A Modest Proposal

Author: Jonathan Swift (1667–1745)
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Jonathan Swift belongs to a select group of writers who contributed to the development of the novel as a form of English literature in the first half of the 1700s. The term Augustan is often used to described English literature from this period. Other notable novelists active during this period included Daniel Defoe (1660–1731), Samuel Richardson (1689–1761) and Henry Fielding (1707–54). As we will see, there was a strong connection between the lives and works of these authors with contemporary politics.

In 1688, fears over the rise of Catholicism had resulted in the Glorious Revolution. The Roman Catholic King James II (of the House of Stuart) was deposed following an invasion led by his Protestant Dutch son-in-law William (of the House of Orange-Nassau). The Whigs-controlled Parliament crowned him King William III (reign: 1689–1702). In 1701, the Act of Settlement was passed to disqualify any Roman Catholic from ascending the English and Irish thrones. With the support of the Whigs but against the wishes of the Tories, William led England to war against their common enemy, Catholic France. When William died childless, his sister-in-law Anne, who had been raised an Anglican, became queen. Her reign (1702–1714) marked a return to favour for the Tories and a continuation of the war against  the French. In the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), the English general John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, led allied forces to a number of important victories. Formal hostilities ceased with the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht (1710). When Anne also died childless, her closest living Protestant relative, George (of the House of Hanover) ascended the throne and brought the Whigs back into power. The reign of George I (1714–1727) and George II (1727–1760) saw the development of the modern cabinet government. This is personified in Robert Walpole, the Whig statesman who held key ministry positions from 1720 to 1742 and is generally considered as Britain’s first Prime Minister. In the meantime, the deposed James II and his followers settled in France under the protection of King Louis XIV. For the next 50 odd years, the Stuarts would their claim to the throne. Their campaign is known as the Jacobite Risings from Jacobus, the Latin form of James. The rebellion ended when Charles Edward Stuart (popularly known as Bonnie Prince Charlie) was defeated by Hanoverian forces in 1746.

While these political events were unfolding, Britain was witnessing the start of its own version of the intellectual revolution that swept across Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. The ideas that were developed during this period came to be called the Enlightenment because, according to the historian E. H. Gombrich, “the people who held them wanted to combat the darkness of superstition with the pure light of reason” (A Little history of the World, p 215). The giants who strode Britain from 1650 to 1750 included Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke  (1632–1704), Isaac Newton (1643–1727), Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713) and David Hume (1711–1776).

It was into this milieu that Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin to a Protestant English family. With financial support from an uncle and cousin, he attended Trinity College, Dublin University and was awarded a Bachelor of Arts (1686). When the Glorious Revolution broke out, Swift moved to England where he became an assistant to an English statesman who also funded his study for a Master of Arts from Hart Hall, now Hertford College, Oxford University (1692). But Swift wanted above all a senior appointment in the Church of England. To this end, he took holy orders in the Church of Ireland in 1695 but had to settle for minor clerical positions in Ireland. He obtained a Doctor of Divinity from Trinity College, Dublin University (1702). He travelled back and forth between Ireland and England and wrote pamphlets first for the Whigs and later the Tory governments of Queen Anne. However, the Queen herself appeared to have stood in his way having taken offence at some of his earlier works. When the Whigs returned to power with the ascension of George I, Swift returned once more to Ireland a bitter man and poured his energy into writing. Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is his most famous work from this period. He also wrote about England’s unpopular control over Ireland. In the essay A Modest Proposal (1729), Swift took his pamphleteering to a new high (low?).

What is the story about?

Swift proposed a solution to deal with the great number of children living in poverty in Ireland:

I do therefore humbly offer it to publick consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine, and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore, one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune, through the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.


Generally, satire may be divided into 2 types:

… the one that makes you laugh, and the one that makes you cringe. The first one, called Horatian satire after the Roman satirist Horace, relies mainly on lighthearted humour and wit to, often self-deprecatingly, point out the silly notions or mistakes in a particular construct or agenda. In contrast, Juvenalian satire focuses on exposing an evil or a folly in the structure that results in mistreatment and cruelty. Juvenalian satire is, thus, much more direct and ruthless than Horatian satire.

A Modest Proposal is widely regarded as an exemplar of Juvenalian satire.

How is the e-book?

No frills.


Swift was a shock jock before radio was invented.


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