The Jonathan Swift You Don’t Know
This is the story of how Jonathan Swift–Anglican priest, author of Gulliver’s Travels, “A Modest Proposal,” and the best-selling book in England (next to the Bible) between 1700 and 1750–A Tale of a Tub–thwarted a plan to impoverish and economically enslave Ireland and helped create the modern Irish nationalist movement.
In 1720, one of my intellectual and moral heroes, Jonathan Swift, wrote a pamphlet advising the Irish to purchase goods manufactured in Ireland from Irish merchants. He believed it was the way to a kind of economic independence from England that could lead to self-rule in Ireland with only a pledge of loyalty to the King. This seems a mild and even quaint notion that we see on bumper stickers even now—“Buy American”—or less charitably—bumper stickers and slogans that suggest purchasing foreign-made products is a litmus test for patriotism at best and failure to do so is treasonous at worst. This pamphlet outraged the English who could not get to the “anonymous” writer—though everyone knew it was Swift—and so settled for getting a corrupt judge, one William Whitshed, to go after the printer. Whitshed sent the jury out 11 times trying to force a guilty verdict but the jury refused to deliver one.
It is against this backdrop that a certain William Wood, a hardware manufacturer, received a patent in 1722 to produce copper coinage of £ 108,000—over £ 15 million or 24 million dollars in today’s currency to be used in Ireland. He received this patent by bribing the Duchess of Kendal 10,000 pounds—approximately £ 1.4 million or 2.2 million dollars in today’s currency. She was the mistress of King George I so there was tacit royal approval and perhaps encouragement.
Swift saw that the practical effect of flooding Ireland with these copper coins would be that the Irish would give up their gold and silver and become economic slaves to the English. The Irish wanted to have their own national bank and they wanted to mint their own coins. In 1724 and 25 Swift wrote 7 “anonymous letters” in the character of a “Drapier”–a simple Irish merchant who loves God and country. It was well known who the “Drapier” was but even by offering a reward in the staggering sum of 300 pounds (42,000 pounds or $66,000 in today’s currency) in a poor country the English power brokers were unable to find anyone to say that Swift was the author.
Swift’s political enemy, the Prime Minister Horace Walpole, became involved when the author of the Drapier’s Letters, particularly the 3rd and 4th ones, was accused of treason for arguing that the “Irish deserve independence from England but not from the king,” and that the Irish should have self-governance, their own national bank, etc. (The claims of treason were framed as “treason to the English Parliament.”) It is universally recognized that the Drapier’s Letters were the central force in defeating this proposal and sticking Wood with copper coinage that could not be used in Ireland.
Swift was justly recognized as a hero and through the persona of the Drapier, many critics have claimed that he was the first to organize a “more universal Irish community” in its modern sense—although we can debate exactly who constitutes that community.
In 1731 Swift, in the manner of many poets and writers, wrote his “death poem” though he would live until 1745. In the late 1730s Swift was afflicted with Meniere’s Disease, an affliction of the inner ear which results in vertigo, severe vomiting, and a constant ringing in the ears. In his death poem he addresses the “Drapier” episode and gives his vision of what satire should do. Some of the names referred to, Scroggs and Tressilian—are famously corrupt judges. Swift himself is the “Dean.”
“The Dean did by his pen defeat
An infamous destructive cheat.
Taught Fools their Int’rest how to know;
And gave them arms to ward the Blow.
Envy hath own’d it was his doing,
To save that helpless land from Ruin,
While they who at the Steerage stood,
And reapt the Profit, sought his blood.
To save them from their evil Fate,
In him was held a Crime of State.
A wicked monster on the Bench,
Whose Fury Blood could never quench;
As vile and profligate a Villain,
As modern Scroggs, or old Tressilian;
Who long all Justice had discarded,
Nor fear’d he GOD, nor Man regarded;
Vow’d on the Dean his Rage to vent,
And make him in his Zeal repent;
But Heav’n his Innocence defends,
The grateful People stand his friends;
Not Strains of Law, nor Judges Frown,
Nor Topicks brought to please the Crown,
Nor Witness hir’d, nor Jury pick’d,
Prevail to bring him in convict.
Perhaps I may allow, the Dean
Had too much Satyr in his Vein;
And seem’d determin’d not to starve it,
Because no Age could more deserve it.
Yet, Malice never was his Aim;
He lash’d the Vice but spar’d the Name.
No individual could resent,
Where Thousands equally were meant.
His Satyr points at no Defect,
But what all Mortals may correct:
For he abhorr’d that senseless Tribe,
Who call it Humor when they jibe:
He spar’d a Hump or crooked Nose,
Whose Owners set not up for Beaux.
True genuine Dulness mov’d his Pity,
Unless it offer’d to be witty.
Those, who their Ignorance confess’d,
He ne’er offended with a Jest;
But laugh’d to hear an Idiot quote,
A Verse from Horace, learn’d by Rote.
He knew an hundred pleasant Stories,
With all the turns of Whigs and Tories:
Was cheerful to his dying Day,
And Friends would let him have his Way.
He gave the little Wealth he had,
To build a House for Fools and Mad:
And shew’d by one satiric Touch,
No Nation wanted [needed] it so much:
That Kingdom [Ireland] he hath left his Debtor,
I wish it soon may have a Better.”