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Marketing A Modest Proposal

James Ward
A major achievement of Jonathan Swifts A Modest Proposal (1729) lies in its finding a
use for a previously unmarketable product. I AM assured by our Merchants that a Boy or a
Girl before twelve Years old, is no saleable Commodity, says the Proposer, before going on
to offer an ingenious solution to this lack of commercial viability.1 But the Proposal does
more than solve a salesmans dilemma. When it recommends that poor children be
butchered and sold to Persons of Quality and Fortune, Swifts text exhumes the dead
metaphor buried within the idea of consumption and extends it into an allegorical
representation of Irish society. As a product of that society, however, Swifts pamphlet was
subject to the processes it sought to indict. By exploring how one Dublin merchant handled
the eminently saleable commodity that was A Modest Proposal, this essay shows that Swifts
text was itself commodified. A close look at this process will help answer a question recently
posed by S. J. Connolly, who asks whether Swift should be seen as analyst or as
representative typeas a commentator on Irish society in his day, or as a product of that
society.2 This essay responds with the suggestion that the Proposal is very much a product
in the literal sense. The text may set Swift up as an outsider offering a horrified commentary
on an insanely acquisitive culture, but as a saleable product the Proposal cannot help but
participate in the cult of commodity fetishism it satirises.
By pointing to the ubiquity of consumption as process and metaphor in eighteenthcentury Ireland, several commentators have to date questioned the claim of Swifts text to
unique insight, and suggested that it can be accommodated within larger discourses of
consumption in literary and political history. Martyn Powell, Robert Mahony and Claude
Rawson have all in different ways contributed to a questioning of Swifts status as a
privileged observer of his society. Powell asserts that despite its exceptionalism, Swifts
Modest Proposal was not an aberrationthis cannibalistic strain runs through eighteenthcentury Irish literature when dealing with the relationship between imperial metropolis and
colony.3 Mahony adds relationships of dependency to those of consumption and shows
how these extend back through the seventeenth century, while Rawson, having identified
visions of industrial-scale murder and cannibalism as a recurring theme in Anglo-Irish
literature, goes on to locate Swift in relation to European discourses of barbarism and
cannibalism from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries.4 These more expansive and
inclusive views have usefully challenged a critical tradition which tended to privilege Swift
as having unrivalled insight, and which read A Modest Proposal as its ultimate expression
his last word on the state of Ireland, in Daviss phrase.5 My own concern is to complement
such long-range perspectives with an intense focus on the days and weeks surrounding the
Proposals publication, and through a study of this historical moment to relocate Swifts text
within a specifically commercial discourse. Showing how even a satire so biting as A Modest
Proposal could be peddled to the polite world in full knowledge of its ironic premise, I will
Irish Studies Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, 2007
ISSN 0967-0882 print 1469-9303 online/07/030283-294
q 2007 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/09670880701461811



argue that the consumer society of early eighteenth-century Ireland could accommodate
popular protest as well as consensus. But I also wish to expose the limited force of such
protest. The marketing of A Modest Proposal suggests that the pamphlet was sold to a
readership thatmuch like todays consumers of quality news, comment and ethically
sourced goodswas struggling to reconcile a taste for excessive consumption with a
compassionate urge to help those less fortunate than themselves. Ideally, they would like
to have been sold a product that could somehow gratify both desires at once. A Modest
Proposal tantalises its readers with this possibility. I will illustrate this argument with
reference to a series of announcements and advertisements that appeared in the Dublin
Intelligence newspaper around the time of A Modest Proposals publication. Looking at how
Swifts text was sold through the Intelligences pages, I wish to propose and explore a
connection between two separate observations made in Powells work on the politics of
consumption in eighteenth-century Ireland. Jonathan Swift was undoubtedly the most
important writer in the eighteenth century in relation to the politics of Irish consumption,
Powell observes, but newspapers [ . . . ] were probably one of the most important
locomotives of the consumer boom. The growth of advertisements played an important
role in securing a demand for all sorts of consumer and luxury items.6 By looking at A
Modest Proposal as one such consumer item, I will suggest that the dichotomy between
Swift as politically engaged individual and newspapers as an impersonal locomotive force
can be rethought. My aim in so doing is to argue that A Modest Proposals ironies and
ambivalences do not reflect Swifts satiric genius so much as the contradictory relations
between commerce, politics, and personhood to be encountered daily in his society.

A Modest Proposal was first published in Dublin in the autumn of 1729, some time
before the end of October, as Herbert Davis notes.7 By the second week in November the
Proposal was on sale at Richard Dicksons shop in Silver Court, where it contended for space
with a variety of curious wares. Dicksons father Francis had built up something of a business
empire in Dublin, and as well as producing a newspaper, the Dublin Intelligence, he owned
coffee houses and was involved in the marketing of everything from water jugs to patent
medicines.8 When Dickson junior became the sole proprietor of the business he began to
promote the sideline in drugs by calling his shop the Elixir Ware-House.9 He used his twiceweekly news-sheet to bruit the availability of his goods, and among the local news,
announcements and advertisements on the Dublin Intelligences verso, there often appears a
CATALOGUE of Choice Safe and Effectual REMEDIES for several Cureable Diseases &c. very
common in this Kingdom. Dicksons list offers such nostrums as Dr Hancocks Universal
Cordial, THE Famous Original Inestimable London Electuary, invented by the celebrated
Dr. Radcliffe, First Physician to her Late Majesty Queen ANNE, The Princely Lotion for the
Itch, The Royal Beautifying Fluid and, not least, The Balsam for the Piles.
In the issue for Saturday 8 November 1729, at the top of the column that contains his
list of remedies, Dickson announced that another sort of panacea could be found on his
The late Apparent Spirit of Patriotism, or Love to Our Country, so abounding of Late, has
produced a New Scheme, said in Publick to be written by D S , wherein the
Author as an Effectual Means for preventing the Children of Poor People, from being


a Burthen to their Parents or Country, and for making them Beneficial to the Publick, and
save Expences to the Nation, ingenuously Advises that one Fourth Part of the Infants
under Two Years Old, be forthwith Fattend, brought to market and Sold for Food,
reasoning that they will be Dainty Bits for Land Lords, who as they have already Devoured
most of the Parents, seem to have best Right to Eat up the Children.
N.B. This Excellent Treatise may be had at the Printers hereof.10

Dickson seems to have published this advertisement for Dean Swifts Excellent Treatise on
his own initiative, although Swift is on record as having issued instructions regarding the
promotion of some of his other works. One of the Drapiers letters upbraids its printer John
Harding for his lack of effort, commanding him to advertise the letters in every Newspaper, adding that Harding has got very well from the letters sale so far.11 Swifts printer
took the advice to heart, literally committing the Drapiers name to posterity. After being
imprisoned for publishing Swift, an ordeal which seems to have broken his health and led
to his death, his last defiant act was to have a son baptised John Drapier Harding. Four years
later, Hardings widow Sarah went on to publish what turned out to be her last imprint,
A Modest Proposal.12
Richard Dicksons advertisement for the Proposal lacks the authorial sanction and
emotional resonance of the Hardings association with Swift. Nonetheless it has proved
useful to scholars, helping establish a date for the Proposals first appearance and serving
more recently as evidence against the idea that Swifts text succeeded as a hoax. As Robert
Phiddian argues, it is difficult to sustain the notion that anyone could have taken the
Proposal seriously when Swift was being spoken of in Publick as its author so soon after its
first publication.13 By paraphrasing its giveaway line, one might add, Dicksons
advertisement spoils any claim that the Proposal might have over all but the most obtuse
readers credibility. Having digested the fact that fattened infants will make Dainty Bits for
Land Lords, who have a prior claim over them because they have already Devoured most of
the Parents, a reader of the Dublin Intelligence does not even have to access Swifts text to
diagnose it as ironic, with its claim that this Food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very
proper for Landlords; who, as they have already devoured most of the Parents, seem to have
the best Title to the Children (p. 112). In fact a regular reader of the Dublin Intelligence,
which had been complaining about the foolish Practice of Cruel Landlords almost a year
earlier, might have been quicker to get the joke than a modern reader of Swifts works.14
As well as a warning not to underestimate the literary sophistication of Swifts Dublin
contemporaries, the Dublin Intelligence provides a simulacrum of the marketplace in which
A Modest Proposal was first sold. Its printed page preserves a series of juxtapositions
reflecting those that once obtained both in Dicksons shop and the city beyond. In being
marketed alongside Dicksons water jugs and medical remedies, Swifts text becomes
complicit in the processes it would indict. As a specific that offers a quick fix, promoted by
its association with a famous name, Swifts pamphlet is formally identical with the patent
medicines and cosmetics on Dicksons shelves. The thought that the Proposal might once
have been picked up by someone who had stepped in to replenish dwindling supplies of
the Balsam for the Piles quickly yields to more serious reflections. A look at the weekly bill
of mortality that follows the advertisement in the Dublin Intelligence confirms that eight
people had died of consumption the previous week, one each of the ague and the Caugh,
and seventeen of fever. Whether or not they lived up to their publicity, Dicksons Effectual
REMEDIES for diseases very common in this Kingdom would certainly have been




in demand. With equal assurance of a captive market, Swifts Modest Proposer asserts,
I calculate my Remedy for this one individual Kingdom of IRELAND , and for no other that was
ever was (p. 116). The Dublin Intelligence helps diagnose the condition of a city where such
remedies were being prescribed.
The pages of the Intelligence reveal a city in which prurient and polite discourses
meet. Three days after it carried the advertisement for Swifts pamphlet, for example, the
Intelligence reported on the forthcoming productions of two eminent authors. The Rev.
Dean Swift has been some time Past, compiling the History of the late Earl of Oxford,
it announced, adding that the news had given the Polite World the greatest Satisfaction
and Pleasure. Meanwhile an Eminent Writer in Paris was about to publish a work
concerning the Petrifaction of several Substances, which had been occasioned by the
Authours discovering some Petrifyd Bones of Human kind in his Travels thro the Desarts of
Egypt. Swifts biography of Oxford never appeared; whether the treatise on petrifaction was
ever published was probably less important than what Dickson currently had on display in
his shop. This was a Petrifyd-Body, in all Appearance a Fresh-Bakd Cake, of Puft-Paste,
which Dickson proudly announced he had been commissioned to sell to any Curious
Person, at a lower Rate that in usually given for such Rarities.15
This transformation of once-living flesh into a saleable conversation-piece may seem
disturbingly close to the satiric premise of Swifts just-published pamphlet, even down to
the cannibalistic leer with which the journalist likens the body to a Fresh-Bakd Cake.
Dicksons reports on the phantom biography and petrified body are, however, concerned
with another sort of transformation. Tuesdays edition reframes in a polite context two
commodities that had been offered on Saturday as popular grotesques. So the rather shady
D S is reborn within three days as the Rev. Dean Swift, at work on what may
well be Presumd a Master-Piece. Swifts authorship moves from being the subject of
rumours to giving satisfaction and pleasure to the polite world. Meanwhile the Fattend
infant to be brought to Market and sold for Food also undergoes an alteration, returning
as the cake-like body which Dickson determines to sell to any Curious Person. As well as
reconciling polite and commercial discourses, the Intelligence brings a third, political,
dimension to its marketing of A Modest Proposal by placing it within the context of the late
Apparent Spirit of Patriotism.
The spirit of patriotism was most apparent at the funeral of William Conolly, which
was reported widely in the Dublin press in November 1729. Speaker of the Irish House of
Commons, Lord Chief Justice and the richest man in Ireland, Conolly was buried with
tremendous pomp in a ceremony that was also inscribed with political significance. As well
as describing it as the finest Funeral, that has been seen in the Kingdom these many Years,
the official account in the government-approved Dublin Gazette reported that all the
mourners scarves were of fine Linnen of Irish Manufacture, a gesture that was intended as
a publick benefit to the Kingdom.16 Just before launching into its pitch for Swifts Proposal,
a few days earlier, Dicksons Dublin Intelligence lauded the same practice as a Project which
must be of the utmost Advantage to this Kingdom, in a report on the funeral of a Young
Lady of GREAT Beauty, Merit, and Fortune. Named as Miss Fitzpatrick, she was interrd at St
Johns Church, the Bearers &c. having fine Linnen Scarves. According to the Intelligence, this
was the fourth corpse to have been buried in the new patriotic fashion, the others being
those of William Conolly, a Colonel Groves and a Mrs Mason, the wife of an Eminent
Clothier in Essex Street.17 By the edition of Saturday 15 November, two more had been
added to the list. Richard Nuttelly, Counsellor at Law, was buried at St Brides Church, where


the bearers wore Fine Irish Linnen Scarves at the direction of William Hawkins, who had also
managed William Conollys funeral. At another church in the city, a Mrs Gaffeny was buried
and the attendants lookd very Particular and decent in their Irish linen scarves.
The Intelligence greeted the new vogue in mourning-wear with self-congratulatory pride.
We may now say this laudible [sic ] Practice is Edtablishd, and (Thanks be to God) become a
Rule, to be generally followd to the everlasting Honour of the first *Publick Recommenders,
it comments. The asterisk directs the reader to a note at the foot of the page where the first
public recommender of the practice is identified as The Printer of this Dublin Intelligence.
It would seem that Swifts Modest Proposer was not the only individual who hinted during
the summer of 1729 at having his statue set up for a Preserver of the Nation (p. 109).
The belief that consumption should be promoted to the public as a means of national selfpreservation offers a revealing point of contact between the rhetoric of A Modest Proposal
and the city that produced it.
With its reports of local funerals, personalities, publications and curios, Dicksons
newspaper deals in a concentrated form of that discourse. In a culture dedicated to display,
objects of morbid fascination re-emerge as foci for consumer desire and protest.
The Intelligence offers certain gestures for public reading and stakes a claim to their
authorship, fusing public benefits with self-promotion, altruism with self-interest. In the
context of the commercial culture of the early eighteenth century, this is a default position
rather than an exceptional one. Private Vices, Public Benefits, the subtitle of Bernard
Mandevilles The Fable of the Bees (published serially between 1705 and 1729), offers itself as
a motto for what Robert Jones calls the spending spree of an epoch, when the British
consumer classes pursued newer, richer lives through the novelty of the commodity.18
A Modest Proposal, however, was seen to take part in a struggle in which more than mere
novelty was at stake. Seamus Deane points out that although the Proposal adopts
Mandevilles vision of all-consumer and all-consuming existence as a satiric premise, this
does not imply any acceptance by Swift of Mandevilles system.19 The reverse, however,
does not apply; on its publication the Proposal became part of just such a Mandevillean
system. When Swifts text went on sale, and its symbolic bodies took their place alongside
the genuine corpses of recently deceased patriots and petrified ancients, it was
accommodated within a culture of consumption centring on and driven by a concerned but
self-interested readership that had begun to invest vendible objects with powers of
Like the medicines alongside which it was sold, the Proposal was one of many patent
goods that promised to remedy an increasingly desperate situation. The commodity had
become a key component in a rhetoric of national survival. As the Dublin Intelligences reports
of recent funerary practices show, even the dead could be seen to do their patriotic duty in the
service of this cause, and the Modest Proposer was not the only one to co-opt passive bodies
into a sacrificial ritual designed to restore commercial vitality to a kingdom that was widely
suspected to be in terminal decline. On the very day that Dickson first advertised A Modest
Proposal in his paper, a member of the Irish parliament made a proposal of his own. Speaking
at a session of the committee on the state of the nation, he moved simply that this country
was in a miserable condition. Reporting this incident in a letter, Marmaduke Coghill added the
comment that it was such a strange motion that it was immediately laid aside.20 If the terms
used to describe the problem were unprecedentedly strange, many of the proposed
responses were equally eccentric. The widely held sense of ongoing crisis created a market for
solutions, and these came packaged in the form of pamphlet proposals. Along with the




corpses of eminent Dubliners, such pamphlets became another important medium for
propagating patriot rhetoric. The desire to ameliorate Irelands miserable condition gave rise
to a slew of ingenious or hare-brained plans from the pens of public-spirited gentlemen,
designed to redress the various areas in which the nations economic, political and social life
were held to be anomalous. A 1732 pamphlet entitled Schemes from Ireland for the Benefit of
the Body Natural, Ecclesiastical and Politick summarised and satirised this publishing trend by
including schemes ranging from an infallible proposal to pay off the national debt to
speculations on the cause and cure of piles.21 More serious projectors were hardly less
inventive. Indeed, the line between genuine and cod proposals was so fine that when a
scheme by Swift offering to reduce the national debt was reprinted in the 1735 edition of his
works, it carried a warning that The Reader will perceive the following Treatise to be altogether
As this remark suggests, Swift may be remembered as one who lampooned
projectors, but he was known in his day for earnest proposals as well as modest ones. In this
respect he was only one among many who proposed serious plans for reducing the
national debt or increasing the amount of small change in circulation, or devised ways to
account for the origin of loughs and bogs while proposing to drain those bogs and build
canals through them. A sample of tracts published on such subjects in the same year as
Swifts Proposal might include James Macullas A New Scheme Proposed to the People of
Ireland for Increasing the Cash of this Kingdom by Making Promissory Notes of Copper (and
Swifts unpublished reply, A Letter on Macullas Project about Halfpence and a new one
Proposed), David Bindons A Scheme for supplying Industrious Men with Money to carry on
their Trades and a tract signed Patrophilus entitled Considerations on the Act for
Encouraging In-Land Navigation in Ireland. Later in this essay I will go on to discuss a
proposal by John Browne which combined several of these concerns, and which also
happened to be advertised alongside Swifts more famous satiric pamphlet. For now it can
be observed that, like their comic counterparts, these Proposers do not observe any sharp
distinction between human and material resources, and while they place an earnest
emphasis on the benefits that will arise to the public from the implementation of their
chosen schemes, they also mount an appeal to the venal or selfish interests of their readers.
A Modest Proposal obeys this generic convention by appealing simultaneously to polite
pretensions and good intentions. Its unique selling point is an ability to combine patriotic
frugality with fashionable excess. Such a conflation is often achieved within the space of a
single sentence, as when Swifts text announces that roast baby will be introduced to the
Tables of all Gentlemen of Fortune in the Kingdom, who have any refinement in Taste.
Challenged to exhibit a minimum of refinement, these gentlemen are then assured that
they are adding to the amount of cash in circulation and that their Money will circulate
among ourselves, the Goods being entirely of our own Manufacture (p. 115). Swifts
speaker offers such advantages lightly, and his remarks on this score are customarily taken
as little more than the stylistic flourishes of a master-parodist. But the topicality of such
remarks in the autumn of 1729 should not be underestimated Swift is alluding to the
desperate shortage of money in the kingdom and the equally pressing question of how to
address this shortage whilst continuing to demonstrate ones refinement in taste.
By the time of the Proposals publication, as hinted in some of its shorter-lived
pamphlet contemporaries, the lack of money circulating in the Kingdom of Ireland had
become a critical issue that was feared to be about to culminate in total economic collapse.
In 1728, Archbishop King remarked to a correspondent: I dont know what will become of


this Kingdom for I dont see that any money can be left in it,23 while a contemporary tract
calculated that if one or two landowners were to sell their estates and the proceeds were
diverted to England, then the Kingdom would be left bankrupt. The author of this tract,
Thomas Prior, goes on to suggest a variety of ways to obviate such a crisis of circulation. His
proposed measures include burying the dead in shrouds of wool, which, unlike linen, could
not be sold abroad. For this Prior earned the praise of the Dublin Intelligence, which
commended him for proposing a strategy that would allow his countrymen to encrease
the Manufacture of and consume a Commodity they are not allowed to export.24 A Modest
Proposal, which by this point had been on sale at Dicksons for at least a week, also
emphasised that its own favoured Kind of Commodity will not bear exportation (p. 117).
By envisioning a commodity capable simultaneously of sustaining domestic production
and stimulating consumption, the Proposal invests its chosen product with a set of qualities
that look paradoxical only because they are ideal, offering it as at once cheap and luxurious,
self-indulgent and public spirited. In doing so it met a real need, one identified in Toby
Barnards discussion of the quickening consumerism of Protestant Ireland as the necessity
of balancing the desire to buy Irish against an anxiety to adopt the correct modes.25 This
quest found its fulfilment in the pages of A Modest Proposal. The Proposal undertakes a
project that is more utopian than satiric; the text may indict the ethics of consumption, but
its logic is spun into a soteriological fantasy, one upon which its author fortunately fell. It
offers salvation though an expedient that is wholly new, which hath something solid and
real, of no Expence and little Trouble, full in our own Power (p. 117). Reading the Proposal
as part of the Dublin Intelligences twice-weekly diet of news, politics and salesmanship
shows how Swifts text neither accelerated the contemporary rhetoric of commodity
fetishism nor put the brakes on it, but was merely caught up for a week or so in its flow.

Swifts late masterpiece may have survived as the enduring comment on the
pamphlet-proposal genre, but in the hands of contemporaries it proved more expendable.
On Saturday 15 November, one week after the first advertisement for A Modest Proposal,
Richard Dickson was attempting to launch another proposal into circulation. To do so he
tried to capitalise on the success of the pamphlet he had been selling the previous week.
The second (and last) mention of the Proposal by the Dublin Intelligence deserves to be
quoted in full:
What further Worthy that we have to communicate at Present, is, that since the
publication of the Modest Proposal for Eating up our Children, for fear they should want,
said to be written by D S , a worthy gentleman (John Browne Esq;) has now
found out a much better Provision both for them and their anguishing parents in shewing,
in an Excellent, Accurate Treatise, dedicated to the Lord Bishop of Elphin; The Benefits
which arise to a Trading People from Navigable Rivers, &c. wherein he not only ingeniously
Accounts for the Origin of Loughs and Bogs, but also shews a method whereby the
Kingdom may Reap the most abundant Advantage, in the Inhabitants, (who Deal in staple
Commodities) being able to Gain 46 l. per Cent. which is now lost for want of a Regular
Communication between the Inland and Maritime Parts of this Country, which, if it could
once be brought to pass, (and he gives an excellent Scheme for its Perfection) it will not



only support many Thousands in Want, but Enable many to live in Grandeur, who now
dream of little else than being settled but at a Degree above Poverty.26

Although still wary about betraying the open secret of D S s identity, Dickson
has fewer compunctions about naming the author of this latest Excellent, Accurate
Treatise, which John Browne published under his own name. Browne was already a
notorious figure in relation to Swift because in July 1724 he had testified before the English
Privy Council to the integrity of William Woods copper farthings and halfpence. One of
Swifts sermons attacks Browne indirectly for this treachery, while the Drapiers third letter
names him outright.27 Consequently, Browne has been held up in the secondary literature
as one whom Swift publicly condemned; as a signal example of an Englishman who
glutted Ireland for petty advancements.28 In fact the Mayo-born Browne was never
condemned as an Englishman by Swift. Browne continued to venerate Swift throughout his
life, erecting a monument to him in his home town and leaving an endowment to fund an
annual celebration of his birthday.29 And, in the end, Swift also found time to say a good
word for Browne.
Browne wrote to Swift in April 1728 to ask that his name be removed from
subsequent editions of the Drapiers third letter. Swift complied with this request and even
went on to pay him a private compliment.30 This takes the form of an annotation made by
Swift in a presentation copy of Brownes collected Essays on the Trade and Coin of Ireland
(now in the University Library, Cambridge), which the author had bound in Russian leather
and sent to Swift with a gilt inscription on the cover. Swifts marginalia are collected in the
fifth volume of Daviss edition, which records that next to Brownes suggestion that the
dead be buried in home-spun Linnen, Swift wrote: This hint, happily started by Mr Brown,
hath since been successfully put into execution.31 So it seems that rather than continue to
despise Browne, Swift actually credited him as the author of a good idea that had been put
into practice. Strikingly, the Dublin Intelligence states that same Practice is Establishd and
become a Rule at Dublin funerals in its issue for 11 November 1729, the Tuesday between
the two successive Saturdays on which it had pitched A Modest Proposal to the public.
Even though he chose to praise Thomas Priors policy of burying the dead in wool
rather than Brownes suggestion of linen, Richard Dickson was no less effusive in his acclaim
for another of Brownes schemes. The Excellent Accurate Treatise referred to in the Dublin
Intelligence of 15 November 1729 proposed the construction of a canal connecting the
Liffey with the Shannon, and a series of improvements to make both rivers navigable by
barge. Schemes similar to Brownes had been widely promoted since the beginning of the
century as being more feasible than building an extensive network of roads in a country
that was thought to be over-run with Bogs.32 The Dublin House of Commons had been
petitioned about improving the navigation of the Shannon in 1709 and had received a
report recommending the construction of a canal between Newry and Lough Neagh in
1703.33 Another advantage of such projects was that the construction of waterways would
provide employment for the poor, as recommended by a pamphlet of 1723.34
As well as a public benefit to the kingdom, Brownes scheme offered a particular
incentive to those like himself, but also like Richard Dickson, who Deal in Staple
Commodities. As the Dublin Intelligence notes, merchants who make use of the new
network will profit up to 46 percent, and in its early stages the financing of the scheme also
presented opportunities. Browne suggests that a company be incorporated to oversee the
project and that books be opened, one at Daniel Kennedys House in Athlone and another


at the Old-Globe Coffee-House in Dublin, for taking subscriptions until the necessary sum of
11,000 had been raised.35 But according to the Dublin Intelligence, the advantages that will
arise to private investors from Brownes plan fade before the benefits to be reaped by the
public. The scheme will not only support many Thousands in Want, but Enable many to
Live in Grandeur, who now Dream of Little else than being settled but at a Degree above
Poverty. This seems to promise salvation after the false dawn of A Modest Proposal:
following the previous weeks praise of Swifts pamphlet, Dickson dismisses it in favour of
Brownes much better Provision.
It is difficult to gauge the register of this item in the Dublin Intelligence, which is
arguably more elusive, and certainly more alien to a modern reader, than that of A Modest
Proposal. In the context of contemporary debates in the Dublin press, Dicksons praise of
Browne could possibly be read as a sarcastic dismissal of self-interested opportunism.
As Johnston Liik documents, the Irish parliament, driven by the need to provide the rapidly
growing capital with a cheap and reliable supply of food, and particularly fuel would in
1730 begin a policy of canal-building by appointing Commissioners of Navigation.36 Word
of this policy must have been in the air over the summer, as evidenced by an argument that
was being conducted in the pages of George Faulkners Dublin Journal. On 19 July another
paper, Pues Occurrences, published a proposal to construct a navigable passage between
Newry and Lough Neagh for the purpose of transporting coal, and to collect a subscription
of 20,000 with which to fund the project. In his paper the following Saturday, Faulkner
published a set of queries relating to this scheme. They pointed out that subscribers stood
to make upwards of 50 l. per Cent Profit from the enterprise and asked whether the
Proposer has not so much the publick as private Interest in View?37 This was a question
that Browne had sought to anticipate and deflect in his own canal-building proposal,
announcing it to be a Business in which I am far from designing any particular advantage to
my self, excepting only, the Honour of being instrumental in bringing about an
Undertaking so advantagious to my country [sic].38
If Richard Dickson mistrusted Brownes assurance of public spiritedness, he chose a
rather high-flown method of condemnation, damning his Excellent, Accurate Treatise with
an excess of praise. Anecdotal evidence suggests that when he did wish to lambaste
someone in print, Dickson did not mince his words. His Dublin Intelligence of Tuesday 11
November indulges in a fulsome criticism of the local Officers of the Mace, condemning the
Villainy, Extortion, Robbery and Barbarity of those Reprobates and adding that by their
Crimes, (tho the Scum of the Earth) they are said to be supported in Pride and Luxury,
assuming the Garb of Gentlemen.39 This outburst is notably framed in a language of
economic transgression, highlighting the misuse of material goods. The Officers crime
involves Luxury and the inappropriate assumption of the clothes of Gentlemen. Dicksons
reference to John Browne as a worthy gentleman on Saturday 15 November perhaps acts
as a corrective. In Dicksons precis, Brownes proposal offers to realise the dream that even
Swifts Modest Proposal declines. This is a vision based on the total transformation of the
economy which yet retains social distinctions intact, supporting many thousands in want
but enabling many others to Live in Grandeur.
Of course, Dickson may simply have been holding Browne up to public ridicule.
Nonetheless, in so doing, he produced the fullest articulation of the socio-economic
experiment in which A Modest Proposal partakes. Dicksons newspaper, whether dealing
with recent funerals, the pamphlets of Swift or Browne, or the crimes of the Officers at
Mace, displays an ambivalent fixation on the commodity as a marker of national identity




and as a vehicle for social progress. In some ways this is as complex and intriguing as Swifts
better-known meditation on the same theme. But such reflections might have held little
value for Richard Dickson, for whom November 1729 would prove a difficult month.
His Intelligence for Tuesday 18 November reports how he paid the price for his earlier
outburst against the Officers of the Mace. On Saturday last, the report says, several Officers
at mace, attended by a Gang of their Followers, assembled themselves in an unlawful
Manner at the House of Rich. Dickson, Printer. There they declard with the most horrible
Oaths and Imprecations, an Intention to murder the said Dickson, which they would have
fulfilled but for the concourse of honest People, who gathered to know the reason of such
uncommon Proceedings. As A Modest Proposal passed out of the news and into the canon,
one Dublin printer had already turned his mind to more pressing matters.


Research for this article was assisted by a bursary from the British Association for Irish
Studies. I am grateful to Chris Nield and David Fairer for their careful reading and helpful
Swift, A Modest Proposal, Prose XII , 111. Subsequent references to A Modest Proposal are
given parenthetically in the main text.
Connolly, Swift and Protestant Ireland, 29.
Powell, Politics of Consumption, 38.
Mahony, Protestant Dependence; The Irish Colonial Experience and Swifts Rhetoric of
Perception in the 1720s; Rawson, Killing the Poor; God, Gulliver and Genocide.
Davis, Introduction, Prose XII , xxi.
Powell, Politics of Consumption, 41 42, 2.
Davis, Introduction, Prose XII , xix.
Munter, Dictionary of the Print Trade in Ireland, 77.
Advertisement reproduced in Munter, History of the Irish Newspaper, plate 13 between
pages 208 and 209.
Dublin Intelligence, 8 November 1729.
Swift, Prose X , 24.
Munter, Dictionary of the Print Trade in Ireland, 127, 128.
Davis, Prose IX , xix; Ferguson, Swift and Ireland, 171; Phiddian, Have You Eaten Yet?, 607.
Dublin Intelligence, 28 December 1728.
Ibid., 11 November 1729.
Dublin Gazette, 4 8 November 1729.
Dublin Intelligence, 8 November 1729.
Jones, Gender and the Formation of Taste in Eighteenth-century Britain, 4.
Deane, Swift and Burke, 15, 16.
Marmaduke Coghill to Edward Southwell, 8 November 1729, British Library Add MS
21,122, vol. I , fol. 91.
Pilkington, Schemes from Ireland, title page.
Swift, Prose XII , 207.
William King to Edward Southwell, 27 April 1728, Trinity College Dublin MS 750, vol. 9,
58; Thomas Prior, A List of the Absentees of Ireland.
Dublin Intelligence, 15 November 1729.
Barnard, Making the Grand Figure, 122, 123.


26. Dublin Intelligence, 15 November 1729.
27. Herbert Davis, ed., The Drapiers Letters, 226 28. Subsequent references to Browne are
based on this source.
28. Clayton D. Lein, Jonathan Swift and the Population of Ireland, 439.
29. The Drapiers Letters, 226 and 36n.
30. John Browne to Swift, 4 April 1728, Correspondence, vol. III , 174 77. Published separately
as A Letter to the Author of A Short View of the State of Ireland. When it was collected in vol.
IV of George Faulkners edition of Swifts works, the third Drapiers Letter emended
Browne to B .
31. Swift, Prose V , 257.
32. Browne, The Benefits which arise to a Trading People from Navigable Rivers, 26.
33. Johnston Liik, History of the Irish Parliament, I , 228.
34. Anon., Letter to a Member of Parliament.
35. Browne, The Benefits which arise to a Trading People from Navigable Rivers, 35 36.
36. Johnston Liik, History of the Irish Parliament, I , 228.
37. Faulkners Dublin Journal, 26 29 July 1729.
38. Browne, Navigable Rivers, 35.
39. Dublin Intelligence, 18 November 1729.


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James Ward, School of Languages and Literature, University of Ulster, Coleraine, N. Ireland,
BT52 1SA.