“A Modest Proposal” is a satirical essay written by the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift and published anonymously in 1729. The full name of the essay is “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick.”
The essay is a satire on the heartless attitudes of the Irish gentry toward the poor of the nation and suggests in a very straight-forward manner that the poor children of the country be sold to the rich landlords as food.
Swift outlines a well-thought out plan detailing every aspect of what he refers to as his “proposal” and how it would benefit both the parents of the children and the country at large. He suggests that the poor children be kept by their parents for the first year of their lives, during which time they are to be fattened up and then sold at the market to be butchered and eaten by the wealthy landlords.
The essay is thought to be an early example of early modern western satire and is included in college-level English courses for it’s usage of argumentative language.
In the opening paragraphs of the essay, the author calls to mind the image of poor women and children begging for scraps of food on the streets of Ireland. Neither the mothers nor their children are capable of working and must “employ all of their time” begging for food. The children eventually grow up to be thieves or, barring that, leave for England “to fight for the Pretender” (“the Pretender” here referring to James II of England who famously lost the throne in the Revolution of 1688).
The author appeals to the personage of England’s general feeling that the poor children are a bad reflection on the country and an addition to it’s list of grievances. He offers that anyone who could find a way to make these children into worthwhile, productive cogs in the societal machine would be doing the country a service. The author says that he has a solution or an “intention” that would go so far, not only as to remove the beggar children from the streets but also the children of families who have no admitted to themselves that they are too poor to support them yet.
The author reports that he has been considering the problem of Ireland’s overpopulation for many years and that the schemes and arguments of other scholars on the subject are not adequate. He details some calculations of his devising. A newborn infant, for instance, can be fully supported for it’s the first year on breast-milk and the easily obtained sum of only two shillings. It is after this first year that the “proposal” would go into effect: “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.”
Another advantage to this proposal is that it would trim down the number of abortions and infanticides in the country. He ventures that most women would agree to the proposal because it would help them avoid the shame of having an unwanted child.
The author fills out some statistics. The population of Ireland at the time was 1.5 million, with probably 200,000 women of age to bear children. Out of that number, only about 30,000 could reasonably be expected to bear the cost of maintaining a child. That leaves around 170,000 “breeders.” Of that number, about 50,000 will most likely lose their children or miscarry within the first year which still leaves 120,000 children born to parents who can not support them every single year. “The questions, therefore is, how this number shall be reared and provided for?”
The author says that with the country it in’s current state, proper care for these children is impossible. Until they are around six years old, they will not be able to steal to support themselves (although he confesses that they learn the rudimentary skills necessary to steal much younger). The author states that a child under the age of 12 is “no saleable commodity” and that even when they become old enough to be sold as a servant they do not, as children, fetch a high price.
In the second part of the essay, the author beings laying out the meat of his “proposal” that he hopes will not be “liable to the least objection.” He details that he has an American friend who has told him that a one-year-old child makes for “a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food; whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled.” His proposal, therefore, is that the extra 120,000 Irish children born into poverty every year should be dealt with as follows: 20,000 should be kept for breeding purposes, but only a quarter of those should be boys as with livestock, one male would be sufficient to serve four females. The other 100,000 should be fattened up and sold as a culinary delicacy. He then offers up several suggestions about what types of dishes could be prepared from the meat.
The author goes on to hammer in the specifics of the proposal. First, he talks about the proper price of the meat. One average, a newborn baby, weighs around twenty-eight pounds. Therefore, the meat should be fairly expensive. Those children should be given to the countries rich landlords who, the author notes,” have already devoured most of the parents anyway.”
He then speculates that the delicacy will be in season year-round, with perhaps a surge in the springtime. The cost of nursing for the children for the first year will only be two shillings, and the cost of the meat will be ten shillings so the profit would be eight shillings. The shillings would then go to the mother, and the landlord who buys the meat would not only have “four dishes of excellent, nutritive meats.” but would make their tenants happier.
Also, the leftover skin could be used for leather. The author never doubts that there would be plenty of butchers in Dublin willing to conduct the transactions. He then adds that a friend has proposed a “refinement on my scheme.” The refinement being that since there has been a recent shortage of deer on the estates of some of Ireland’s most wealthy gentlemen, young teenage boys and girls could be butchered in place of venison. Especially as these young people are finding it so difficult to find employment.
However, the author has some resistance to this idea, as “their flesh was touch and lean…and their taste disagreeable.” He also hesitates that “some scrupulous people might be apt to censure such a practice (although indeed very unjustly) as a little bordering on cruelty.”
The author supports this proposal with some facts about the native of Formosa and their cannibalistic tendencies. He adds that he is aware that there is concern about the elderly, sick and handicapped among the poor population but that these are dying off quickly enough on their own and do not need to be included in the proposal. The author goes on to assert that the proposal will reduce the number of Catholics in the country, as the majority of the poor population are Catholic. The author says that the Catholics are enemies of the nation and accuses them of underhanded political activity, contrasting them with the many Protestants who have left the country so that the would not have to “pay tithes against their conscience.”
After the proposal is put into effect, the poor tenants will also be able to finally pay their debts to their landlords who will be good for the economy. The former liability of the poor children will instead be turned into a boon for the economy and the national product of a new dish. This new food will improve the business of the local taverns. And the proposal will increase the rate of marriage in the country and create more love for the children from their mothers. It will also most likely create a healthy competition between parents for who can bring the healthiest child to the market.
Another advantage is that it will lessen the consumption of beef in the country, thereby increasing the exportation of it and raising the standards for other meats as they “are in no way comparable in taste, or magnificence, to a well-grown fat yearling child.”
The author supposes that around one-fifth of the children will be eaten in London and the rest of Ireland.
In the final section of the essay, the author agrees that there will be some objections to this proposal and that he anticipates it. But he reminds the reader that the reduction of the poor population is the main goal of the plan and that it is specifically calculated for Ireland and is not meant to apply to anywhere.
He offers up the suggestions the other minds have proposed for solving the problem like reforming the morality of Irish women, taxing absentee landowners and buying only domestically manufactured goods and asserts that they are unrealistic and naïve. He talks about his excitement after stumbling upon this perfect solution after years of studying the problem. He is also pleased to note that this solution will not anger England since the meat will be so tender that it would not survive the exportation process and hints that England might “eat up our whole nation” and not just the babies.
As a conclusion, the author insists that he is not unwilling to hear alternative ideas that may be proposed as long as they are “equally innocent, cheap, easy and effectual.” They should also address all of the issues that his proposal did, namely how 100,000 “useless mouths and backs” are supposed to be fed and clothed and how to handle extreme poverty of the majority of the Irish people, whose suffering is so great that they would “think it a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old.”
The author asserts that he only has the public good in mind in proposing this and that it will advance trade, provide for infants, relieve the poor and give some happiness to the rich. For himself, he is not interested, since his youngest child is already nine years old and therefore too old to earn any money by.
Jonathan Swift Biography
Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin, Ireland on November 30th, 1667. The son of a lawyer, Swift’s mother returned to England with her young daughter after her husband died shortly before Jonathan was born.
Swifts mother left him with his uncle, Godwin, a rich man in Dublin and friend of Sir John Temple an influential Irish lawyer.
Godwin took over the primary custody of Swift and eventually sent him to Kilkenny College and Dublin University in 1682. Swift received a B. A four years later and was studying to obtain his Master’s degree when the political troubles surrounding the Irish Glorious Revolution began. Swift was forced to leave Ireland and go to his mother in England where he began working as a secretary for Sir William Temple, an English diplomat.
Swift made a positive impression on Temple and was quickly trusted with matters of state and introduced to many influential people of the time, including then King William III. While working for Temple, Swift began experiencing spells of vertigo and illness that he suffered from for the rest of his life and has since been diagnosed by historians as Meniere’s Disease. Swift briefly left Temple’s employ and became a priest in the Church of Ireland but later returned to Temple after being jilted by a possible bride.
In 1691, Swift published his first poem, “Ode to the Athenian Society” in The Athenian Mercury supplement. After Temple’s death in 1699, Swift began working as the prebend of Dunlavin in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. Swift managed a small congregation outside of Dublin, and it was after the year 1700 that he began publishing small pamphlets.
In 1702, Swift received his Doctorate of Divinity and became more and more politically active as he began publishing pamphlets such as, “A Meditation Upon A Broomstick” (1703), “The Conduct of the Allies”(1711) and “A Modest Proposal” (1729). Swift began receiving more recognition for his work and became part of the inner circle of the Tory government.
During his lifetime, Swift also published many novels including his first “A Tale of a Tub” in 1704 and his most famous work, “Gulliver’s Travels” in 1726.
Swift died on October 19th, 1745 at the age of 78. Having never married, most of his fortune was donated to a hospital for the mentally ill called St. Patrick’s which still exists today.
Book reports from Jonathan Swift