Jonathan Swift and Contemporary History
Swift's career as an author and satirist reflects both his religious and his political preoccupations, which have their roots in his personal history and in the history of his times. He had been born in Ireland, but his grandfather had been a notable loyalist in the English Civil War: his father and three uncles had settled in Ireland after the Restoration. Swift's mother, too, was the daughter of an English clergyman. A great deal of Swift's life was spent in bitter disappointment either in England or in what was for him a sort of exile in Ireland, for it was in England that he desired, and attempted, to rise to power. He was himself, however, a priest in the Church of Ireland, and since English deaneries and bishoprics were not given to individuals of Irish birth his desires were continually thwarted--and, as he saw it, his services to his country continually unappreciated.
Those services included his persistent and unswerving attacks on those irrational forces in politics and religion which threatened the maintenance of stability in both Ireland and England. In religious terms, he was an advocate of a rational Anglicanism which had to be defended from the attacks of Roman Catholicism on the one hand and from the Puritan Dissenters on the other.
Politically, he began his career as a Whig, but by 1709 the Whig rapprochement with the Dissenters had disturbed him greatly, and when a Tory ministry replaced the Whigs in 1710, and seemed to be inclined to favor the Church of England, he allowed himself to be recruited by the Tory Prime Minister, Robert Harley (who had already enlisted Daniel Defoe in their cause, and who promised Swift that Queen Ann would reward him for his endeavors) and rapidly became the chief Tory pamphleteer in the strugggle between the two parties for public favor. He refused, however, to accept the traditional Tory belief in the divine right of kings, and continued to insist that ultimate political power in England derived from the people, and manifested itself in a carefully maintained alliance between King and Parliament which protected individual liberties and avoided tyranny. When the Queen (who seems to have regarded Swift's A Tale of a Tub as irreligious) finally did reward him for his efforts as a propagandist, however, it was with the deanery of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Ireland, an important enough Irish post, but not, as he had hoped, a position which would allow him to remain in England.
In 1714 Queen Anne died, and George I, upon his accession to the throne, brought the Whigs back to power. Swift, who would visit England only twice more during his lifetime, returned to Ireland, where he was attacked by the Anglo-Irish Whigs, and at first remained quiet. Gradually, however, he became more and more concerned with the blatant inequities in English policies toward Ireland--policies implemented by the Whig Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole. Eventually he began to publish again, attacking, in the Drapier's Letters and in "A Modest Proposal," both the English and the Irish themselves for the ruinous state of affairs which existed at the time.
Beneath all of his satires, however, the same concern manifested itself: his belief that man's reason and common sense, his highest faculties, were continually interfered with by his tendency to act irrationally. Gulliver's Travels, his greatest satire, which was published in 1726, and which was immediately successful, embodies this concern from various perspectives: it is by turns a political allegory, a satire on Walpole's Whig administration, and a satirical dissection of the human spirit. In it, most importantly, we can detect his own distress over the blindnesses and stupidities which had blighted his own career and threatened to destroy the societal values and aspirations which he valued most.
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000