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, by jonathan swift, edited and annotated by jack lynch.

Swift was Irish, and though he much preferred living in England, he resented British policies toward the Irish. In a letter to Pope of 1729, he wrote, “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 [allow] 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.” His support for Irish causes has made him a renowned figure in modern Ireland. The paragraph numbers have been added for this edition.

This text has been prepared by Jack Lynch . You’re welcome to use it for non-exclusive and nonprofit purposes.

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A Modest Proposal

Jonathan swift.

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Paragraphs 20-28

"I have too long digressed," says Swift, and so he continues to enumerate the advantages of his proposal. It will reduce the number of "Papists" (Catholics), who form the majority of the poor population and who tend to have large families. He identifies the Catholics as the enemies of the nation--or of its wealthy Anglo contingent--accusing Irish Catholics of subversive political activity, while contrasting them with the many Protestants who have left the country rather than be forced to "pay Tithes against their Conscience."

The proposal also means that poor tenants, once their children become a valuable commodity, will be better able to pay off their debts to their landlords. The arrangement will be good for the national economy, turning what had been a liability into part of the national product—not to mention the added national benefit of a new dish. In addition, the parents of these now-marketable children will reap a profit beyond just the eight-shilling sale price, since they will be relieved of the expense of caring for the children after the first year. The new food will undoubtedly improve business in taverns. The proposal will have the moral benefits of encouraging marriage and increasing mothers' love for their children. It will also likely spur a healthy competition among parents as to who can "bring the fattest Child to the Market," as well as reducing domestic violence, at least during the time of pregnancy, "for fear of a Miscarriage." An indirect consequence of eating children's flesh will be an increase in exportation of beef, and well as a rising standard for other meats, which "are in no way comparable in Taste, or Magnificence, to a well-grown fat yearling Child." Swift speculates that one fifth of the "carcasses" will be consumed in London, and the rest elsewhere in Ireland.

The author identifies himself as a member of the Anglo-Irish ruling class, who were predominantly Anglican. His picture of embattled Anglicans forced to leave the country is an ironic one, however. Swift is denouncing the practice of absenteeism among Irish landlords, who often governed their estates from abroad, thus funneling all the fruits of Irish peasant labor out of the Irish economy and into the English coffers. The proposer's allegiance is to the interests of the wealthy, and it is at the upper classes that Swift aims his sharpest barbs. Swift's contempt for the irresponsibility, greed, and moral indifference of the wealthy is matched only by his disgust at the utter failure of Ireland's political leaders. Swift begins moving away from the faux-economics of child-breeding in order to hone in on the realities of Ireland's economic crisis. Many of the arguments the proposer advances here have to do with the very real problem of building a viable Irish national economy. Swift reveals that his objection is not so much with the basic mercantilist idea that the people are the most valuable resources of a nation, but rather with Ireland's failure to value that resource in any meaningful and nationally constructive way.

Swift also elaborates on his critique of domestic mores among the Irish poor. The fact that they need an economic inducement to marry, to love their children and spouses, and to refrain from domestic violence are obvious strikes against them—although probably against the bigotry of the proposer as well since, for Swift, there are multiple sides to every story.

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