A Modest Proposal

Artifact: A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

Category: Art and Culture

Group: Jackson Rose, Avery Bookout, Levon Grigoryan

In 1729, A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burden to their Parents or the Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick was published anonymously by Jonathan Swift. This artifact is an original copy of the pamphlet, currently held by the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at UCLA. The pamphlet’s appearance is perfectly innocuous, blending in with the flood of “modest proposals” on economic issues which were circulating throughout Ireland following a series of bad harvests in the 1720s and a brutal winter in 1728-29 which had pushed much of the country to the brink of starvation. Swift’s pamphlet begins innocently enough, describing the dire circumstances in Ireland and setting up a new proposal for alleviating the burden of poverty on the country, before revealing its ultimate satirical purpose a couple paragraphs in with the suggestion: “a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food” (Swift). The text goes on to enumerate the many economic benefits which Ireland might enjoy should they choose to utilize their infant population as food and even goes so far as to outline the most delicious methods of preparing infant flesh for consumption. 

A Modest Proposal arrived in the wake of countless economic proposals published in preceding decades which sought to solve the issues of unemployment and overpopulation with simple, readymade solutions grounded in mercantilist economic theory which reigned supreme at the time. Tired of these overly simplistic solutions which he saw as utterly foolish, Swift chose to satirize these pamphlets in A Modest Proposal, even giving his pamphlet a title that deliberately mocks these publications, many of which bear strikingly similar titles such as: An Essay or Modest Proposal, of a Way to encrease the Number of People, and consequently the Strength of this Kingdom, published in 1693 (Wittkowsky). Swift’s proposal also takes aim at political arithmetic, a science developed primarily by William Petty which employed the brand new (and often inaccurate) field of statistics to address economic issues. The pamphlet maintains a cold, impersonal tone–laying out careful calculations for the implementation of the proposal: “I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggar’s child . . . to be about two shillings per annum, rags included” (Swift). The pamphlet’s disturbingly objective demeanor in describing such a chilling proposition ironically criticizes the pervading tendency amongst these political arithmeticians to treat real human lives and human suffering as mere numbers and statistics. Furthermore, though A Modest Proposal functions as satire, it may also be viewed as allegorical of England’s relationship with Ireland in 1729. During this time, Ireland owed a steep debt to England, and the British government was in the process of deciding how that debt should be collected–the most popular solution being increased taxes. Swift’s cannibalist proposition can be read as an allegory for the way in which England was consuming their colonial subject with unbearable taxation which was worsening the effects of poverty in Ireland in order to fill English coffers (Moore). Thus, A Modest Proposal addresses its criticisms not only to the local Irish government, but also the English government abroad.

Though Swift’s biting irony certainly shocked audiences in its day (as it continues to do still), his satirical method was not entirely unprecedented. In 1702, the Englishman Daniel Defoe made a similar murderous proposition in The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, which criticizes the English government’s treatment of political dissenters by ironically suggesting genocidal practices through which the English government might eliminate them (Phiddian). However, Defoe’s pamphlet tactfully utilizes cloaked language and metaphor to obscure the most shocking suggestions and make them less offensive to the public. Swift takes a much different approach in A Modest Proposal, using blunt language to fully commit to the satirical voice and provide the most scathing criticism possible. However, this decision had its consequences for the popular reception of the pamphlet.

A letter to Swift from his friend Allen Bathurst, titled From Lord Bathurst, concerning Swift’s proposal provides some insight into the public view of the pamphlet. In this letter, Lord Bathurst assumes an ironic, bantering tone–praising Swift’s proposal and offering to provide his own child as repayment for a personal debt he owed to Swift: “but I have four or five, that are very fit for the table. I only wait for the lord mayor’s day to dispose of the largest” (Moore). Bathurst’s letter indicates that the identity of A Modest Proposal’s author was no mystery to the public, despite the pamphlet’s anonymous publication–as Swift’s distinctive style was unmistakable. Bathurst also clearly acknowledges the proposal’s comedic effect without engaging with any of its scathing criticisms, suggesting that Swift’s ultimate purpose in writing the proposal may have flown over the heads of many readers. This observation is further supported by the fact that very few literary critics even acknowledged the pamphlet’s existence, despite its shocking premise. It seems that many of those who were not simply appalled by the proposal could only appreciate it as a piece of comedy, not a relevant political critique. 

Ultimately, A Modest Proposal did not offer any concrete solution to its readers in 1729 for alleviating poverty in Ireland. Its inflammatory nature was intended as a means of inciting meaningful action rather than as a detailed policy roadmap. Swift was not a policymaker but an observer, who used satire to address the worsening conditions in Ireland and the shortcomings of existing economic policies. For the modern reader, the pamphlet provides a peek into the state of Ireland in the 1720s. City streets were cluttered with people begging for money and the influence of the predominant mercantilist economic theory frequently occasioned the exploitation of people for their labor in order to keep Ireland competitive in national trade (Wittkowsky). Although A Modest Proposal may have not saved anyone from the looming death of famine, it is a powerful piece of art that qualifies the world that was Ireland in 1729–a country so misgoverned and ravaged by poverty and famine that someone had to suggest eating children in order to implore those in power to pay attention to the situation at hand. Swift’s biting satire thus stands as a poignant expression of protest against injustice which remains powerfully relevant to the modern day reader.

Works Cited

Hedrick, Elizabeth. “A Modest Proposal in Context: Swift, Politeness, and A Proposal for Giving Badges to the Beggars.” Studies in Philology, vol. 114, no. 4, 2017, pp. 852–874. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/90014752. Accessed 15 May 2020.

Moore, Sean. “Devouring Posterity: ‘A Modest Proposal’, Empire, and Ireland’s ‘Debt of the Nation.’” PMLA, vol. 122, no. 3, 2007, pp. 679–695. JSTOR.

Phiddian, Robert. “Have You Eaten Yet? The Reader in A Modest Proposal.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 36, no. 3, 1996, pp. 603–621. JSTOR.

Swift, Jonathan. 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 Publick, 1729.

Wittkowsky, George. “Swift’s Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet.”Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 4, no. 1, 1943, pp. 75–104. JSTOR.

4 Comments

  1. YESSSSS. I first studied Modest Proposal in high school and fell in love with Swift’s particular brand of satire the piece. I wrote a paper on it for 10B, and I really enjoyed your close read and seeing some more of the history behind the piece, especially because it wasn’t on the larger syllabus for the course. Satire has such an important place in Irish history and identity, going all the way back to oral histories from the Celtic era as a way to stand up to prejudice or oppression. I particularly enjoyed learning about the response Swift received from a friend that used appropriate humor but completely missed the message that one should be outraged. Well done!

  2. I love how A Modest Proposal is a satire of the problems that Ireland was facing in the in the 1720s. I think its interesting how satire is one of the most effective ways to show someone how their thinking is incorrect by comparing their ideologies to something else. This is particularly relevant to today’s society, as many people are explaining how #blacklivesmatter campaign works using satire

  3. I believe A Modest Proposal, standing as a piece of comedy, not a politic critique, is itself a satire to the society. I cannot understand that not many people deeply looked into that, when it indicates the most major problems of Ireland, just because of its satiric tone. Maybe it was because the Proposal was not suggesting any solution about it. A problem without solution should have seemed like something unworthy, since the only thing the people could get was frustration. This let me curious about the intention of Swift. He would probably know what kind of response would be followed, then what would be his goal in this writing? Just to enlighten a few wise readers? Or to let future generations learn and to prevent them from making same mistakes? I love how you focused on the satiric feature of this proposal. Great work!

  4. I really enjoyed this annotation. I thought The Modest Proposal was so interesting because it hits a nerve with the tragedies it speaks of yet it does it using satire and it makes it very interesting. As David said, the BLM movement is also highlighting tragedies using satire and it doesn’t mean they are necessarily trying to make a mockery, but just trying to find the irony in the situation. I enjoyed your close read, this was well done.

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