Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal"

Jonathan Swift's 1729 essay, "A Modest Proposal" is a vicious satire on the restrictions that the English overlords imposed on the Irish in the 17th and early 18th centuries. The initial tone of the essay is one of perfect reasonableness, in which the utter poverty and famished nature of the Irish under the British rule are made clear. Swift begins by pointing out the excessive number of children that beggar-women in Ireland have, and then deploring how the parents are unable to provide those babies with proper food, shelter, or other necessities. Initially, his proposal sounds as if he means to have the State take the children from such impoverished conditions and house, feed, and clothe them.

Swift then calculates the worth of the children of various ages, and their inability to contribute to the general welfare until they are at least six, and at this point, the reader gets a queasy feeling - sending 6-year-olds out to steal to support their families? The cold statistics continue: 120,000 children of poor parents born each year, unable to till the land or even steal until they are at least 6 years old, and they generally cannot even be sold into slavery until they are at least 12. These computations, cold and objective, seem horrific enough, but then Swift springs his major surprise: such children should simply be eaten. He has been assured (by an American!) that suckling babes are delicious, wholesome, and nutritious - quite yummy! - no matter how they are prepared. Since at the age of one they are still being breast-fed, they don't really cause any expense for their food, and babes of that age need no expensive education, fancy houses, or other expensive care. When properly prepared, the nutrition they provide helps keep other Irish poor from starving, plus provides a luxury export product for English aristocrats, which in turn would reduce their ultimate drain on the country's resources while contributing to the financial bottom line. He even computes what price a baby would bring in the marketplace, and calculates the profits. What a clever plan!

What makes Swift's proposal so powerful is that it is clearly such a logical solution to the problem of famine and poverty in Ireland. Setting aside any vestige of humanity or convention, the prospect of reducing the overpopulated poor while simultaneously providing much needed protein to the diet of the poor seems almost reasonable. Swift carefully works out prices, net profits, and other facts and figures, and, in so doing, makes the reader consider his idea before remembering that eating babies is really a horror, not a solution.

At the time, in the first decades of the 18th century, Ireland suffered badly from English overlords who shared neither language, religion, nor heritage with those they ruled (Ireland in the early 18th century, 30 May 2011). The restrictions on the Irish were Draconian at best. They were not allowed their language, their Catholic religion, or even to keep the food they grew. Between the English landlords and the English Church tithes, virtually nothing the peasants produced stayed for them to eat. People literally starved and lived in wretched poverty. Swift powerfully makes the point that the only way the British could wring more from the wretched Irish is by treating them as less than slaves and as mere cattle - or suckling pigs. The impact of "A Modest Proposal" derives from the way it finishes the task almost completed by the British of stripping the Irish of every single thing they possess, including their humanity.

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