A Modest Proposal

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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.

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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.

The story

A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick (to give it its full title) is reckoned by many to be one of the greatest satirical pieces ever written in English. Though plenty of people at the time, and ever since, thought the author was being serious…

It was published in pamphlet form by Jonathan Swift in 1729, very much in the style of other contemporary essays trying to persuade the public of some political, moral, philosophical or economic argument.

His “modest proposal” is that the Irish ought to make their own lives easier, and stop being a drain on the public purse, by selling their children to the rich to eat. He supports his argument with financial calculations as well as “evidence” from such authorities as “Psalmanazar, a native of the island Formosa” (George Psalmanazar was an impostor who claimed to be from Formosa and wrote a bestselling book about his putative homeland; he even made up its language). The “very knowing American of my acquaintance” line would also be an obvious joke; in 18th-century London inhabitants of Britain’s American colonies were thought of as backward and avaricious.

Its satirical power depends on the contrast between the rational, closely-argued case he sets out, and the ghastliness of what he’s actually proposing. Swift’s intention was to point out the grubby nature of British policy towards Ireland, and towards the poor in general.

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That’s arguably one of the things that’s given the essay its staying-power, and why it still gets quoted today. Long before Swift’s time, and ever since, Britons have argued fiercely about the welfare of the poor and sick. Just as nowadays some people and politicians complain that the unemployed have it too easy, there were folks in previous centuries complaining about poor rate encouraging idleness, or claiming that the underclass were laughing at us taxpaying mugs while they lived it up picking oakum and eating luxury gruel in the parish workhouse. Some things don’t change very much.