To what extent is it helpful to understand “A Modest Proposal” as a reflection on Swift’s perception of his failure to effect real economic or political change by means of his Irish writings 1720-1728?

By Fionnuala Barrett, Year 3, Trinity College Dublin

Christopher Fox observes that A Modest Proposal “has often been read in complete isolation from its Irish context and reduced to a model exercise in irony or an amusing example of Swift’s perversity (or both, ending with the latter)” (5). Irish affairs were not simply, to use Robert Mahony’s phrase, “occasions for Swift’s satire, rather than objects of it” (63); Swift engaged with Ireland’s economic and political wrangles wholeheartedly over a significant period of time, and, as Patrick Kelly asserts, “consciously projected his economic writings as a coherent corpus” (133). This essay will argue that, for an accurate appraisal of Swift’s most famous pamphlet, an understanding of his Irish writings between 1720 and 1728, as well as their results, is not merely helpful, but vital. The persona of the modest proposer was one with Swift when he professed himself as “having been wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts” (Modest Proposal 498). In order to better understand why Swift “at length utterly despair[ed] of success” (498) with his efforts to effect real change in and on behalf of Ireland, and why Irvin Ehrenpreis holds A Modest Proposal to be the “essay in which his despair was crystallised” (iii.629), the progression of his “visionary thoughts” over the preceding decade must be examined.

This discussion begins with the publication of the Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture in 1720 (hereafter referred to as the “Irish Proposal”). As McMinn reminds us, this was Swift’s “first pamphlet on Irish affairs since becoming Dean” (Jonathan Swift 96). It is significant that Swift chose this moment to enter the sphere of Irish politics; as Ferguson puts it, “it was no accident that [this pamphlet] appeared less than two months after the passage of the Declaratory Act, when Irish reaction was violent” (52). Swift, in a letter to Charles Ford, expressed his personal views on the Declaratory Act thus:

I believe my self not guilty of too much veneration for the Irish H. of Lds, but I differ from you in Politicks, the Question is whether People ought to be Slaves or no. It is like the Quarrell against Convocations; they meet but seldom, have no Power, and for want of those Advantages, cannot make any Figure when they are suffered to assemble. You fetter a Man seven years, then let him loose to shew his Skill in dancing, and because he does it awkwardly, you say he ought to be fetterd for Life. (Correspondence ii.342, spelling and capitals in original)

The pamphlet laid the foundations of the themes on which Swift would build in future Irish writings: the conduct of landlords, parliamentarians, “unthinking shopkeepers” (Irish Proposal 401), absentee officeholders, “POOR England” (Irish Proposal 402) but also, most importantly, “this deluded people” (Irish Proposal 401), the Irish themselves. Ehrenpreis observes of the Irish Proposal that “Swift show[ed] no more fury against the English for their bestiality to a sister race than he show[ed] against the Irish for conniving at their own destruction” (iii.124). Agency implies responsibility, and in laying the solution to their own woes at the feet of the Irish public – domestic consumption – Swift implicitly laid at their feet at least partial blame for those same woes. This is a matter which, developed in his other writings, would become key by the end of the decade in A Modest Proposal.

However, the culpability that Swift ascribed to the Irish in the Irish Proposal did not protect the pamphlet on its publication from the ire of the English authorities: Ehrenpreis records that “[p]ersons in high places certainly felt troubled by it” (iii.128). It was labelled “false, scandalous and seditious” by the Grand Juries of Dublin City and County (quoted in McMinn, Jonathan Swift 97), and was the cause of Chief Justice Whitshed’s shocking behaviour in the trial of printer Edward Waters, in which Whitshed rejected the jury’s nine verdicts of innocent, though Swift was eventually successful in quashing further proceedings (see Nokes 267-268). In addition to such legal battles, however, the pamphlet’s central practical suggestion – the reliance on Irish products and a boycott of English manufacture – was ignored, though, as Ferguson remarks, Swift “could not have been unduly surprised [when] three separate Irish parliaments had passed similar resolutions to no purpose” (55-56). This essay maintains, however, that though Swift may not have been surprised, he could not have failed to be influenced by these reactions of official outrage and public inaction; he received all the trouble that his suggestions could bring about with none of the triumph of seeing them put into practice and having them prove his sagacity. Swift’s pamphlet was not without consequences for him personally; as James Kelly notes, Swift’s involvement in such a high-profile case “did nothing for any remaining hopes of a place on the English episcopal bench” (11). To see nothing come of his political bravery must have rankled. This supposition is borne out by the merciless skewering to which Swift subjects the fatuous speaker of “An Excellent New Song on a Seditious Pamphlet”, written in the midst of the Irish Proposal’s legal furore, who typifies those whose personal pride was of greater importance than their national and economic dignity:

In England the dead in woollen are clad,
The Dean and his printer then let us cry Fie on;
To be clothed like a carcass would make a Teague mad,
Since a living dog better is than a dead lion. (10-13)

This concern with overweening pride, the buying of “English silks for their wives and their daughters, / In spite of his Deanship and Journeyman Waters” (26-27), is another seed that would later bear fruit in A Modest Proposal.

Swift maintained comparative silence on Irish issues between the Irish Proposal and the publication of the first Drapier’s Letter, which James Kelly attributes to the monitoring to which Swift’s correspondence was subject; says Kelly, this “was sufficient to curb Swift’s penchant for pamphleteering, and it was reinforced by his vivid memory of the prosecution of Edward Waters” (13). However, the scandal surrounding the Wood’s halfpence affair was too all-consuming for Swift to have long remained impervious, even if he had not been invited to join the fray by Archbishop King and Lord Chancellor Midleton (Ferguson 96), who knew Swift could use the political acumen he had honed in the service of the Tories to devastating effect in support of their cause. The barest outline of a few of the obvious economic objections against Wood’s patent illustrates that the “manifest destruction” (Drapier’s Letter I 423) which the Drapier prophesied in his first letter was no idle threat. The coins themselves were of poor value and Wood was licensed to produce far more than was needed – Ferguson writes that Wood’s patent authorised the production of £100,800 in copper coins, where Primate of All Ireland Hugh Boulter estimated in 1724 that just £10,000 or £20,000 of such coins was needed (86). Furthermore, Ehrenpreis emphasises the lack of a safeguard to “stop Wood from putting coins into circulation as long as he liked” (iii.193), and Ferguson states that “the comptroller who was to assay [the coins] was one of [Wood’s] own employees” (87). Bearing such objections in mind, it is not a stretch to concur with the Drapier that in every particular this scheme was a “WICKED CHEAT” (424).

However, the Drapier’s Letters and their attendant controversy were not simply about these economic flaws. McMinn elucidates the point, remarking that “the momentary economic issue raised a political and constitutional question of absolute importance” (“Weary Patriot” 107). The very existence of the patent, which enabled an Englishman to create coins on behalf of Ireland, highlighted the lack of an Irish national mint, which itself was, to use Ferguson’s phrase, “a humiliating reminder of Ireland’s dependent status” (85). Ferguson further adds that the haughty reception of Irish complaints to the scheme was deemed “a deliberate affront to national dignity” (85). Thus it is hardly surprising that the scope of the Drapier’s Letters was augmented over the course of time. The target of the first letter was entirely that “mean ordinary man, a hardware dealer” (Drapier’s Letter I 423) against whom “it [was] no treason to rebel” (Drapier’s Letter I 429). By the fourth letter – published to coincide with Lord Carteret’s arrival in Ireland, a deliberately provocative act which, as McMinn puts it, was “a calculated challenge to his Majesty’s representative” (Jonathan Swift 109) – the Drapier’s remit had grown to encompass the political status of Ireland itself, taking especial aim at its label of “depending kingdom”:

I have looked over all the English and Irish statutes without finding any law that makes Ireland depend upon England, any more than England does upon Ireland. We have indeed obliged ourselves to have the same king with them, and consequently they are obliged to have the same king with us. … I am so far from depending upon the people of England, that if they should ever rebel against my sovereign (which God forbid) I would be ready at the first command from His Majesty to take arms against them, as some of my countrymen did against theirs at Preston. (Drapier’s Letter IV 441, italics in original)

Swift disregarded the danger inherent in such talk and blazed on to an even more incendiary tone, verging on the insurrectionary:

For in reason, all government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery. … The remedy is wholly in your own hands; and therefore I have digressed a little in order to refresh and continue that spirit so seasonably raised among you, and to let you see, that by the laws of GOD, of NATURE, of NATIONS, and of your own Country, you ARE and OUGHT to be as FREE a people as your brethren in England. (Drapier’s Letter IV 442, italics and capitals in original)

While the Drapier’s Letters whipped up public consciousness to an unprecedented degree (Swift admitted that he “hardly thought such a spirit could ever rise over this whole kingdom” [Correspondence iv.44]) and earnt Swift his abiding title of the “Hibernian Patriot”, they also – unsurprisingly – caused another legal storm. Despite a £300 reward, Swift was not surrendered to the authorities, but, as with the Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture, the printer of the pamphlet was arrested; again, the presiding judge was Whitshed. Swift muddied the waters further by printing a tract called Seasonable Advice, illegally directed at Whitshed’s jury; this ultimately resulted in Whitshed dismissing his first jury and assembling a second. Humiliatingly for Whitshed, this second jury’s presentment dealt a blow not to Seasonable Advice, but to “all such Persons as have attempted, or shall endeavour by fraud or otherwise, to Impose the … Half-pence upon US” (quoted in Ferguson 127). Even more humiliatingly for Whitshed, the presentment was written by Swift.

Wood eventually surrendered his patent in August 1725. Ferguson’s elated assertion that “[t]he defeat of Wood’s patent was a personal triumph for Swift” (136) must be juxtaposed with the equally truthful statement of McMinn that “[f]or nearly a decade, Swift produced pamphlets demanding and proposing a whole range of economic and material reforms. The Drapier’s Letters are the only writings which achieved a degree of success” (“Weary Patriot” 110). Swift may have won the battle against Wood’s halfpence, but he did not win the war against the other issues which came to the fore in the controversy over the patent – the lack of a national mint, the absentee problem, the rackrenting practices of the landlords and the question of Ireland’s equality as a kingdom with England. Nokes comments that “[t]he victory was of a strictly limited kind, and made little difference to the general endemic exploitation of Ireland by absentee English authorities” (295). Ehrenpreis eloquently summarises the Drapier’s disheartening sequel:

Swift had hopes, not too sanguine, that a spirit had been born which could be moulded into the regular breath of a common weal. What followed after the splendour of 1725 was the expiration of public conscience in three years of famine, an age of “undertakers”, a reduction of the Irish bishops to the function of weathercocks for ministerial winds, and of the Church of Ireland at its best to a thin-muscled social agency ineffectually ameliorating the catastrophe of English rule. (iii.311)

It is the contention of this essay that this brief glimpse of success only threw into greater relief Swift’s failure to effect change in the rest of his literary endeavours on behalf of Ireland, and that the “strictly limited” nature of even this victory against Wood was only too apparent.

In Swift’s next Irish pamphlet of note, A Short View of the State of Ireland (1728), there was no trace of the triumph of the Hibernian Patriot. Written in the midst of severe and prolonged Irish famine, with what Ferguson terms the “cruelly gratuitous” aim of “giv[ing] proof of Ireland’s poverty” (145), Swift’s tone was one of redoubled and withering “Indignation” (Short View 107), though he demurred that his “Intention [was] not to complain, but barely to relate Facts” (Short View 109):

I would be glad to know by what secret Method, it is, that we grow a rich and flourishing People, without Liberty, Trade, Manufactures, Inhabitants, Money, or the Privilege of Coining; without Industry, Labour, or Improvement of Lands, and with more than half the Rent and Profits of the whole Kingdom, annually exported; for which we receive not a single Farthing. (Short View 111, italics in original)

There ought to be no surprise that his rhetoric had intensified: the cause at stake was no longer mere national dignity, as it was with the Drapier’s Letters; the issue was now a matter of life and death. Anger does not surprise the reader of Swift; what is surprising in A Short View, and what marks a progression in Swift’s writings of the 1720s, is the sorrowful resignation of its tone. Ferguson views this pamphlet as evidence that Swift at this time “still clung – if with growing scepticism and despair – to the belief that the Irish could improve their situation despite England’s repressive policies” (149). This essay argues just the opposite: A Short View marks the beginning of Swift’s withdrawal from Irish affairs as a uniquely bad lot, a withdrawal that would, seemingly irrevocably, be made final the next year in A Modest Proposal. This termination is foreshadowed in the admission that “my heart is too heavy to continue this Irony longer” (Short View 111), a confession, coming from the arch-satirist Swift, that borders on despair. Whereas previously he had by turns cajoled, recommended and pleaded, Swift now perceived that to continue such efforts would only, to use Ehrenpreis’ phrase, be “administering a dose to the dead” (iii.311). Another progression was that Swift did not urge any scheme on his reader; there was no enthusiastic encouragement of domestic consumption as a cure for all ills here. In enumerating Ireland’s deficiencies, Swift did imply solutions, but for the first time he never explicitly set them forth. His engagement, before so energetic, was now limited to pointing to the writing on the wall: “One Thing I know, that when the Hen is starved to Death, there will be no more Golden Eggs” (Short View 113, italics in original).

Swift’s Irish writings of this decade reach their climactic conclusion in the fiery scorn of A Modest Proposal, a conclusion which, like all good endings, revisits, comments on and develops on the story which it completes. The choice of the pamphlet form, Swift’s home territory, was a withering piece of self-mockery through which, Ehrenpreis writes, Swift laughed “at himself and others who offer programmes to better the condition of the Irish” (iii.630). McMinn holds that, in so thoroughly undermining his own pet form in A Modest Proposal, the piece “shows Swift having written himself out of this kind of literature by an ingenious piece of self-criticism” (Jonathan Swift 142). Swift laboured the joke at his own expense, laughing at himself not only formally but also in content, for the substance of the Modest Proposal harks back to the Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture. As Ferguson drily reminds us, it is “but the logical extension of a plea Swift had made unceasingly to the Irish since 1720: domestic consumption of domestic products” (171). However, in spite of this extended self-mockery, there can be no doubt of the real target at which the Modest Proposal aimed. This pamphlet encapsulates better than any other David Nokes’s assertion that “[t]he anger that runs through Swift’s major Irish tracts comes from his conviction that the Irish themselves were largely responsible for their own miseries” (347). His wrath does not negate the real sympathy he holds for the “round million of creatures in human figure … whose whole subsistence put into a common stock would leave them in debt two millions of pounds sterling” (Modest Proposal 498, italics in original). Rather, as can be seen in a letter to Pope written some months before the publication of the Modest Proposal, his human sympathy is a spur to his rage:

As to this country, there have been three terrible years dearth of corn, and every place strowed with beggars, but dearths are common in better climates, and our evils here lie much deeper. Imagine a nation the two-thirds of whose revenues are spent out of it, and who are not permitted to trade with the other third, and where the pride of the women will not suffer them to wear their own manufactures even where they excel what come from abroad: This is the true state of Ireland in a very few words. These evils operate more every day, and the kingdom is absolutely undone, as I have been telling it often in print these ten years past. (Correspondence iv.341)

Beginning in 1720, Swift had attempted time and again to empower the Irish and rouse them to act in their own best interests, with the result that he only succeeded in disillusioning himself in a country in which things seemingly only degenerated from bad to worse. Swift had observed in A Short View that Ireland inverted all the rules by which other nations flourished and that “[i]f we do flourish, it must be against every Law of Nature and Reason” (Short View 111). Thus it makes sense that in A Modest Proposal, as Ehrenpreis observes, Swift “inverted the principle that the people are the riches of a nation” (iii.629) for such a topsy-turvy country. A Modest Proposal was also, though, the culmination of the personal frustrations Swift had endured in the past decade, which gives an astonishingly savage edge to the many reversals he put forth in this piece. Where the fourth Drapier’s Letter was addressed to “the whole People of Ireland” and attempted to galvanise them into action, A Modest Proposal indicted the same people: after all, it is the Irish, not the English, who are to cannibalise themselves in the proposer’s scheme. Further, the only hope the Squire has of “learn[ing] to be a good landlord, and grow popular among his tenants” (Modest Proposal 494) is through this cannibalisation of his tenants’ children, seeing as he has “already devoured most of the parents” (Modest Proposal 494). In the Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture Swift had urged ladies to overcome their pride and “be content with Irish” fabrics for their homes and persons (Irish Proposal 401). He had come to believe, by the writing of A Modest Proposal, that such hopes to curb female pride were ludicrously unworldly, and instead made the vicious suggestion that the skin of a child “will make admirable gloves for ladies” (Modest Proposal 495, italics in original).

While Swift’s anger at his perceived failure, and the blame he heaped on Irish heads, bubbles just under the surface throughout, it becomes most apparent in the extended climactic passage listing the “other expedients” (Modest Proposal 497) at the end of the Modest Proposal. It is worth noting that Swift took the trouble to italicise this section – it is meant to stand out. It consists of a recapitulation of Swift’s schemes of the past decade, written in heightened language inflected with the spirit of the pulpit: domestic consumption; taxation of absentees; a reformation of the behaviour of landlords and shopkeepers. This, though, is undercut by the most devastating of the voltes-face he produces in the piece. The list is punctuated by the despairing and utterly condemnatory observation that such suggestions are not even to be thought of “till [there is] some glimpse of hope that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them in practice” (Modest Proposal 498) – an idea that amply demonstrates the contempt in which he holds the kingdom which would not “act in common prudence” (Drapier’s Letter I 423) and take his advice.

This essay has attempted to show the central importance of Swift’s Irish writings of 1720-1728, as well as his perception of his failure to effect real change by means of these writings, to an understanding of his Modest Proposal; it can by no means be properly understood when stripped of its context or as anything other than the resounding, climactic finish to a protracted engagement with Irish political life. Swift’s dedication to this failed cause can be inferred by his subdued last word on this decade of his career, the essay “Answer to Several Letters from Unknown Persons” (1729). In it, the heat of the anger of A Modest Proposal is lost, leaving Swift sounding dejected, fractious and weary:

I am tired with letters from many unreasonable well-meaning People, who are daily pressing me to deliver my Thoughts in this deplorable Juncture, which upon many others I have so often done in vain. What will it import that half a score of people in a Coffee-house may happen to read this paper, and even the Majority of those few differ in every sentiment from me[?] (“Answer to Several Letters” 80-81, capitals in original)

This, it seems, is Swift’s lasting opinion of his literary work on behalf of Ireland – an effort attempted “many times … in vain” which would anyway be shouted down by the majority, and all for the sake of “the land of slaves and fens; / A servile race in folly nurs’d, / Who truckle most, when treated worst” (“Verses on the Death” 396-8). Such a postscript implies that it is not merely helpful to read A Modest Proposal as a reflection on Swift’s perception of his failure to effect real change for Ireland in his writings of this decade, but that it is impossible to read it in any other way.

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