A Modest Proposal by Dr. Jonathan Swift

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.

It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabbin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in stroling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants who, as they grow up, either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country, to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.

I think it is agreed by all parties, that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom, a very great additional grievance; and therefore whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the common-wealth, would deserve so well of the publick, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.

But my intention is very far from being confined to provide only for the children of professed beggars: it is of a much greater extent, and shall take in the whole number of infants at a certain age, who are born of parents in effect as little able to support them, as those who demand our charity in the streets.

As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for many years, upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the several schemes of our projectors, I have always found them grossly mistaken in their computation. It is true, a child just dropt from its dam, may be supported by her milk, for a solar year, with little other nourishment: at most not above the value of two shillings, which the mother may certainly get, or the value in scraps, by her lawful occupation of begging; and it is exactly at one year old that 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 cloathing of many thousands.

There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas! too frequent among us, sacrificing the poor innocent babes, I doubt, more to avoid the expence than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast.

The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couple whose wives are breeders; from which number I subtract thirty thousand couple, who are able to maintain their own children, (although I apprehend there cannot be so many, under the present distresses of the kingdom) but this being granted, there will remain an hundred and seventy thousand breeders. I again subtract fifty thousand, for those women who miscarry, or whose children die by accident or disease within the year. There only remain an hundred and twenty thousand children of poor parents annually born. The question therefore is, How this number shall be reared, and provided for? which, as I have already said, under the present situation of affairs, is utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto proposed. For we can neither employ them in handicraft or agriculture; we neither build houses, (I mean in the country) nor cultivate land: they can very seldom pick up a livelihood by stealing till they arrive at six years old; except where they are of towardly parts, although I confess they learn the rudiments much earlier; during which time they can however be properly looked upon only as probationers: As I have been informed by a principal gentleman in the county of Cavan, who protested to me, that he never knew above one or two instances under the age of six, even in a part of the kingdom so renowned for the quickest proficiency in that art.

I am assured by our merchants, that a boy or a girl before twelve years old, is no saleable commodity, and even when they come to this age, they will not yield above three pounds, or three pounds and half a crown at most, on the exchange; which cannot turn to account either to the parents or kingdom, the charge of nutriments and rags having been at least four times that value.

I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.

I do therefore humbly offer it to publick consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine, and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore, one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune, through the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

I have reckoned upon a medium, that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, encreaseth to 28 pounds.

I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.

Infant's flesh will be in season throughout the year, but more plentiful in March, and a little before and after; for we are told by a grave author, an eminent French physician, that fish being a prolifick dyet, there are more children born in Roman Catholick countries about nine months after Lent, the markets will be more glutted than usual, because the number of Popish infants, is at least three to one in this kingdom, and therefore it will have one other collateral advantage, by lessening the number of Papists among us.

I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggar's child (in which list I reckon all cottagers, labourers, and four-fifths of the farmers) to be about two shillings per annum, rags included; and I believe no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat, when he hath only some particular friend, or his own family to dine with him. Thus the squire will learn to be a good landlord, and grow popular among his tenants, the mother will have eight shillings neat profit, and be fit for work till she produces another child.

Those who are more thrifty (as I must confess the times require) may flea the carcass; the skin of which, artificially dressed, will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen.

As to our City of Dublin, shambles may be appointed for this purpose, in the most convenient parts of it, and butchers we may be assured will not be wanting; although I rather recommend buying the children alive, and dressing them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs.

A very worthy person, a true lover of his country, and whose virtues I highly esteem, was lately pleased, in discoursing on this matter, to offer a refinement upon my scheme. He said, that many gentlemen of this kingdom, having of late destroyed their deer, he conceived that the want of venison might be well supply'd by the bodies of young lads and maidens, not exceeding fourteen years of age, nor under twelve; so great a number of both sexes in every country being now ready to starve for want of work and service: And these to be disposed of by their parents if alive, or otherwise by their nearest relations. But with due deference to so excellent a friend, and so deserving a patriot, I cannot be altogether in his sentiments; for as to the males, my American acquaintance assured me from frequent experience, that their flesh was generally tough and lean, like that of our school-boys, by continual exercise, and their taste disagreeable, and to fatten them would not answer the charge. Then as to the females, it would, I think, with humble submission, be a loss to the publick, because they soon would become breeders themselves: And besides, it is not improbable that some scrupulous people might be apt to censure such a practice, (although indeed very unjustly) as a little bordering upon cruelty, which, I confess, hath always been with me the strongest objection against any project, how well soever intended.

But in order to justify my friend, he confessed, that this expedient was put into his head by the famous Salmanaazor, a native of the island Formosa, who came from thence to London, above twenty years ago, and in conversation told my friend, that in his country, when any young person happened to be put to death, the executioner sold the carcass to persons of quality, as a prime dainty; and that, in his time, the body of a plump girl of fifteen, who was crucified for an attempt to poison the Emperor, was sold to his imperial majesty's prime minister of state, and other great mandarins of the court in joints from the gibbet, at four hundred crowns. Neither indeed can I deny, that if the same use were made of several plump young girls in this town, who without one single groat to their fortunes, cannot stir abroad without a chair, and appear at a play-house and assemblies in foreign fineries which they never will pay for; the kingdom would not be the worse.

Some persons of a desponding spirit are in great concern about that vast number of poor people, who are aged, diseased, or maimed; and I have been desired to employ my thoughts what course may be taken, to ease the nation of so grievous an incumbrance. But I am not in the least pain upon that matter, because it is very well known, that they are every day dying, and rotting, by cold and famine, and filth, and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected. And as to the young labourers, they are now in almost as hopeful a condition. They cannot get work, and consequently pine away from want of nourishment, to a degree, that if at any time they are accidentally hired to common labour, they have not strength to perform it, and thus the country and themselves are happily delivered from the evils to come.

I have too long digressed, and therefore shall return to my subject. I think the advantages by the proposal which I have made are obvious and many, as well as of the highest importance.

For first, as I have already observed, it would greatly lessen the number of Papists, with whom we are yearly over-run, being the principal breeders of the nation, as well as our most dangerous enemies, and who stay at home on purpose with a design to deliver the kingdom to the Pretender, hoping to take their advantage by the absence of so many good Protestants, who have chosen rather to leave their country, than stay at home and pay tithes against their conscience to an episcopal curate.

Secondly, The poorer tenants will have something valuable of their own, which by law may be made liable to a distress, and help to pay their landlord's rent, their corn and cattle being already seized, and money a thing unknown.

Thirdly, Whereas the maintainance of an hundred thousand children, from two years old, and upwards, cannot be computed at less than ten shillings a piece per annum, the nation's stock will be thereby encreased fifty thousand pounds per annum, besides the profit of a new dish, introduced to the tables of all gentlemen of fortune in the kingdom, who have any refinement in taste. And the money will circulate among our selves, the goods being entirely of our own growth and manufacture.

Fourthly, The constant breeders, besides the gain of eight shillings sterling per annum by the sale of their children, will be rid of the charge of maintaining them after the first year.

Fifthly, This food would likewise bring great custom to taverns, where the vintners will certainly be so prudent as to procure the best receipts for dressing it to perfection; and consequently have their houses frequented by all the fine gentlemen, who justly value themselves upon their knowledge in good eating; and a skilful cook, who understands how to oblige his guests, will contrive to make it as expensive as they please.

Sixthly, This would be a great inducement to marriage, which all wise nations have either encouraged by rewards, or enforced by laws and penalties. It would encrease the care and tenderness of mothers towards their children, when they were sure of a settlement for life to the poor babes, provided in some sort by the publick, to their annual profit instead of expence. We should soon see an honest emulation among the married women, which of them could bring the fattest child to the market. Men would become as fond of their wives, during the time of their pregnancy, as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, or sow when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage.

Many other advantages might be enumerated. For instance, the addition of some thousand carcasses in our exportation of barrel'd beef: the propagation of swine's flesh, and improvement in the art of making good bacon, so much wanted among us by the great destruction of pigs, too frequent at our tables; which are no way comparable in taste or magnificence to a well grown, fat yearly child, which roasted whole will make a considerable figure at a Lord Mayor's feast, or any other publick entertainment. But this, and many others, I omit, being studious of brevity.

Supposing that one thousand families in this city, would be constant customers for infants flesh, besides others who might have it at merry meetings, particularly at weddings and christenings, I compute that Dublin would take off annually about twenty thousand carcasses; and the rest of the kingdom (where probably they will be sold somewhat cheaper) the remaining eighty thousand.

I can think of no one objection, that will possibly be raised against this proposal, unless it should be urged, that the number of people will be thereby much lessened in the kingdom. This I freely own, and 'twas indeed one principal design in offering it to the world. I desire the reader will observe, that I calculate my remedy for this one individual Kingdom of Ireland, and for no other that ever was, is, or, I think, ever can be upon Earth. Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: Of using neither cloaths, nor houshold furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance: Of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken: Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.

Therefore I repeat, let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, 'till he hath at least some glympse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.

But, as to my self, having been wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of success, I fortunately fell upon this proposal, which, as it is wholly new, so it hath something solid and real, of no expence and little trouble, full in our own power, and whereby we can incur no danger in disobliging England. For this kind of commodity will not bear exportation, and flesh being of too tender a consistence, to admit a long continuance in salt, although perhaps I could name a country, which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it.

After all, I am not so violently bent upon my own opinion, as to reject any offer, proposed by wise men, which shall be found equally innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual. But before something of that kind shall be advanced in contradiction to my scheme, and offering a better, I desire the author or authors will be pleased maturely to consider two points. First, As things now stand, how they will be able to find food and raiment for a hundred thousand useless mouths and backs. And secondly, There being a round million of creatures in humane figure throughout this kingdom, whose whole subsistence put into a common stock, would leave them in debt two million of pounds sterling, adding those who are beggars by profession, to the bulk of farmers, cottagers and labourers, with their wives and children, who are beggars in effect; I desire those politicians who dislike my overture, and may perhaps be so bold to attempt an answer, that they will first ask the parents of these mortals, whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old, in the manner I prescribe, and thereby have avoided such a perpetual scene of misfortunes, as they have since gone through, by the oppression of landlords, the impossibility of paying rent without money or trade, the want of common sustenance, with neither house nor cloaths to cover them from the inclemencies of the weather, and the most inevitable prospect of intailing the like, or greater miseries, upon their breed for ever.

I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavouring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the publick good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children, by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.

Footnotes

  1. What is the point of Swift’s digression?

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. Why does Swift project such a cold and unfeeling attitude towards others?

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. Why does Swift believe that the poor need a financial incentive to marry?

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. Why has Swift reiterated that reducing the number of papists (Catholics) would be beneficial?

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. Once again the author is exaggerating the flawlessness of his argument, and is only considering the validity of his argument against "wise men" who are likely just pretentious, wealthy allies who share the same bias towards preserving the status quo.

    — Henry Huynh
  6. By exaggerating the utility of eating babies and the exact benefit and way of eating children, the author further points to the inadequacy of the wealthy's ability to address poverty in Ireland.

    — Henry Huynh
  7. Since Swift had to resort to creating this satirical essay to draw attention to Ireland's situation with such a barbaric solution, this line satirically indicates that he has little to no belief that any reasonable measures will be taken to help improve the situation.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. In the characteristic way of projectors, Swift presents these calculations as facts before asking his rhetorical question. Doing so allows him to appear thorough and methodical to readers, which is known as an appeal to logos, and helps build his case before he presents his thesis.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. The sixth point above and this line constitute Swift’s most subversive point regarding the moral and religious code in a Catholic country: marriage for the sake of raising children for food. This shocking incentive is further illustrated by proposing that children would also make an excellent food source at weddings and christenings. Considering that Swift himself was a Dean in the Church of England, we can see how far he is willing to push his satire in order to bring the Irish and the British to their senses.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  10. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  12. Swift is adding support for his proposal by pointing out that the since the landlords control the agriculture and livestock, the poor would now have a valuable commodity that could be taxed to help pay their landlord's rent.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  13. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  14. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  15. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  16. Why has Swift again referred his American acquaintance as an authority figure?

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  17. Swift sets up his argument's stakes; that is, the reasons why his argument matters. Since he has already established the problem and made appeals to his readers, these stakes describe the breadth of his forthcoming proposal and provide an outline of how his proposal will benefit the Irish public.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  18. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  19. Notice how Swift constructs his claim in this sentence. Instead of simply stating that eating children would solve poverty, he heavily implies his thesis statement by recommending a gross list of cooking suggestions. He also tries to anticipate objection by suggesting that Americans, not being as refined as the English, would already have experience with children as a food product, therefore making his claim more reasonable.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  20. Notice here that having made an appeal to pathos and the sympathy of the readers, Swift moves on to supporting his argument through effective reasoning and logical progression. This is his appeal to logos in which he attempts to rationalize his argument with logical supporting evidence.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  21. Swift's final portrayal of his projector shows readers how he has no financial stakes in his own proposal, and that he is offering it out of his altruistic love for the country. As a conclusion, ending with an appeal to ethos would normally help enhance a rhetorical essay; however, given the subject matter, it is doubtful how effective this appeal is at this point.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  22. In an effort to improve his argument, Swift utilizes another rhetorical strategy by appealing to an authority to add credibility to his plan. This is an ethos appeal. Despite the satirical nature of the essay, Swift is following all of the standard conventions to make his essay as persuasive as possible.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  23. Prior to proposing his solution, Swift does two things with this line. As the projector, he is sincerely hoping no one will object to his proposal. However, Swift is also clearly being ironic, because he knows that everyone will object. Perhaps the most powerfully ironic aspect of this essay is how this proposal is anything but modest.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  24. As the projector, Swift take the moral high ground in this paragraph. In an effort to improve his credibility and the strength of his forthcoming proposal, he claims his scheme will solve the issue of abortion in Catholic Ireland. He not only continues to appeal to the readers and raise the stakes of his argument, but he is also trying to convince them that he's acting solely out of his concern with doing helping Ireland.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  25. While Swift still hasn’t stated his main claim regarding poverty in Ireland, this metaphor foreshadows what he eventually proposes by comparing children and their mothers to domesticated animals and consequently devaluing the lives of the poor. Note how he refers to mothers of children as breeders later on.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  26. For Swift's satire to work, he creates the persona of a projector (an objective, disinterested scientist) who seeks to solve problems regardless of politics or private interests. In doing so, he is simultaneously satirizing projectors by showing how their solutions are out of touch and, often, morally repulsive.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  27. Swift begins his satirical essay by presenting the horrible conditions of the poor in Ireland in an effort to generate sympathy or pity—a rhetorical device known as an appeal to pathos. However, the sympathy he establishes at the beginning with the audience quickly disappears after a few paragraphs once his claim is introduced.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  28. The "projector" here is taking the moral high ground.  Using children as a food source will encourage women not to abort their children, thereby avoiding the moral problems of abortion in a Catholic country.  Swift's projector, after all, is only concerned with doing what is right for Ireland.

    — Stephen Holliday