Swift’s plan to save Ireland from the beggars was to take the offspring of the women on the streets and sell them to the wealthy. He proposed that the person who comes up with a solution for “making these children sound…would deserve so well of the public as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation” (Swift).
It is impossible to write about Jonathan Swift and A Modest Proposal without the use of the word satire. Swift and various other authors of his time were influenced by Roman satirical writers like Horace and Juvenal. Though satire has a serious intent of reforming social or individual flaws, it achieves its success through humor and through exaggeration of these flaws. Swift’s Modest Proposal is an example of political satire. There were many works written about political reform and social change during Swift’s time. His Proposal is partly satirizing William Petty’s Political Arithmetic (1691). In this Piece, Petty suggested that all of Ireland be used as a farm to serve England and that all of the Irish be removed. Petty’s work is an example of the kind of “‘Political arithmetic’ projects [that were ] published during the Restoration and 18th Century, reflecting English interest in ‘scientific’ programs for social ‘improvement'” (Damrosch, 2598).
A Contemporary Reaction
Whether or not Swift’s A Modest Proposal brought about the political and economic changes he advocated, he did get a reaction from his friend Lord Bathurst. In a letter, Bathurst picked up on the suggestion made by Swift in A Modest Proposal. Using similar linguistic techniques, Lord Bathurst jokingly shows his agreement with Swift’s proposal, deciding that it would be beneficial for his own family of nine children. Unable to repay some unspecified debt to Swift, Lord Bathurst claims, “But I have four or five [children], that are very fit for the table.” (Scott)
It is evident in this letter that Lord Bathurst takes Swift’s piece and plays with it. He writes the letter in the same pragmatic fashion as Swift. This technique silences the issue of morality. This way, he can emphasize the ridiculousness of the suggestion while making it seem like a probable solution, further poking fun at the failed attempts of others to reform Ireland’s economic problems.
- Image 1: boingboing.net/images/ iateababyadkfjgnakdjfgn.jpg
- Image 2: http://www.umbc.edu/history/CHE/InstPg/RitFamine/iish-famine-links.htm
- Baker, Lyman A. “Conditions in Early 18th Century Ireland.” 28 March 1999.
- 25 September 2008. http://www-personal.ksu.edu/~lyman/english320/sg-Swift-18thC.htm
- Cody, David. “Jonathan Swift: A Brief Biography.” The Victorian Web. http://www.victorianweb.org/previctorian/swift/bio.html. May, 2008.
- Damrosch, David and Kevin J.H. Dettmer, eds. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Third Ed. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2006.
- DeGategno, Paul J. and Jay Stubblefield. Cricitcal Companion To Jonathan Swift: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data, 2006.
- King, Richard Ashe, M.A. Swift in Ireland. New York, NY: Haskell House Publishers, 1971.
- Scott, Walter. The Works of Jonathan Swift: Containing Additional Letters, Tracts, and Poems Not Hitherto Published; with Notes and a Life of the Author. Printed for A. Constable, 1814. Original from Harvard University. Digitized Jan 17, 2008
- Swift, Jonathan. A Modest Proposal. 1729.