Jonathan Swift's Political Beliefs
David Cody, Associate Professor of English, Hartwick College
Politics seems to have been of interest to Swift early in his career chiefly to the extent that it affected the strength and stability of the Anglican Church (in both England and Ireland) of which he was a member. The restoration of the Catholic monarchy, which was a real threat during his lifetime, would, he feared, result in "Papist" absolutism; in the loss of the liberties, privileges, and freedoms which the English Constitution granted to Protestants, if not to Catholics or Dissenters. Between the Restoration and James II's final flight to France, it had appeared not at all unlikely, to members of Swift's social class in England as in Ireland, that the English monarchy might relapse into a religious and political despotism. When James II succeeded his brother Charles II in 1685, and began gradually to reintroduce Catholics into key positions in the government and the army--and when, in 1688, he produced a male heir, thereby raising the possibility of an English Catholic Dynasty, the result was the bloodless Glorious Revolution, which Swift supported: William of Orange, proclaiming himself the defender of English freedoms, landed in England with 15,000 troops, while James, his popular support evaporating, fled to France.
The Revolution made English constitutionalism much more secure: the powers of the monarchy were severely limited, while those of parliament were strengthened. Supreme legislative power derived from a complex alliance between the King, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons: executive power resided with the king, but had to be lawfully exercised, while governmental ministers were liable to prosecution and impeachment if they behaved improperly. Respect for the civil and religious liberties of the subject (the loyal subject) was strongly emphasized.
Early in his life Swift was a member of the Whig party. The Whig government's flirtation with the Dissenters, however, helped to drive him, at at time when it seemed, in any case, to be a change which might advance his career, into the Tory camp. When Queen Anne died, however, and the Tory Government fell, he lost forever the chance of religious preferment in England which he had coveted for so long. The political pamphlets, however, which he would ultimately produce while he lived in what was for him a strange kind of exile in his native Ireland--the tracts and satires like "A Modest Proposal" in which he defended the interests of his church and his class (and, by implication, his country) against what he had come increasingly to recognize as English colonialism--made him enormously popular, late in his life, in a country which he despised. He was idolized by a people the vast majority of whom, since they were Roman Catholics, he would have denied religious and political freedom. After his death he became a national hero and, more importantly, was perceived as having been a nationalist leader--which, in a real though limited sense, he certainly was.
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000