A Modest Proposal is based upon what amounts, almost, to a template—a template that, as James Ward has recently implied, might be inferred from a number of contemporary tracts.1 These include the economist David Bindon’s Scheme for Supplying Industrious Men with Money to carry on their Trades, And for better Providing for the Poor of Ireland, which was published in 1729, the year in which Swift’s Proposal was also published. Although I cannot confirm with any certainty that Bindon’s tract preceded the Proposal, this seems more than likely. The fact that a second edition of the Scheme came out in the same year suggests a relatively early month for the first edition, and we know that the Proposal was not published until October.2 Furthermore, while Swift’s tract (being a parody) implies serious predecessors, Bindon (innocent of irony) would surely have resisted echoing a text so different in spirit from his own. Michael Brown has already drawn attention to the likeness between Swift’s (or, rather, the Proposer’s) opening sentence ‘It is a melancholly 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’, and Bindon’s ‘It is no Wonder … to see our Streets crowded with Beggars of all Sizes, and such Objects of Compassion exposed to publick View, as makes a good-natur’d Man’s Heart bleed to behold his Fellow-Creatures reduced to such Misery.’3 Indeed, Bindon anticipates (as I would see it) the Proposer in many respects—in his claim to speak out of public-spiritedness, his anxiety over poverty-induced emigration to the West Indies and Spain, in his computation (Bindon coincides with the Proposer quite specifically in estimating the national population at 1,500,0004), and in his air of reasonableness when it comes to the consideration of possible objections.5 Most interestingly, however, it seems that Bindon may have inspired the brilliant conceit upon which the Proposal is founded—that of children as capital. Convinced that local industries were failing for lack of investment, Bindon proposed that civil corporations be enabled, as in Holland, to lend funds at reasonable rates of interest to would-be manufacturers on securities. These securities would not, however, take the standard form of financial guarantees from third persons. They would, rather, be the borrower’s own ‘Jewels, Plate, Household-goods, Manufactures, and such like unperishable goods’ (13). Bindon refers to such securities as ‘pledges’: ‘Among other Regulations in that Country, the Method of supplying industrious Men with Money on Pledges … has greatly contributed to the general Riches of the Nation’ (12); ‘Every Sum to be Lent for 12 Months, and if unpaid in a convenient Time after, the Pledge to be sold by Public Cant’ (13); ‘The Borrower to have liberty to withdraw his Pledge … on paying the Money borrowed’ (14); ‘And as the Money is to be lent on Pledges … it will no ways interfere with any other Lawful Trade now in Use’ (16); ‘It may be objected … that our Common People have nothing of Value to pawn. … But … yet it is known that most of them, who now borrow Money, do so on Pledges of one kind or another’ (19); ‘when the Common People find they can … obtain Money on Pledges … is it not Natural to believe … that they will grow Thrifty in their Expences’ (20). According to Bindon’s scheme, then, tradesmen—on the strength of their personal and domestic possessions—would be equipped to set up shop and make a profit. Significantly, however, the word ‘pledge’ could also be used to refer to a child, a child (to quote the OED, pledge, n. 4. B.) ‘considered as token or evidence of mutual love and duty between parents’—as, in other words, a guarantee of the parental relationship. We may be certain of Swift’s familiarity with this usage from two passages in Gulliver’s Travels. The first belongs to I. viii, in which Gulliver describes his journey homewards from Blefescu: ‘It is not easy to express the Joy I was in upon the unexpected Hope of once more seeing my beloved Country, and the dear Pledges I had left in it’.6 The second (which happens to be cited in the OED) belongs to II. viii, in which Gulliver elaborates on the longing for home that had affected him during his time in Brobingnag: ‘I could never forget those domestick Pledges I had left behind me’ (115). As we have seen, Bindon’s scheme pivots upon pledges in the form of material possessions of market value. Swift’s Proposer pivots upon the supposed market value of human children—such being the only possessions of their destitute parents. The economic functions of Bindon’s pledges and the Proposer’s children are not of course precisely equivalent, since the pledges envisaged by Bindon were to be handed over only if their owners defaulted upon their loans, while children as envisaged by the Proposer were to be handed over not to compensate for but to avert destitution. It must be acknowledged, too, that the Proposer does not refer to the children as ‘pledges’ even although Gulliver seems to have been drawn to the term. Significantly, however, both Bindon and the Proposer imagine that those who stand to benefit from their schemes will become better house-holders. Patronizingly, Bindon paints a picture of how those who have obtained money on pledges ‘will grow Thrifty in their Expences, and careful to furnish themselves, and their Houses, with good and decent Apparel, Ornaments and Utensils, which in time of Need, may become Sureties … for them’ (20), while the Proposer argues from what appears to be the moral high ground that his scheme ‘would increase 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’ and goes on to suggest that men, for their part, would take greater care of their wives, abstaining from beating them ‘for fear of [a loss-making] Miscarriage’ (507). The Proposer notes, at the end of his tract, that he has ‘no Children, by whom [he could] propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine Years old, and [his] Wife past Child-bearing’ (509)—the chilling implication being that he would more than happily have taken his own infants to market. Gulliver might seem, by contrast, to be a loving father. But while Gulliver speaks sentimentally of his children as ‘pledges’ he spends only a couple of months with them on his returns both from Blefescu and Brobdingnag—after approximately three and four years respectively.7 Altogether, out of what Gulliver correctly reckons as the ‘Sixteen Years, and above Seven Months’ (255) covered by his journal (i.e. the Travels), he has spent a total of only nine months with his family. We may conclude that his seemingly loving characterization of his children was designed to disguise from his imagined audience his massive deficiencies as a parent (and, of course, a husband). What Swift wanted actual readers to register were the shallowness of Gulliver’s familial affection and his hypocrisy in affecting it. His shallowness and hypocrisy are in a different league from those of the Proposer, who understands society in terms only of the cash nexus.8 But Gulliver’s insincere application of the notion of children as pledges does serve as a hint as to the cynicism with which the fatherless and childless Swift was already viewing familial relationships when he came to read Bindon’s Scheme and to write A Modest Proposal.9 Footnotes 1 Ward observes how by 1729 ‘[t]he desire to ameliorate Ireland’s “miserable condition” [had given rise to] a slew of ingenious or hare-brained plans from the pens of public-spirited gentlemen, designed to redress the various areas in which the nation’s economic, political and social life were held to be anomalous’. See James Ward, ‘Bodies for Sale’, Irish Studies Review, xv.3, 283–94, 288. (The ‘slew’ included Swift’s own ‘Drapier’s Letters’.) 2 Herbert Davis (ed.), The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift (Blackwell, 1955), XII, xix. 3 Michael Brown, The Irish Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA, 2016), 162. Brown quotes Bindon and Swift at greater length than I do here. He does not commit himself as to the priority or otherwise of Bindon. All quotations from Bindon are taken directly from David Bindon, A Scheme for Supplying Industrious Men with Money To carry on their Trades, And for better Providing for the Poor of Ireland (Dublin, 1729). Passages from A Modest Proposal are quoted from Robert A. Greenberg and William B. Piper (eds), The Writings of Jonathan Swift (New York, 1973), 502–9. For the two passages quoted see Bindon, A Scheme, 12 and Swift, A Modest Proposal, 502. 4 Bindon, A Scheme, 9, cf. Swift, A Modest Proposal, 503. 5 One might add that Bindon invokes the economic doctrine that people (or, at least, tradespeople) are ‘the Riches of the Country’ (20), the doctrine that Swift’s Proposer applies literally. 6 Quotations from Gulliver’s Travels are taken from the edition of Greenberg and Piper, Writings, 1–260. For this quotation, see 58. 7 Gulliver identifies his children as ‘Johnny’ and ‘Betty’ (59). 8 Swift was evidently fascinated by the question of how parents and children do (or should) relate to each other. The Lilliputians see parental affection as instinctive and so damaging as to require that parents and children be separated (43). ‘Cottagers and Labourers’, however ‘keep their Children at home’ (43). The Houyhnhnms ‘have no fondness for their Colts or Foles’ (234). 9 Swift’s father died before Jonathan was born. Swift may have been effectively motherless, too, for a significant proportion of his infant years. Joseph McGinn summarizes what he describes as ‘an extraordinary passage of [his autobiographical] Family of Swift’ in which Swift ‘writes of having been abducted by his nurse at the age of one, taken by her to England, and only returned to his mother at the age of three. Swift’s mother, it seems, soon returned to England, entrusting her son to the care of one of the boy’s several uncles, Godwin Swift. See Joseph McGinn, ‘Swift’s Life’, in Christopher Fox (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Swift (Cambridge, 2003), 14–30, 16. Cf. ‘The Life of Doctor Swift’ in The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift (London, 1801), I, section 1. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 13, 2018
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