A Modest Proposal

Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” was a satirical look at the problems of overpopulation, lack of work and the perceived moral decay of Ireland and his tongue-in-cheek solution to them. In short, Swift proposed that Irish Catholics turn infant flesh into a delicacy and annually sell three-quarters of the infants born as food. No one was safe from Swift’s acidic writings with potshots taken at Protestant landlords, pub owners, Catholics, and unwed mothers to name a few. His “Proposal” was designed to shock and force his countrymen to look at the serious troubles facing the nation and Dublin in particular.

In the first section of his essay, Swift outlines the problem in a purely numerical sense. He estimates that 200,000 children are born each year and that one quarter of them should be reserved as breeding stock. This is his first shot at the morality of the underclass in Dublin. He suggests that of the breeding stock, only one-quarter would need to be male as the breeders were generally not wed anyway.  A male breeder then could “service” up to four women with no appreciable decline in the number of “stock” available the following year.  This first section of the essay seems particular cutting of the Irish Catholic population, questioning their morality in their lack of marriage and in a much more subtle way, the role of the fathers in the lives of the children of the underclass. While he first addresses the issues of the children of beggars, he quickly expands his essay to include all children from families unable to support their children without the charity of others, all of the working or non-working poor.

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Those children, after their first birthday, often cost their parents and society more than it can reasonably afford to feed and clothe the, so Swift offers his solution. “And it is exactly at one year old that I propose to provide for them in such a manner as instead of being a charge upon their parents or the parish, or wanting food and raiment for the rest of their lives, they shall on the contrary contribute to the feeding, and partly to the clothing, of many thousands,” he writes. Indeed, instead of suckling at society’s teat, infants would then become a part of the food chain, providing the wealthy and indulgent with a new delicacy to take to their tables.  Swift estimates that a 28-pound infant could feed the average family four meals and derives a base cost for the slaughtered infants using this observation.

He also uses the opportunity to imply the “savageness” of the Americans, saying that “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled …” The implied savagery of the American is apparent. Only a savage would be able to testify to the nutritional value and taste of human infant flesh.

Indeed, Swift makes moral judgments throughout the piece, quietly chastising practices accepted throughout the land without ever coming directly to the point. He chastises the women who voluntarily abort their children, claiming that they do so not out of shame for their moral turpitude, but because of the economics of raising a child. His chastisements are hidden in the guise of advice on how the women could instead turn their children into a profitable endeavor, like raising sheep or cattle. Furthermore, he claims that men will be less abusive to their pregnant wives and lovers when the thought of a child is a financial boon rather than a burden. Men would be less apt to threaten to kick and hit their lovers, and much less apt to actually do it, if they regarded her more as a mare with foal or a sow about to farrow.  In short, he compares the underclass to farm animals and says that his infant eating program will make them value their children more than they value their animals. Clearly, Swift meant to make his readers see the intrinsic value of human life as human life with his use of satire and irony here.

In his first direct attack on Irish Protestants, Swift claims the infant delicacy will be most welcome among landlords. At this time in Ireland, Catholics were generally forbidden from owning land and their Protestant landlords were ruthless in their demands for rent. “I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.” Indeed, he later proclaims, the landlords have already taken everything of value from the poor, including their crops and animals, so if their children were to become a commodity, Swift reasons that the landlords would simply take them as rent payment as well.  It would very temporarily serve as an income source over which the working poor had some control, but then would, like all other financial endeavors before, be stolen away by the landlords.

In his commentary on the general economy of the nation, Swift points out that turning infants into food and a source for leather would be a very good opportunity for the thrifty. The average child would be worth five times as much as it cost to raise for one year and additional income could be made if the parents were to flay the child and tan its hide for leather before selling the carcass to the butcher. The only problem with this, Swift writes, would be that he believed the proper method for serving child might be burying them and roasting them over hot coals like a suckling pig. Again, Swift resorts to an almost absurd level of satire to make his point regarding the humane treatment of the existing food sources.

Swift further theorizes that since over-hunting due to the famine in the land had caused a dearth of deer, it might be appropriate to use youngsters to replace the deer population. However, again alluding to his Americans friend, who is such a monster that he regularly eats children and knows such things, Swift concludes that older boys would be tough and stringy and older girls would be needed to maintain the breeding population and therefore could not be used to replace venison.

Perhaps the most cold-hearted of Swift’s comments come regarding the fate of those underclass members already above the breeding age or too old to be sold off as food.  The elderly, disabled, and infirmed are dying as rapidly as possible, he writes. He remarks that the young men who are old enough to work are so malnourished that they cannot work even if work miraculously becomes available. “And as to the young laborers, they are now in as hopeful a condition; they cannot get work, and consequently pine away for want of nourishment, to a degree that if at any time they are accidentally hired to common labor, they have not strength to perform it; and thus the country and themselves are happily delivered from the evils to come,” he writes. Swift shows his understanding of the hopelessness facing the underclass and their inability to struggle through because the circumstances of the country have become so dire.

In his summary of his arguments, Swift points out that this also helps deal with the rising enmity between Protestants and Catholics, as instead of out breeding and outnumbering the Protestants, Catholics would be devoured as infants and pose a help to their country instead of a hindrance. Begging would decrease as after the first year, the underclass breeders would have earned enough through the sale of their child to support themselves until the birth and slaughter of the next one. And, he said, “Whereas the maintenance of an hundred thousand children, from two years old and upward, cannot be computed at less than ten shillings a-piece per annum, the nation’s stock will be thereby increased fifty thousand pounds per annum, beside the profit of a new dish introduced to the tables of all gentlemen of fortune in the kingdom who have any refinement in taste. And the money will circulate among ourselves, the goods being entirely of our own growth and manufacture.” His argument is that instead of costing Ireland the money to raise them, creating a new delicacy would give Ireland a product that it could see to the rest of the world and no one else would be able to lay claim to any of its profits.

The proposal makes so much sense, Swift argues, that no one could object to it. “I can think of no one objection, that will possibly be raised against this proposal, unless it should be urged, that the number of people will be thereby much lessened in the kingdom. This I freely own, and ’twas indeed one principal design in offering it to the world.”  The decline in the Irish population would of course be an advantage that he had planned for when making the proposal, he said, as a population decline would begin to solve many of the other problems the nation faced. And, voluntary population control would be contrary to the rules of the Church, so making child-bearing profitable seemed the next best course of action. Again, Swift is poking fun at the “every sperm is sacred” beliefs of the Catholic Church, and the detrimental affect that constant child-bearing had on the family and the nation.

Swift concludes his essay challenging others of greater intelligence to come up with a plan that accomplishes the same thing, the feeding and clothing of the nation’s children at a reasonable cost. He anticipates the coming criticism with an effective comment of “If you have a better idea, prove it.”  And, in perhaps the only true, not satirical part of the entire essay, Swift reports in the last paragraph that he has no desire to promote this course of action. Then, in a return to his satirical ways, he says his reasons are simply for love of his country and that since his wife is well past child-bearing age, he cannot even profit from his own ideas.

The tongue-in-cheek approach Swift uses in his “Proposal” is very deliberate and scathing in his attitude toward all the problems Ireland faced. He takes shots at the Americans and Britains as an aside, but mostly without apology, condemns everyone who is playing a role in the destruction of the Irish isle. As political analysis and commentary, “A Modest Proposal” may be one of the finest works of literature ever. Swift disguised his commentary as an absurd essay to avoid penalties for directly confronting the Church or the Crown, but to those capable of reading beyond the surface, the proposal is clearly a call to Irishmen to correct the evils that have befallen their country and to overthrow those organizations that would hold them down and prevent them from gaining financial independence, including Protestant landlords, poorly constructed laws, mandates from the Church (to avoid birth control) and even the over-hunting that has caused the island to face famine.

Swift’s proposal is cutting edge, even now shocking in its precepts, but it provides a good insight into the social ills that faced Dublin in the 1720s and the reasons why Ireland could not seem to overcome them. It is an eye-opening commentary on social disparities caused by economic means and the most extreme methods of dealing with them. In short, “A Modest Proposal” is sheer genius.