A Swift Show of Political Satire

“…so far from being allowed to publish to the world those virtues we have not, we are commanded to hide, even from ourselves, those we really have, and not let our right hand know what our left hand doth.”

~Jonathan Swift


Britain, early eighteenth century. Ireland remains the “last conspicuously uncultivated patch” (Connolly). Land settlements, taxes, churches, and diplomacy are hot topics as kings of England rise and fall, return, and die. The churches are being overrun and are nearly identical to that of the churches in England (Yates 14). Priests were being involved in rebellions and peasants of the Roman Catholic faith were barred from owning land. After being taken by England, Ireland was beginning to wonder if it could survive. The Irish/English conflict was going on for years and continued on for years before and after the birth of the greatest satirist in English literature.  

Jonathan Swift did not enter the English and Irish scene until his birth in 1667. He was actually born in Dublin but his parents, his father dying soon after his birth, were English. Swift, being known for his satire actually started his life with a small irony; his birth father, Reverend Thomas Swift, was an Anglican preacher who did not live harmoniously with the Puritans. However, his grandfather on his mother’s side was a Puritan. Even though Swift was surrounded by Roman Catholics in Ireland, he chose to be an Anglican preacher like his father. We see from a piece of his journal shown in the introduction to him in the 1969 edition of “Eighteenth-Century English Literature” that he felt he was “sunk in his spirits” when his relatives and his mother had sent him to grammar school alone (Tillotson 345). By himself, Swift had a lot of time to think and study his grammar and literature while failing his philosophy and formal rhetoric (Tillotson 345).

In 1689, the same year that King James came to Dublin, and that England bared Catholics from the throne, Swift was ready to leave Trinity College in Dublin and went to live with Sir William Temple in Moor Park just outside of London. Swift was to be a secretary. Swift’s following life lead to many famous pieces of literature. During his time working for Sir Temple, they travelled to Ireland where Swift hoped to work through Temple’s court connections for success (Tillotson 355). When Temple showed no interesting in aiding Swift, he left for Oxford where he acquired a master’s degree and went on to become a deacon and later a priest in Dublin. The parish that Swift was in charge of had nothing in common with him. The church was “isolated… in despair and—what must have been worst of all to him—the parishioners were mostly Presbyterian of Scottish descent” (Tillotson 355). In 1696, after only lasting a year and a half, Swift left at the age of twenty-nine back to Moor Park. After this, Swift’s “inevitable involvement of the church in political debate” would bloom into his great satires and pamphlets (Fauske 13). Fauske also says that all of Swift’s writings grew out of his commitment to the church (Fauske 13). But Swift was an Angelican and an Englishman; this would play into his beliefs, political leanings, and his writing for some time.

It was here in Moor Park that Swift was able to dwell on a love he had never gotten over: Jane “Varina” Waring, a daughter of an archdeacon from back in Ireland. Tillotsen says, that later Varina sent him a long lecture that included a marriage proposal which Swift refused. Four years later, Swift replied with a long satire. This was to be his first and “the man of feeling had given way to the satirist” (Tillotsen 355). Just after his choice of satirist, Temple died, not leaving Swift with much, so he accepted a job as chaplain to the Earl of Berkley whom he travelled with back to the land that would make him famous: Ireland. But it was not the land that he was interested in, it was the institutions he found there (Fausek 22). In fact, Fauske claims that Swift worked “tenaciously in England for a country he repeatedly claimed to despise” (26) and “not care” about (55).

After the fall of the Whigs 1701, Swift decided to be the mediator between the political parties and his satires and writings would fill the histories to come. Swift’s loyalties were to religion. He understood the changes going on in politics and spoke out against the manifestation of parties (Fauske 21). He believed people should adhere to their religion but that was difficult even for him at this time. He moved slightly between Whigs and Tories throughout the follow years and produced great works like “A Tale of a Tub” and “Abolishing of Christianity in England”. He stayed in London for some more time where he wrote for the Tatler and in the Bickerstaff Papers. Though the tracts he was producing at the time were almost always politically neutral, they pointed out religion and morality in the Whig religion. With these writings, Swift shifted his political views again when the Whigs fell in 1710. He was then hired by the Tories to be the editor for their paper The Examiner. Just before the Whigs came back into power, Swift wrote an article “The Conduct of the Allies” which, “exposed the mercenary motives of the war party” (Tillotsen 357). After the Whigs were back in power, Swift returned to Ireland as a Dean of St. Patrick’s, seemingly done with politics. After another rocky love affair, Swift decided to stay in Ireland saying “if they have no further service for me, I will never see England again” (Fauske 14). Many critics of Swift say that though he was a fierce fighter for the Irish, he never considered himself an Irish patriot. After Stella died, Swift threw himself into writing and satirical opinions. For unknown reasons, during the last few years of his life, Swift gave land for an asylum later called St. Patrick’s Hospital, where Stella was buried. Sadly, in 1742 at the age of seventy-five, Swift went insane himself and died in the hospital. Fauske stated at the end of his first chapter that “Swift saw that his struggle for the integrity of the Church of Ireland… had failed” (Fauske 15). His legacy lives on strong even in our modern era. Our hope can be that his long, dynamic life inspires more writers to pursue the path of satirists and not shy away from the faith they have chosen.

A brief analysis of three of Swift’s major works can show us how the times and trials of Ireland and England are echoed in his satires and the histories of Britain.

While in Ireland, Jonathan Swift wrote a letter to the Pope in August of 1729, telling him about how there was famine in Ireland. He begged the Pope to imagine how a country that is not allowed to trade with its neighbors should survive. Ireland was starving and had been baned by England from trading with foreign powers. To help bring the devastation of Ireland to light, all be it in a dark humor, Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal”. The full title is “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burthen to Their Parents, or the Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public” (Tillotson 447). After reading this title, someone from the mid-1700s may have thought that the “political arithmetician” was proposing labor, immigration laws, or criminal justice ideas. But Swift was cleverer than that and suggested that the excess children simply be eaten. Matt Mortensen wrote an article on the proposal and said that Swift’s ideas were anything but modest. He said that calling the proposal “modest” was “an exaggeration of epic proportions” (Mortensen 1).

On page 449 of the anthology, Swift gives reasons as to why the children should be eaten. First, it would eliminate some of the papists, which is to say the Roman Catholics. Ireland was full of Catholics and we must remember that religion was a large part of the tension between Ireland and England. Second, it would boost the economy in that poor people could sell their children and that it would prevent other families from having the costs of raising children. Third, it would make for more culinary dishes among the rich who could afford such delicate meat. This plan would have looked appealing to an English man because the idea was to “extirpate Roman Catholics in Ireland through sporadic persecution” (Yates 46).

Kim Miller, author of an article that analyses Swift’s “Proposal” says that “his satire is directed towards the Protestant-Catholic division” as well as economic theories (Miller 1). In Ireland even until recently, the Protestants did not coexist with the Catholics harmoniously. This can be seen in more modern writings like “A Belfast Woman” and “Guests of the Nation”. Millar suggests that the “Proposal” was written to protest the way in which peasants were treated in Ireland by their English government. Swift wanted England to find a way to let Ireland be of value instead of a burden. This would prove difficult as England had band trade with Ireland. They had taken away the land’s way of taking care of itself so that it would be dependent on the mother country.

Since this piece was written near the end of Swift’s life, Miller brings up a rather uncommon argument against the famed satirist. Miller mentions how disturbing and gross the idea is. He says “the cruel and disgusting ideas in his writings might be more affected by insanity rather than concern” (Miller 1). Notice the plural on “writings”. It is true that Swift was older, and did go insane by the end of his life, but during his life we can see his zeal for the Irish people and, perhaps more importantly as is defined in his other works, his distaste for the English government.

In the opening paragraph, Swift gives us a good reason to frown at England. He says that the poor people in Ireland must “leave their dear native Country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbados” (Swift 447). England fought with France and Spain and where better to get expendable crewmen then on Irish ground? Our anthology also has a foot note that says that the Irish left their country to sell themselves for work in the islands for a period of time (Tillotson 447).

Fauske found a way to read Swift’s proposal as religious. He writes that Swift touches on the “concerns of senior churchmen who had already expressed opinions about the plight of Ireland” (77). Swift says that really Ireland needs to find a way address its own economic needs and that church leaders need to help. Swift felt that a loyalty to one’s religion was more important than to one’s politics. Some say that the “Proposal” is evidence of Swift’s lack of Irish patriotism. He is said to have hated Ireland. Fauske says that he “became an Irish patriot, not by design but because his own determined loyalty to his church found an opportunity for expression in his country’s plight” (145). What this means is that the English “plight” of cruelty towards Ireland and ignoring the starving, hurting people was able to inspire Swift to show his countrymen what they were doing through his religious passions. How they were treating a people they should have taken care of after conquering them. Like most of Swift’s works, the “Proposal” is a double edged sword: he spoke out for the Irish and illuminated England’s unkind actions. In the end, his satire is still springing from his religion and political stance.

On May 1st, 1708 the Acts of Union brought together Scotland and the English Kingdoms finally creating Great Britain. The merging of these lands also merged many sects of Christianity. Anglicans, Catholics, Presbyterians, and many more. Needless to say, these sects did not get along well as they did not in Ireland. This clash of beliefs was answered by Swift in his more obvious religious context of “An Argument on the Abolishing of Christianity in England”. This tract was written against the Whig party even though Swift was part of it at the time. He was directing it at all who opposed the Test Act “which was designed to strengthen the Anglican establishment by requiring a show of allegiance… as a condition of political office-holding” (Tillotsen 418). This goes to show how much Swift thought that religion and politics should not gain equal loyalty from people.

Swift opens by explaining that it may not be wise to argue about abolishing Christianity and he also does not see why it should be (Swift 418). Defined in this pamphlet are what Swift calls “real Christianity,” “nominal Christianity,” and the “free thinkers”. Real Christianity he says does not have an influence on man’s beliefs because it is from primitive times. Already Swift has set up the reader to know that “real” Christianity isn’t even part of the picture; it is a false Christianity. It is no longer practiced, does not exist. This may be a good reason to abolish what’s left of it. Next is Nominal Christianity where a man may be religious (follow the rules) but not be godly. They may speak out against God, abuse the government, and blaspheme (Swift 419). Who do free thinkers do this with? People who meet in taverns and “wherever else good company meet” Swift says. Of course good company meets in taverns!  

The free thinkers are Swift’s satirized version of Deists who are “young gentleman of great hopes, bright wit, and profound judgment” (419). These men of such great brain power are Deists because they can only believe in nature. The funny part is because nature is easier to believe in says Swift: “It is further objected against the Gospel System, that it obliges Men of the Belief of things too difficult for free Thinkers” (420). These great witted men cannot comprehend the gospel so they must turn to something less difficult. A good reason to abolish Christianity: it is too difficult.

What else is good about abolishing Christianity? Swift launches flawlessly into a string of economic and logical reasons starting with gain of the seventh day. Swift says that business, trade and even pleasure on lost because of this day of rest (421). In England’s economy surely they could stand to gain from another day of labor. If that wasn’t economical enough, Swift also says that Britain is losing buildings over it. Xiang Xu analyzed this piece as well and says that “Swift is forced to defend the existence of religion by highlighting its nonreligious function” (Xu 3). I tend to not agree here, and say that Swift was simply carrying out his satire to include all the major faucets of the Christian religion. One of those being the churches. They could be used instead as meeting places of business and rendezvous points (421). The greatest advantage he says is that no Christianity will mean no political parties. He says there will be no high and low church, no Whigs or Tories, and no men focusing on dispatching other sects (421). This is an incident where we see, like throughout Swift’s life, that he mingles church and state (as our modern USA would have it) even though he demands that his audience be loyal to religion above all. Here he says that one cannot exist without the other.

Being a man of balance, Swift must also ask what would happen if Christianity was abolished. His satire takes a turn now to his other audience—the one who may be taking the pamphlet seriously and nodding in agreement with the execution of the religion He tells this agreeing man of a few inconveniences that may happen if this massive plan goes out. He says that people of the time were complaining of the lack of wit in daily life (Swift 423). Not unlike todays cinema and book market. He says that the debate of Christianity is pretty much the only great topic for argument, stimulant of wit, and debate we have left. “If Christianity were once abolished,” he says, “how could the Free Thinkers, the Strong Reasonsers, and the Men of profound Learning, be able to find another Subject so calculated in all Points whereon to display their Abilities” (Swift 423). What will these people who think they are so smart by saying how wrong Christianity is and finding fault with it, show their intelligence if their source of rage and “wisdom” is gone? They will have “sunk immediately into silence and oblivion” (Swift 423). Xu states again how much he believes Swift was in truth fighting against Christianity when he said this:

To conclude: Whatever some may think of the great advantages to trade by this favorite scheme, I do very much apprehend, that in six months’ time after the act is passed for the extirpation of the Gospel, the Bank, and East-India Stock, may fall at least one per cent. And since that is fifty times more than ever the wisdom of our age thought fit to venture for the preservation of Christianity, there is no reason we should be at so great a loss, merely for the sake of destroying it (Swift 425).


Xu says that Swift was pretending to defend Christianity and that that “demonstrates clearly the deplorable state of Christianity; it is more a habit than a belief” (Xu 3). I disagree again. The key thing to remember is that this is a satire. Swift did not want Christianity abolished. He was a firm believer. And he would be out of a job. I believe what Swift is ultimately trying to say in this piece is that, even though he doesn’t think politics and religion should mix, they do, are, and always will (look at the politics of today!). I think he is speaking out of what people have made it into. There, Xu and I can agree. The state of Christianity then and now is deplorable. What have those Free Thinkers have done? Paul Hunter, author of a short but strong analysis of Swift’s abolition pamphlet, compliments Swift’s knowledge of the bible and the way he handles the subject to look like an honest tract but is in truth a satire. He says that Swift was a “skilled manipulator of words” (Hunter 1). He mentions Swift’s use of the book of Jude (when he mentions speaking evil of dignitaries) and says that Swift used this to warn us of how people were sneaking in to “pervert the gospel message” (Hunter 1). “An Argument on the Abolition of Christianity” is a satire. Swift uses his mastery of the English language to beg Christians to adhere to the true meaning of the “age old” religion.

Keeping in mind that Swift is the greatest satirist in the world, let us now turn to his most masterful and largest work of satire “Gulliver’s Travels”. This story is probably Swift’s most simple satire to decode. If one knows the history. The characters and politics of the first book line up perfectly with England at the time. Imagine what fury would erupt if someone wrote a satire about our present government that was as obvious to us as this must have been to the people of the Eighteenth Century? Possibly something similar to when President Woodrow Wilson decided on the Espionage Act, which greatly infringed on the free speech right.

   The first book of “Gulliver’s Travels” was published in 1726 during the rule of George I who started the line of Hanover. The king was not born inside Britain and left much of the ruling to the British Parliament, which we see Swift making a great joke out of with small details in the story and includes images of Robert Walpole who was the power behind Britain. This was written very close his later work already discussed “A Modest Proposal” so we can see how Swift’s political fury is unleashed. This is also at a time in Swift’s life when he went back to supporting the Whigs after the fall of the Tory government. But Swift is not kind to either party and uses both as satirical ammunition without mercy in the ridiculousness of the little Lilliputians. Paddy Bullard, author of the lengthy essay “Pride, Pulpit Eloquence, and the Rhetoric of Jonathan Swift” says that Swift was surrounded by enemies and would satirize them with humble gestures (261). “Gulliver” is blatant in its satire but it is so overt that it becomes covert.

The character of Gulliver himself represents something in the story. I believe he is the Irish people and at times the English. More simply, he is the people of Britain (as it then was). Paddy Bulliard agrees with me. Why would Gulliver (Ireland) submit himself to these tiny people? “The willingness with which Gulliver submits himself to this tiny, wheedling gesticulator is one of the first instances readers get of his gullibility”(Bulliard 253). Lilliput, this tiny land full of tiny people is England, making the emperor of Lilliput George I: he is unintelligent and leaves the governing of his people to someone else. Gulliver’s first encounter with the Lilliputians in chapter two is where the English government comes in, dancing on strings to impress the emperor. Swift describes the English government’s lack of ability to lead when he says the dancers are disgraced often and lose their seat, are not of noble birth, and are not educated very well except in jumping on the string (Swift 21). So that’s how Swift sees England? We also meet Flimnap, the treasurer. He is Walpole and, like Walpole, would not be where he is were it not for one of the king’s “cushions”: “Flimnap would have infallibly broke his neck, if one of the king’s cushions, that accidently lay on the ground had not weakened the force of his fall” (Swift 22). Robert Greenburg the editor of the old Norton Edition I used, says that this “cushion” is in fact one of George I’s mistresses who helped Walpole return to office in 1721 (Greenburg 22). It is only chapter two and the audience is already waste high in satire and representation of historic England.

In chapter four, Swift begs us to laugh at politics and religion, including his own belief and loyalties to his own party and faith. The High Heels (Tories) and the Low Heels (Whigs) are a representation of the church and the tensions there; they are distinguished by nothing else then the kind of shoes they wear (Swift 30). This trivial thing is a point of the ridiculousness of the anger between warring church parties. George II, who was to take the throne, was not for the Whigs like George I. Instead he favored both parties. We see this in “Gulliver” by the Imperial Highness “to have some tendency towards the High Heels; at least we plainly discover one of his heels higher than the other, which gives him a hobble in his gait” (Swift 30).

One of the next largest analogies is Blefescu and Lilliput and the war they are in. Blefescu is representative of France. In this time, the Treaty of Utrecht, headed by the Tories, ended the war between France and England (Greenburg 36). Gulliver wins the war for Lilluput by capturing Blefescu’s naval fleet harkening back to, Greenburg says, England and the Torie’s claim that they had mastery of the seas. After this great victory, a fire has sprung up in the Empresses quarters and Gulliver saves the day by urinating “so well to the proper places, that in three minutes the fire was wholly extinguished” (Swift 37). The empress is so disgusted (even though Gulliver acquires a pardon from the King) that she moves as far away from her original rooms as she can and vows to never go into her old rooms again. Greenburg suggests that this is Queen Anne in her anger over Swift’s “A Tale of a Tub” where she felt he was too harsh on religion (Greenburg 38). She wanted to make sure fewer people came to hear Swift preach and pick up on his course religious views.

In the end, the small Lilliputian midget has made the Emperor think ill of Gulliver and he is to be arrested. After some time, they decide he shall just have his eyes put out and Gulliver escapes to Blefescu. Henry St. John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke was an English philosopher and leader of the Tories government (Yates 26). The last footnote from Greenburg describes this as Bolinbroke’s escape to France where he stayed until two years later the charges against him were dropped (53).

The satire in Swift’s works can be hard to find if you are not all too familiar with the history that surrounds it. In fact, the history is the very essence and foundation of its power. These great works are therefore clearly dated masterpieces but should inspire writers of today. In fact, Barbara Quick wrote a short, but insightful article on how Swift can be used in one faucet of America’s brutal civil wars today that include both religion and politics: gay marriage.

Quick quotes a strong line from Swift about people who “have just enough religion to make them hate, and not enough to make them love on another” (Quick 1). This is the deplorable religion Xu mentioned in his article. She is discussing Swift in relation to Dickens in his “The Pickwick Papers” where Dickens mentions piety and the pretense of piety. Quick’s argument is simple: obey the law of God which commands all who follow the Christian teachings to love everyone. Even their enemies and for “he who is without guilt to cast the first stone” which would be no one. Fortunately, Swift “enjoyed ridiculing customs and ideas” and may have enjoyed satirizing these angry church mobs with their “God hates gays” posters. Swift reiterated over and over again in many of his writings that one should remain true to their religion. He also, as Paddy Bullard reminds us, loathed hypocrisy (271).

How could a modern Swift write today? There are thousands of satirical memes on the internet that depict political, social, racial, and religious jokes. Sadly, these jokes are normally snide, not always true (usually only that persons very limited perception) and are only there to aggravate people rather than inform and profess an opinion that that person can stand behind. Swift was smart, knew what he was talking about, and firmly believed in what he satirized. This generation is something of a lost generation. The knowledge of what is out there in the world is limited because there is too much to distract us from what we should be listening to. I wrote a rather coarse dystopian satire on that very subject for a creative writing class last semester. The story was called “D.E.F” and were the initials of the place where my female lead worked. She had no idea what exactly her work was (something to do with paperwork) because she was always attached to her social media and earbuds. In the story, the power goes out and no one knows how to communicate in the work place so all the workers are stuck there staring and cannot move.

When I turned in the story, all my peers, my graduate-student-instructor as well, said that it was preachy and no one agreed with my point of view saying it was too farfetched. I tried to describe dark humor and satire but they were unfamiliar with that style of writing. Or so I must assume. There is no room for satire in writing today in America. We try to take things too seriously and cannot take a step back to look at what we’re really saying. Or what we could say. There is also this fear of not being liked in society. As if the whole world were still a high school cafeteria and we still must follow the masses in what is trendy and acceptable. No one ever really graduated high school. Perhaps that’s another satirical piece to be written! We are surrounded by inspiration for good, thoughtful satires. Like the sword in the stone, who can pull it out and wield such a strong, deadly weapon? In the meantime, we may all just trust our flappers to smack our faces when we get too lost in our deep, important thoughts.           

Works Cited


Bullard, Paddy. “Pride, Pulpit Eloquence, and the Rhetoric of Jonathan Swift”. Rhetoric: A

Journal of the history of Rhetoric, Vol. 30 (Summer 2012). University of California

Press, pg 252-276. Print.


Connolly, S. J. “Restoration Ireland: Always Settling and Never Settled”. 124 Vol. Oxford:

Oxford Publishing Limited(England), 2009. Print.


Denton, Doug. “Swift’s Abolishing of Christianity in England”. Clarksville, Indiana. EBSCO

Publishing, 2002. Print.


Fauske, Christopher. Jonathan Swift and the Church of Ireland 1710-1724. Dublin: Irish

Academic Press, 2002. Print.


Miller, Kim. “Literary analysis: A Modest Proposal, by Jonathan Swift”. Andover,

Massachusetts: Helium Press, 2013.


Mortensen, Matt. “Literary analysis: A Modest Proposal, by Jonathan Swift”. Andover,

Massachusetts: Helium Press, 2013.


Quirk, Barbera. “Swift Could Get to the Heart of Gay Marriage”. Ban all Edition. Madison

Capital Times: B.4. 2006. Print.


Swift, Jonathan. Ed. Robert A. Greenberg. Gulliver’s Travels. New York: Norton & Company, Print.


Wall, Cynthia. A Concise Companion to the Restoration and Eighteenth Century. Malden,

MA: Blackwell Pub, 2005. Print.


Xu, Xiang. “Jonathan Swift’s Journey of Religious Satire. (Critical Essay).” Asian Culture and

History 1.1 (2009): 45. Print.


Yates, Nigel. Eighteenth-Century Britain: Religion and Politics, 1715-1815. New York:

Longman, 2008. Print.


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