Swift, Locke & Slavery

by Prof. Ian McBride (Hertford College, Oxford)

Many critics regard Swift’s A Modest Proposal (1729) as the most brilliant piece of satirical writing in the English language. It is certainly the most notorious. Twice as many people search for it on Wikipedia as for Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651), John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689) or Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). It has shaped the fiction of Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells and Evelyn Waugh. Both Hunter S. Thompson (‘Fear and Loathing in America’) and Philip Roth (‘On Our Gang’) recalled Swift’s tract when they condemned American military action in Vietnam. Margaret Atwood framed The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) with an epigraph from it. The title of the pamphlet and the shock tactics it employs are repeatedly invoked by denouncers of the global inequalities that underpin our prosperity in the West.

Even for those with twenty-first century sensibilities, A Modest Proposal makes very uncomfortable reading. Its genius is not simply the perverse simplicity of its central message, that the only way for the indigent Irish to escape poverty is by fattening up their babies and selling them to the butcher. What really keeps us queasy is the sustained interplay between the sobriety of the proposer and the lurid violence of Swift’s imagination. Here is the mild-mannered proposer considering the spin-off benefits of systematic cannibalism for conjugal relations:

It would increase the Care and Tenderness of Mothers towards their Children, … 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 Sows when they are ready to farrow, nor offer to beat or kick them (as is too frequent a Practice) for fear of a Miscarriage.

In A Modest Proposal Swift imagines the children of the poor served up on the tables of Irish landlords, ‘Stewed, Roasted, Baked, or Boyled’, and it is the landlord class – descendants of English settlers – who sit down to feast on human flesh. As others have noted, the satirical force of the pamphlet relies partly on the fact that the English had long attributed cannibalism to the ancient Irish, and to their putative ancestors the Scythians. By subverting the stereotype, Swift challenges the assumptions concerning English civility and Irish barbarity that underpinned five centuries of colonisation. But the black humour of A Modest Proposal is not confined to cannibalism, as my article in the current Past & Present (#244) tries to show.

A Modest Proposal 1729 Cover

Jonathan Swift [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

To understand more fully why A Modest Proposal is structured as it is we must recognise that Ireland during the 1720s was a society in which livestock was regarded as more precious than human beings. It was a society where tenants and labourers were expelled from estates because ‘Gentlemen chuse to stock their Lands with Beasts rather than Men’.1 The natural relationship between human beings and animals had been reversed: this was a familiar them of Irish economic writing at time when the shift from tillage to pastoral farming was widely deplored. The depopulation of estates by stock-masters or graziers was an obsession of reformers. It was widely believed to be the cause of the contemporary social problem for which A Modest Proposal offers its sickening solution – the droves of begging women who infested the streets of Dublin with their ragged children. As my Past & Present article argues, the promotion of tillage was a patriotic shibboleth, and a consistent preoccupation in Swift’s writings of the 1720s. Tillage was seen as a defining feature of the civilising of Ireland; it was the subject of urgent debate and parliamentary legislation at the very moment when Swift published his pamphlet. Swift’s message is not simply that Irish landlords are the kind of people who eat babies. They are the kind of people who kick human beings off their estates because cattle and sheep have become more profitable than cultivating the earth. The proposer’s clinical description of cannibal economics is meant to remind us that landlords are immune to all the conventional Christian and philanthropic arguments for treating their tenants properly. Only the most brutal economic logic is capable of moving them. Like the husbands who grow fonder of their pregnant wives, Irish landlords will come to treasure their tenants just as much as they cherish their cattle, their sheep and their pigs, provided, of course, they are ‘constant Breeders’.

Earlier this summer Holly Brewer asked me if the slave trade might be a sub-textual target in A Modest Proposal. I ruefully admitted that I had cut a passage on slavery from an earlier and even longer draft. Professor Brewer is the author of an important article on John Locke and slavery, published in the American Historical Review in 2017. In the United States John Locke is still regarded as a foundational figure, more so than in England itself. To rethink Locke is to interrogate liberalism, the enlightenment and the American way of life. The AHR article rebalances our understanding of Locke’s position on American slavery at a time when the author of the Two Treatises of Government is routinely denounced for his complicity in the slave policies of the early British empire. Professor Brewer announces the discovery – or rather the convincing authentication – of a forty-page plan for legal reform in Virginia, in which Locke condemns the headright system by which landowners were granted fifty acres for each slave or indentured servant they imported. Other historians and political theorists have presented liberalism as congenitally connected with slavery and colonialism. But Professor Brewer contends that it was rather the principle of hereditary right that supplied the ideological underpinning for the institutionalisation of colonial slavery – the same principle that provided the core of Stuart absolutism and the target of Locke’s Two Treatises. It is the Stuarts rather than their whig opponents who emerge as the architects of slavery. And the real turning-point, as Professor Brewer confirms, was the accession of Queen Anne, who fought to seize the asiento, the contract to supply Spanish America with African slaves, previously licensed to the Dutch and the French. The lucrative monopoly over the ‘African trade’ was surrendered to the British as part of the Treaty of Utrecht. In 1712 Anne’s chief minister, Robert Harley, steered the terms through parliament and was made director of the South Sea Company, to which the asiento contract was awarded. The public defence of the Tory party’s policy was left to Harley’s director of propaganda, Jonathan Swift, an Irish clergyman who had established himself as the most famous writer in literary London.

If Swift thought much about the asiento he didn’t record his views in either his published or private writings. He had many opportunities to do so. He worked fitfully on his own history of the peace negotiations, An Enquiry into the Behaviour of the Queen’s Last Ministry, between 1715 and 1720, but mentioned the asiento only in passing, and the context was a characteristic sideswipe at Britain’s loathsome allies, the Dutch. Although Lemuel Gulliver had been employed as a ship’s surgeon for six years, on voyages to ‘the East and West-Indies’, and although Gulliver’s Travels is an attack on European political life, including its warmongering and its colonial enterprises, it is striking that the ‘African trade’ is also absent from Swift’s most celebrated work. One specialist on the literature of the Augustan era has nevertheless argued that A Modest Proposal was a belated condemnation of the role of the British in transatlantic slavery, including that of the author himself. In ‘Swift, A Modest Proposal, and Slavery’ (2001), John Richardson put forward the view that Swift’s ironic masterpiece was rooted in ‘the linguistic habits and mental attitudes of a slaving society’. The commodification of human beings was Swift’s subject, after all, and the obvious source for the ‘rhetoric of human calculation’ that still repels us was the market for enslaved Africans.2

Locke, John. Essay on Civil Government. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Via WikiCommons

Sadly, I have found no significant evidence that A Modest Proposal was shaped by the ‘culture of enslavement’ accelerated by the asiento. Leaving Swift aside, I can only think of two moments when the brutal realities of the slave trade intruded into public discussion of Irish affairs, and both predate the Treaty of Utrecht. I quoted the first example in my article: William Petty’s suggestion in Political Arithmetick (1691), that the economic value of Irishmen be assessed ‘as Slaves and Negroes are usually rated’ with men at £25 and children at £5 each.3 The second occurs in a pamphlet written by one of Robert Molesworth’s Irish circle, and it borrows directly from Political Arithmetick. I will quote the relevant passage here because it has been overlooked by historians. The anonymous author of The True Way to Render Ireland Happy and Secure (1697) was an advocate for the policy of encouraging Huguenot refugees to settle in Ireland. Many would bring savings with them, he felt, but even the poor were assets:

People are Wealth, and they have rates set upon them; The value of people in England, one with another, some have computed to be Seven pounds a Head: In Ireland I account the value of such Protestant People as the French are (for I do make a Difference) to be much greater; because in Ireland you are not only to value them as people who Improve the Country, but as Souldiers likewise who are to secure you and your Interest. You may therefore (and ’twill be but an ordinary Civility so to do) set as great a rate on them, as we usually do on Slaves and Negro’s viz. 15 l. one with another: Men being sold for 25 l. and Children at 5 l. each the mean rate is 15 l. I should be very sorry to meet with Protestants, who wou’d not allow this Computation in Ireland, where the Country wants good Inhabitants to Improve it, and Men to plant Civility and Religion.4

The ‘rhetoric of human calculation’ adds to the unpleasantness of this passage, but this rhetoric has an independent genealogy in the association between colonial projects in Ireland and the development of political economy. Petty pioneered the analysis of Irish poverty ‘in Terms of Number, Weight, or Measure’. Irish political economy flourished in the late 1720s with treatises by David Bindon, Arthur Dobbs, Sir John Browne, soon to be joined by Samuel Madden and Bishop Berkeley. There are good reasons to situate the gruesome advocacy of commercialised cannibalism within its immediate Irish context: the close connections between A Modest Proposal and Swift’s other ‘famine’ writings of 1728-29, in which landlords, or tenants, or both are castigated; the public preoccupation with beggars in Dublin; the proposer’s reference to the previous schemes put forward by ‘other Projectors’ and the list of conventional reform measures that supplies the climax of the work; the proposer’s jibe about Ulster emigration to colonial America (another subject of debate in 1729, once more linked to the predatory character of Irish landlords). Here, for example, is the proposer, as he begins to outline his solution to the Irish crisis:

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 Couples, 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 dye by accident, or disease within the Year. There only remain an hundred and twenty thousand Children of poor Parents annually born…

And now compare a passage from Arthur Dobbs, whose Essay on the Trade and Improvement of Ireland (1729?) was perhaps the most ambitious statement of Irish political arithmetic. Working methodically from the hearth money returns, Dobbs estimated the population of Ireland to be 1,669,644. He then contemplated the disappointing increase since the 1695, when he believed there were already 1,400,000 inhabitants in Ireland:

We may reasonably suppose 500000 of these Females, the War having destroy’d fewer of these than of the other sex; 240000 of these above 14 and under 46, of an Age capable to bear Children. Suppose 40000 of these Barren, there would then have been 200000 breeding Women in the Kingdom; each of these might have a Child once in two Years, so the Births each Year might be 100000: I will add this to the first Number, because many Die in the first Year of their Age…

Dobbs also attempted a systematic comparison of the benefits to the kingdom from pasture and ‘agriculture’ – that is, tillage. Since the latter was labour-intensive, land under cultivation provided employment for twenty times the number of families as land turned to pasture.5 To reverse the trend towards grazing would put the Irish poor to work and also increase the grain supply, thus solving the problems of vagrancy and beggary in Dublin – or so, at least, Swift believed. But Dobbs also wanted to show that tillage was preferable for purely economic as well as philanthropic reasons. This leads him to compute the costs of fattening up cattle, sheep and pigs. An ox, for example, will require eight acres of grass and hay ‘to feed him till he is of Age ready for Slaughter, and his Dam whilst he is a Calf’.6 When the proposer estimates the price of a one-year-old infant – ‘Ten Shillings for the Carcass of a good fat Child’ – it is of a piece with the general parody offered by Swift of the quantitative method favoured by agricultural ‘projectors’.

The organising concept behind A Modest Proposal is not chattel slavery. It is not exactly cannibalism either: ‘savage’ peoples were said to feast upon the flesh of their captured enemies, after all, not the infants of their own communities. A Modest Proposal is more convincingly read as a macabre experiment in animal husbandry, hence the stipulation that of the 120,000 Irish children produced each year, ‘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’. To map onto Swift’s pamphlet a repudiation of the transatlantic slave trade, as Richardson suggests, requires more straining and stretching than he allows. And it is worth adding that the proposer himself briefly considers the possibility of trading boys and girls ‘on the Exchange’, but dismisses the idea on the grounds that a child is ‘no saleable Commodity’ until at least the age of twelve. Even then, an Irish adolescent would fetch only £3, he fears, so that enterprising parents would recover only a quarter of money invested in feeding and clothing their offspring.

Ultimately, Richardson’s assumption that Swift and his circle cannot have been unmoved by ‘what was probably the greatest atrocity of their day’ is a product of our own values rather than Swift’s. It is salutary to reflect that it is only during the last fifty years, and particularly since the 1980s, that the slave trade has been propelled to the centre of Anglo-American historiography. In the classic studies of Locke’s Two Treatises by Dunn (1969) and Ashcraft (1986), Locke’s purchase of shares in the Royal Africa Company is quite literally a footnote. For most of the twentieth century it was assumed that the primary relevance of Locke’s position on slavery – the question of whether human beings could be acquired as private property – was for controversies over the character of capitalist production and its legitimation. Scholarship on Locke was resolutely Eurocentric. Perhaps we should be less surprised, then, that in the early eighteenth century, the discussion of ‘slavery’ focused overwhelmingly on absolutism in France and other continental monarchies, a hellish condition from which it was claimed the English had uniquely escaped. The tireless warnings about the dangers of slavery were issued almost entirely without reference to the British vessels carrying slave cargoes to the West Indies and North America.

Crest of the Royal African Society, via WikiCommons

Part of the horror of the trade in West Africans is the manifest fact that so few of Swift’s contemporaries were troubled by it. To this indifference almost anything would be morally preferable: to discover in our sources evidence of covert subversion, if not open rejection of the slave trade; to detect hints of evasion or bad faith or awareness that public discussion of slavery was taboo; or, conversely, to prove that the liberal values of the West were interpenetrated with racialized slavery right from the start. The latter idea – a version of the thesis that freedom for whites was purchased at the expense of bondage for African Americans – is repellent but at the same time has a seductive simplicity about it. It is an understandable overreaction to generations of European complacency and denial. But as Moses Finley might have observed, it is not so much a historical judgement as a political one.7

The view that transatlantic slavery weighed heavily on the consciences of Swift’s generation is incompatible with an examination of the sources, at least by conventional historical methods. In 1709 an anonymous pamphlet appeared in London entitled A Letter from a Merchant at Jamaica to a Member of Parliament in London, Touching the African Trade; To which is added, A Speech made by a BLACK of Guadeloupe at the Funeral of a Fellow-Negro. The author denounced transatlantic slavery as a violation of ‘the just Rights and Libertys of Mankind’.8 He railed against the cruelty and inhumanity of the hard system of forced labour and harsh punishments on the plantations, which he asserted were no longer tolerated by the rest of the Christian world. This remarkable tract anticipates many of the anti-slavery arguments of the later eighteenth century. But it is almost unique in the period between Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688) and Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748), and it sparked so little interest that no response was thought necessary. In contrast, there was a lively pamphlet debate on the position of the Royal African Company, considered from a purely economic point of view.9 Only after the Somerset Case of 1772 were slaveholders forced to articulate intuitions that had previously been unquestioned: that chattel slaves were actually better off on the plantations that in Africa, where arbitrary power and barbarism were inescapable; that Africans, ‘like any other goods or chattels’ were private property and deserving of the usual legal protection that was the boast of the British constitution; and above all that the idea of ‘an universal sameness in Human nature’ was a myth since Africans had ‘nothing of humanity about them but the form’.10

If Swift’s polemical writings are almost entirely silent about the practice of transatlantic slavery they are of course saturated with references to ‘slavery’ as a political concept. Investigations of this striking, puzzling and understudied feature of his pamphleteering should take account of the intellectual materials that were actually accessible to Swift, and these certainly included Locke’s Two Treatises. I have tried to explain in my article why it was that cannibalism supplied an image for the depopulation of Ireland by the predatory landlords Swift had come to hate so passionately. But cannibalism could also be viewed as the logical extreme of the kind of enslavement that was a fixation of Irish patriots and English whigs alike. To be a slave in this sense was to be subject to an absolute ruler, to live under laws passed without the consent of the people or their representatives. The favourite paradigms were the French and the Turks. One striking example of this image of tyranny can be found  in the motto to Locke’s Two Treatises, which calls for the divine punishment of tyrants since ‘placari nequeant, nisi hauriendum sanguinem lanianaque viscera nostra praebuerimus’ [They are not to be satisfied unless we offer them our blood to drink and our entrails to tear out].11 It is well known that Locke was one of the ‘dangerous authors’ admired in Swift’s Drapier’s Letters (1724). Many high churchmen still adhered to Sir Robert Filmer’s theory of patriarchialism, which Locke had set out to demolish, but Swift was never one of them. Even at his most Tory, he had no truck with notions of divine right monarchy. But most Swift scholars have failed to notice that Locke’s First Treatise depicts Filmer’s patriarchal monarch as a monster who devours his own children. Patriarcha could therefore be presented as a perversion of the biblical injunction to multiply mankind and replenish the earth, one of the core foundations of Locke’s political thought.12

Modern scholarship has focused resolutely on the Second Treatise, where Locke sets out his theory of natural rights, property and resistance. But many contemporary readers devoted more attention to the First Treatise, in which Locke confronted Filmer on his own ground: the biblical account of creation. Filmer’s position was that the power of kings was not derived from popular consent but from the divine right of a father to the obedience of his wife, children and servants. In his determination to undermine consensual notions of government Filmer unashamedly insisted that there was no legitimate distinction between a subject and a slave. As evidence for the absolute power of fathers over their offspring, he produced ancient examples of societies where children were sold or given away as gifts. Locke retorted that Filmer might as well have pointed to Peru, some of whose inhabitants ‘begot Children on purpose to Fatten and Eat them’.13 Swift had certainly read Locke’s analysis of Adam’s paternal rights, since he repeated them in his Further Thoughts on Religion.14 Moreover, Locke’s authority for the existence of a Peruvian cannibal industry was the Commentarios Reales (1609) by Garcilaso de la Vega. Some critics believe that this was the same source for the modest proposer’s scheme; it was certainly mentioned in Sir William Temple’s essay ‘Heroic Virtue’, which Swift had edited.15

Did Swift have Locke’s black humour in mind when he wrote A Modest Proposal? Locke believed that there was a connection between arbitrary government and depopulation; he was preoccupied with reproduction and the raising of children; he seized on Garcilaso’s account of Peruvian cannibalism as a reductio ad absurdum of absolute power, or at least Filmer’s presentation of it, which frankly reduced subjects to the condition of servitude. There are many other writings by Swift in which the politics of slavery is central, including most obviously the five Drapier’s Letters published in 1724. But there is only text I can think of where Swift clearly refers to the racialized slavery of his own day, the unpublished tract, ‘Maxims Controlled in Ireland’ (1729), which proposes that the Irish should adopt ‘the African custom or privilege, of selling our useless bodies to foreigners’.16 It would certainly be possible, although not at all straightforward, to make this single sentence the basis of an against-the-grain reading of A Modest Proposal, written in the same year and in response to the same economic crisis. But to try to reconstruct the political world in which the asiento was debated as if it were like any other branch of commerce is ultimately a more rewarding exercise, and an indispensable one, moreover, for anyone who hopes that understanding the past can illuminate the hypocrisies of our own contemporary scene.


1 Two Affidavits in Relation to the Demands of Tythe-Agistment in the Dioces of Leighlin (Dublin, 1736), p. 21.

2 John Richardson, ‘Swift, A Modest Proposal, and Slavery’, Essays in Criticism, 51:4 (2001), pp. 405, 406.

3 William Petty, Political Arithmetick, or, A Discourse concerning the Extent and Value of Lands, People, Buildings (London, 1691), p. 22.

4 The True Way to Render Ireland Happy and Secure (Dublin, 1697), p. 12.

5 Arthur Dobbs, An Essay on the Trade and Improvement of Ireland (2 vols., Dublin, 1729[?]), II, pp. 11, 27. This work takes the unusual form of two ‘volumes’ bound together but with separate page numbering and two separate title pages stating 1729 and 1731 as the respective dates of publication. There is nothing to suggest that the first volume was ever published independently, as the author seems to say at the beginning of volume two (p. 5). Perhaps ‘MDCCXXXI’ on the second title page was an error made by a type setter who got the last two digits the wrong way round. That the Monthly Chronicle for July 1730 says the book was published that month does not help matters.

6 Ibid., II, p. 22.

7 Moses I. Finley, ‘Slavery and the Historians’ (1979), reprinted in idem, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology, ed. Brent D. Shaw (Princeton, NJ, 1998), p. 289.

8 Jack P. Greene, ‘Liberty, Slavery, and the Transformation of British Identity in the Eighteenth-Century West Indies’, Slavery and Abolition, 21:1 (2000), p. 8.

9 As explored in W.A. Pettigrew, Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2013).

10 Greene, ‘Liberty, Slavery, and the Transformation of British Identity’, pp. 16-18, 20.

11 John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (1690), ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge, student edn., 1988), p. 136.

12 Rachel Weil, ‘The Family in the Exclusion Crisis: Locke versus Filmer Revisited’, in Alan Houston and Steven Pincus (eds.), A Nation Transformed: England after the Restoration (Cambridge, 2001), pp. 100-24.

13 Locke, Two Treatises of Government, p. 182, §57.

14 Daniel Eilon, ‘The Modest Proposer’s American Acquaintance’, Review of English Studies, 36 (1985), pp. 538-41.

15 See Ian Campbell Ross, ‘“A Very Knowing American”: The Inca Garcilaso de la Vega and Swift’s Modest Proposal’, Modern Language Quarterly, 68:4 (Dec. 2007), pp. 493-516. The link with Garcilaso has been noted by Dirk Passmann, ‘“Many Diverting Books of History and Travels” and A Modest Proposal’, Eighteenth-Century Ireland, 2 (1987), pp. 167-76 and by Eilon, cited above. To my knowledge the political significance of Locke’s argument for A Modest Proposal has not previously been discussed.

16 CWJS, vol. 14, p. 179.

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