Gourmets aren't the only ones offended by Jonathan Swift's savagely satiric "A Modest Proposal." Swift also pokes fun at Great Britain's sizable population of anti-Catholics, usurious landlords and, surely surprised to find themselves in such company, anti-Americans. He finishes off with jabs at economists who measure humanity in terms of profit, to humanity's loss.
English Anti-Irish Prejudice
The most obvious prejudice Swift condemns is anti-Irish sentiment, the pervading British nationalism whose policies trapped the Irish in poverty. In the late 1720s, famine was rampant. English landlords, however, did not relinquish their high rents, and many families fell to beggary. Swift's horrific pamphlet satirically suggests the eating of Irish children at a year old, "very good boiled on the fourth day." He specifies human flesh as "very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have best title to the children."
Another prejudice that Swift backhandedly dismembers is the anti-Catholic sentiment in England, which pervaded the country ever since Henry VIII's act of secession from the church. Haters of Catholicism get a Swift roasting as he reckons that babies "born in Roman Catholic countries" will be more plentiful after Lent. "Popish infants," he remarks, stand "at least three to one in this country;" his plan to cannibalize them has the "collateral advantage of lessening the number of papists among us." Swift foresees, and satirizes, eugenic principles which were to emerge under Hitler.
Another prejudice Swift attacks is that of ersatz economists. Swift himself had published pamphlets about the valid economics involved in caring for the poor and had great disdain for proposals that sold beggars into slavery or sent them to overcrowded prisons. Pseudo-reformers come in for a shellacking as Swift's persona adopts their cruel tone and merciless mathematics: "I have already computed the charge of nursing a child at two shillings, rags included," he says coldly, adding that "no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good, fat child."
Swift cannot resist a dig at the Euro-centric anti-American prejudices that persist even today. When introducing his plan for human flesh consumption, he remarks, "I am assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance ... a young, healthy child well nursed is ... a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food." America-baiting cannot get much worse than accusing Americans of knowledgeable cannibalism; fortunately Swift, here and elsewhere, is not in earnest.
- The Victorian Web: A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland, from Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for making Them Beneficial to the Publick
- Kansas State University: Conditions in Early Eighteenth Century Ireland
- Adam.com: Eugenics and the Development of Nazi Race Policy
- San Francisco University: Jonathan Swift, Father of Supply-Side Economics?
- PewResearch Global Attitudes Project: Anti-Americanism Down in Europe, but a Values Gap Persists
Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.