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A Modest Proposal | Study Guide

Jonathan Swift

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Jonathan Swift | Biography


Jonathan Swift's family and political background positioned him well to write "A Modest Proposal." He was born in Dublin on November 30, 1667. His parents were Anglo-Irish Protestants. His father had moved to Ireland after the 1660 Stuart restoration, which ended the 19-year Interregnum following the execution of King Charles I (1600–49) by placing his son, Charles II (1630–85), on the throne. Swift's father died a few months before Jonathan was born. His mother, Abigail, moved back to England, and Jonathan was left with relatives in Ireland. He received a good education, attending the best grammar school in Ireland, Kilkenny Grammar School, and later attending Dublin's Trinity College until 1686.

Early Career

As Swift was starting his career, William of Orange invaded England in 1688, leading the Glorious Revolution, in which the Catholic King James II was forced to flee to France and the crown was passed by an act of Parliament jointly to the new Protestant rulers, William III and Mary II. Under the new law, it was made illegal for a Roman Catholic to hold the throne. Swift left a troubled Dublin for London, hoping to advance his career. Starting in 1689 Swift served as secretary to diplomat Sir William Temple. This gave him access to an influential mentor, as well as a large library. He attended Hertford College at Oxford, where he earned a master's degree and was ordained in 1695.

Writing Career

When he was 32, Swift received a post as a parish priest for the Church of Ireland in Derry. In addition to his clerical duties, he continued to work and write actively in politics. His first work of satire, "A Tale of a Tub," was published anonymously in 1704 and expanded in 1710. "A Tale of a Tub" parodied many aspects of contemporary life, including religion. It was very popular, but many people attacked it, and some like Queen Anne, misread its critiques of religion as profane. This convinced Anne that Swift should not be made a bishop, even though Swift was active in the English Tory party (political conservatives whose policies Anne supported) throughout the early 1700s, dividing his time between London and Ireland. He became dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin in 1713. The queen died the following year. George I took the throne, and the Whig party dominated the English government. These events ended Swift's hopes for advancement in the church or government. He returned to Ireland and focused on his writing, pouring many of his political opinions and experiences into his best-known work, Gulliver's Travels (1726), which was immediately successful.

Swift remained politically active after this success. He wrote many pamphlets supporting Irish causes, such as Irish independence from British colonial rule. Some of these were made straightforward appeals for change. Some of these included satirical elements, such as his 1720 essay attacking English mercantile policies, "A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture," which included one of his most-quoted satirical lines, that "Ireland wou'd never be happy 'till a Law were made for burning every Thing that came from England except their People and their Coals."

When Swift toured Ireland in 1723, the condition of the Irish poor appalled him. Swift addressed this issue in several straightforward proposals for political action, but without success. He also preached on the topic in sermons like "The Causes of the Wretched Condition of Ireland."

"A Modest Proposal"

In frustration, he turned once again to satire, publishing "A Modest Proposal" in 1729. This became his most famous pamphlet. It used savage satire to focus attention on poverty in Ireland. This essay shocked readers by making the outrageous suggestion that starving Irish Catholic families sell their children as food. As an Irish Protestant, Swift was well positioned to appeal to the prejudices of Irish Protestant readers.

This and other writings established Swift as an Irish political hero. However, it is unclear whether this specific proposal had any actual political effect. Swift himself seemed to lament how little people had done to address the situation. In 1737 Swift wrote another proposal supporting giving badges to Dublin's beggars. In that tract he wrote, "As this is the only Christian country where people, contrary to the old maxim, are the poverty, and not the riches of the nation; so the blessing of increase and multiply is by us converted into a curse." This suggests nothing had changed and the situation was still terrible. Swift's commitment to social good extended beyond his death, through the money he donated for the establishment of a mental hospital in Dublin; St. Patrick's Hospital, known in its early days as "Dr. Swift's," remains in operation today.

Personal Life and Legacy

In his personal life, Swift cultivated friendships with other prominent literary figures, including poet Alexander Pope and playwrights William Congreve and John Gay. His lifelong friendship with Esther Johnson, better known as Stella, has inspired speculation over the years in both scholarly and popular venues. Whatever their relationship, Stella was sufficiently important to Swift that he wrote 65 letters to her, later collected in Journal to Stella. When Swift died on October 19, 1745, he was buried in St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin next to Stella. Swift is revered for being a champion of the Irish people during the long period of English colonial rule.

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