A Modest Close Reading

In the satirical piece A Modest Proposal by Doctor Jonathan Swift, several reasons are given as to why the children of the poor in Ireland should be used to help the poor of Ireland out of poverty. Swift’s exact words say that this proposal is “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.”

Now nothing in this piece is meant to be taken seriously. It is satire after all. If you look back in history around the 1720’s for the context of this piece, you will see that Jonathan Swift was not impressed with England in terms of how they were imposing commercial and political injustices onto Ireland. England’s injustices were debilitating leaving the Irish people in poverty and in deplorable conditions. Mothers were forced to become beggars in order to feed their children. Swift then writes A Modest Proposal in order to show how ruthless the English can be. They could very well have forced the Irish people to go to the extreme of having to sell their children to be eaten in order to survive.

This video describes what it was like living in Ireland in 1729, the year that Doctor Jonathan Swift published this piece.

In order to show how ridiculous it would be for this to happen, Swift gives six reasons as to why this would be a good way for Ireland to live with the injustice that England has imposed on them.

The first reason Swift gives us is “it would greatly lessen the number of Papists, with whom we are yearly over-run, being principal breeders of the nation,” This would help the situation because most of the people in Ireland that are living in poverty are Papists. Or as they are more commonly known today, Roman Catholics. In Ireland, there are so many Roman Catholic children because the Catholics do not believe in birth control, nor did they have any. So they would breed like rabbits and there would be a ton of children in Ireland just born into poverty. If they were to then sell the children as the food there would be less of them and the people in poverty would be more likely to be able to get on their feet and into a better financial situation.

The second reason is, “The poorer tenants will have something valuable of their own,” If they are able to sell the babies then they will be able to pay rent with the money that they receive. They could also pay for food for the older children that are too old to sell for food. It is just another way they can get themselves out of poverty.

Third reason: “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 fortune in the kingdom, who have any refinement in taste.” So if these children are sold for food then they will get money for the child but money will also go into the economy so that they don’t have extremely high taxes. How? They just make new dishes using the meat of the children and sell it to the richer people. When they buy the meat, the money will go into the economy and will hopefully lower taxes to the point where mothers in poverty can make enough money to stop begging on the streets for their other children.

The fourth reason Swift gives as to why this is a good idea is the fact that “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.” These women do not even have to worry about the financial struggle that comes with raising the child after the first year that the child is alive. The mothers just have to worry about fattening them up in that first year enough so that they are ready to be sold for food at the end of that year. This plan will help them save money in the long run.

The next reason as to why this will help the economy is the fact that tavern owners can charge as much as they want for this food. The rich will want to keep eating this delicious meat and they certainly want the very best food so they will spend all kinds of money to make sure that it is spiced just right. Once it is made perfectly, they will want to buy a lot of this meat. All that money will eventually go to the government and hopefully lower taxes on the lower class so that they can make a living with just the money they get for selling their child.

The last and final reason as to why this needs to happen in order to help the lower class is the fact that it will “be a great inducement to marriage, which all wise nations have either encouraged by rewards, or enforced by laws and penalties.” So if the mother is able to sell her child and make money for it, then the husbands will not try to beat the mothers so that the child is not born. The husbands will treat their wives better than when they either had to keep the baby or kill it in order to be able to survive in the world.

Now all of these reasons are incredibly ridiculous. This would never happen anywhere in the world today unless we were really desperate for food and even then I do not think it would happen. If it did I would hope that it would be stopped quickly.

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