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Historical Context in A Modest Proposal

By the time “A Modest Proposal” was published in 1729, Ireland had been under English rule for over 500 years. In the early 1600s, the English crown tasked a small Protestant aristocracy with governing a largely Catholic population. Extant poverty was exacerbated by trade restrictions imposed by England. Ireland was a desperately poor and dangerously overpopulated country, kept poor and weak by English rule. Swift was a member of the Anglo-Irish ruling class and therefore had allegiances to both England and Ireland. In the 1720s, Swift became politically involved in Irish causes, specifically England’s exploitation of Ireland and religious suppression. “A Modest Proposal” was written in response to worsening economic conditions in Ireland and Swift’s perception of the passivity of the Irish people. Swift made multiple appeals and proposals to Irish Parliament to tax landlords, fund Irish industry, and adopt modern agricultural techniques, but he was consistently ignored. His “Modest Proposal” was a frustrated parody of these serious proposals to chastise the ineffectual Irish government, apathetic Irish people, and exploitative English rule.

Historical Context Examples in A Modest Proposal:

A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift

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"Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients..."   (A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift)

Swift hated the English exploitation of his native country and began writing essays in support of Ireland in 1720, culminating in "A Modest Proposal" in 1729. While he sometimes argued that the Irish were also partially to blame for Ireland's problems, he believed that the English were responsible for essentially destroying Ireland's economy and culture.

"Popish..."   (A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift)

Swift uses this term, along with papist later to disparagingly refer to Roman Catholics. In the satirical character of his narrator, Swift uses these terms to appeal to anti-Catholic sentiment in London and illustrate attitudes towards Irish Catholics at the time.

"the Pretender..."   (A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift)

At the time of this essay's publication, Ireland was under the control of Great Britain, a Protestant nation whose main rivals were Spain and France. Swift's early reference to the Pretender—James Francis Edward, the exiled Prince of Wales and a Catholic who claimed the throne—sets some of the foundation for his proposal's support by using the threat of Irish Catholics defecting to further establish the dire conditions.

"they have already devoured..."   (A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift)

Having written so much about Irish poverty in other essays, Swift deliberately drops some of the objectivity of the projector and breaks character in this passage. Through the use of this metaphor, deliberately chosen to parallel his proposal, he specifically blames the wealthy landlords and the English for abusing the lower classes and creating the poverty that the Irish poor are suffering from.

"having of late destroyed their deer..."   (A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift)

In addition to blaming England for the conditions in Ireland, Swift continues to target the Irish gentry as being equally at fault for destroying many of the land's natural resources. Note how he crafts this subtle accusation into support for his proposal.

"the famous Salmanaazor..."   (A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift)

In an attempt to add credibility to his friend’s claim, Swift recalls a conversation with Salmanaazor—Swift’s pseudonym for the historical person George Psalmanazar, a Frenchman who impersonated a Formosan (Taiwanese) and wrote a completely fictitious and gruesome account on the culture of Formosa. By the time Swift published A Modest Proposal, Psalmanazar had confessed to the fraud. Incorporating “Salmanaazor” into his essay as an authority figure further highlights the irony and ridiculousness of his proposal.

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