The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 9/A Letter to the Archbishop of Dublin Concerning the Weavers
THE corporation of weavers in the woollen manufacture, who have so often attended your grace, and called upon me with their schemes and proposals, were with me on Thursday last; when he who spoke for the rest, and in the name of his absent brethren, said, "It was the opinion of the whole body, that if somewhat were written at this time, by an able hand, to persuade the people of this kingdom to wear their own woollen manufactures, it might be of good use to the nation in general, and preserve many hundreds of their trade from starving." To which I answered, "That it was hard for any man of common spirit, to turn his thoughts to such speculations, without discovering a resentment, which people are too delicate to bear." For I will not deny to your grace, that I cannot reflect on the singular condition of this country, different from all others upon the face of the earth, without some emotion; and without often examining, as I pass the streets, whether those animals which come in my way, with two legs and human faces, clad and erect, be of the same species, with what I have seen very like them in England as to the outward shape, but differing in their notions, natures, and intellectuals, more than any two kinds of brutes in a forest; which any man of common prudence would immediately discover, by persuading them to define what they mean by law, liberty, property, courage, reason, loyalty, or religion.
One thing, my lord, I am very confident of; that if God Almighty, for our sins, would most justly send us a pestilence, whoever should dare to discover his grief in publick for such a visitation, would certainly be censured for disaffection to the government: for I solemnly profess, that I do not know one calamity we have undergone these many years, which any man, whose opinions were not in fashion, dared to lament, without being openly charged with that imputation. And this is the harder, because although a mother, when she has corrected her child, may sometimes force it to kiss the rod, yet she will never give that power to the footboy or the scullion.
My lord, there are two things for the people of this kingdom to consider: first, their present evil condition; and, secondly, what can be done in some degree to remedy it.
I shall not enter into a particular description of our present misery: it has been already done in several papers, and very fully in one entitled, "A short View of the State of Ireland." It will be enough to mention the entire want of trade, the navigation act executed with the utmost rigour, the remission of a million every year to England, the ruinous importation of foreign luxury and vanity, the oppression of landlords, and discouragement of agriculture.
Now all these evils are without the possibility of a cure, except that of importations; and to fence against ruinous folly, will be always in our power, in spite of the discouragements, mortifications, contempt, hatred, and opposition, we labour under: but our trade will never mend, the navigation act never be softened, our absentees never return, our endless foreign payments never be lessened, our own landlords never be less exacting.
All other schemes for preserving this kingdom from utter ruin, are idle and visionary; consequently drawn from wrong reasoning, and from general topicks, which, for the same causes that they may be true in all nations, are certainly false in ours; as I have told the publick often enough, but with as little effect, as what I shall say at present is likely to produce.
I am weary of so many abortive projects for the advancement of trade; of so many crude proposals, in letters sent me from unknown hands; of so many contradictory speculations, about raising or sinking the value of gold and silver: I am not in the least sorry to hear of the great numbers going to America, although very much for the causes that drive them from us, since the uncontrolled maxim, "That people are the riches of a nation," is no maxim here under our circumstances. We have neither manufactures to employ them about, nor food to support them.
If a private gentleman's income be sunk irretrievably for ever, from a hundred pounds to fifty, and he has no other method to supply the deficiency; I desire to know, my lord, whether such a person has any other course to take, than to sink half his expenses in every article of economy, to save himself from ruin and a gaol. Is not this more than doubly the case of Ireland, where the want of money, the irretrievable ruin of trade, with the other evils above-mentioned, and many more too well known and felt, and too numerous or invidious to be related, have been gradually sinking us, for above a dozen years past, to a degree, that we are at least by two thirds in a worse condition, than was ever known since the revolution? Therefore, instead of dreams and projects for the advancing of trade, we have nothing left but to find out some expedient, whereby we may reduce our expenses to our incomes.
Yet this procedure, allowed so necessary in all private families, and in its own nature so easy to be put in practice, may meet with strong opposition, by the cowardly slavish indulgence of the men, to the intolerable pride, arrogance, vanity, and luxury of the women; who, strictly adhering to the rules of modern education, seem to employ their whole stock of invention in contriving new arts of profusion, faster than the most parsimonious husband can afford: and, to compass this work the more effectually, their universal maxim is, to despise and detest every thing of the growth of their own country, and most to value whatever comes from the very remotest parts of the globe. And I am convinced, that if the virtuosi could once find out a world in the moon, with a passage to it, our women would wear nothing but what came directly from thence.
The prime cost of wine yearly imported to Ireland, is valued at thirty thousand pounds; and the tea (including coffee and chocolate) at five times that sum. The lace, silks, calicoes, and all other unnecessary ornaments for women in eluding English cloths and stuffs, added to the former articles, make up (to compute grossly) about four hundred thousand pounds.
Now if we should allow the thirty thousand pounds wherein the women have their share, and which is all we have to comfort us, and deduct seventy thousand pounds more for overreaching, there would still remain three hundred thousand pounds annually spent, for unwholesome drugs and unnecessary finery: which prodigious sum would be wholly saved, and many thousands of our miserable shopkeepers and manufacturers comfortably supported.
Let speculative people busy their brains as much as they please, there is no other way to prevent this kingdom from sinking for ever, than by utterly renouncing all foreign dress and luxury.
It is absolutely so in fact, that every husband of any fortune in the kingdom, is nourishing a poisonous devouring serpent in his bosom, with all the mischief, but with none of its wisdom.
If all the women were clad with the growth of their own country, they might still vie with each other in the course of foppery; and still have room left to vie with each other, and equally show their wit and judgment, in deciding upon the variety of Irish stuffs. And if they could be contented with their native wholesome slops for breakfast, we should hear no more of the spleen, hystericks, colicks, palpitations, and asthmas. They might still be allowed to ruin each other and their husbands at play, because the money lost would only circulate among ourselves.
My lord, I freely own it a wild imagination, that any words will cure the sottishness of men, or the vanity of women: but the kingdom is in a fair way of producing the most effectual remedy, when there will not be money left for the common course of buying and selling the very necessaries of life in our markets, unless we absolutely change the whole method of our proceedings.
The corporation of weavers in woollen and silk, who have so frequently offered proposals both to your grace and to me, are the hottest and coldest generation of men that I have known. About a month ago, they attended your grace, when I had the honour to be with you; and designed me the same favour. They desired you would recommend to your clergy to wear gowns of Irish stuffs, which might probably spread the example among all their brethren in the kingdom; and, perhaps, among the lawyers and gentlemen of the university, and among the citizens of those corporations who appear in gowns on solemn occasions. I then mentioned a kind of stuff, not above eight pence a yard, which I heard had been contrived by some of the trade, and was very convenient. I desired they would prepare some of that, or any sort of black stuff, on a certain day, when your grace would appoint as many clergymen as could readily be found to meet at your palace, and there give their opinions; and that your grace's visitation approaching, you could then have the best opportunity of seeing what could be done in a matter of such consequence, as they seemed to think, to the woollen manufacture. But, instead of attending, as was expected, they came to me a fortnight after with a new proposal that, something should be written, by an acceptable and able hand, to promote in general the wearing of home manufactures; and their civilities would fix that work upon me. I asked if they had prepared the stuffs, as they had promised, and your grace expected; but they had not made the least step in the matter, nor, as it appears, thought of it more.
I did, some years ago, propose to the masters and principal dealers in the home manufactures of silk and wool, that they should meet together; and after mature consideration, publish advertisements to the following purpose.
That in order to encourage the wearing of Irish manufactures in silk and woollen, they gave notice to the nobility and gentry of the kingdom. That they, the undersigned, would enter into bonds, for themselves and for each other, to sell the several sorts of stuffs, cloths, and silks, made to the best perfection they were able, for certain fixed prices; and in such a manner, that if a child were sent to any of their shops, the buyer might be secure of the value and goodness, and measure of the ware: and, least this might be thought to look like a monopoly, any other member of the trade might be admitted, upon such conditions as should be agreed on. And if any person whatsoever should complain that he was ill used, in the value and goodness of what he bought, the matter should be examined, the person injured be fully satisfied by the whole corporation without delay, and the dishonest seller be struck out of the society, unless it appeared evidently that the failure proceeded only from mistake.
The mortal danger is, that if these dealers could prevail, by the goodness and cheapness of their cloths and stuffs, to give a turn to the principal people of Ireland in favour of their goods; they would relapse into the knavish practice, peculiar to this kingdom, which is apt to run through all trades, even so low as a common aleseller; who, as soon as he gets a vogue for his liquor, and outsells his neighbours, thinks his credit will put off the worst he can buy, till his customers will come no more. Thus I have known at London, in a general mourning, the drapers dye black all their old damaged goods, and sell them at double rates; then complain, and petition the court, that they are ready to starve by the continuance of the mourning.
Therefore, I say, those principal weavers who would enter into such a compact as I have mentioned, must give sufficient security against all such practices: for, if once the women can persuade their husbands that foreign goods, beside the finery, will be as cheap, and do more service, our last state will be worse than the first.
I do not here pretend to digest perfectly the method by which these principal shopkeepers shall proceed, in such a proposal: but my meaning is clear enough, and cannot reasonably be objected against.
We have seen what a destructive loss the kingdom received, by the detestable fraud of the merchants, or northern linenweavers, or both; notwithstanding all the care of the governors at that board, when we had an offer of commerce with the Spaniards for our linen, to the value, as I am told, of thirty thousand pounds a year. But, while we deal like pedlars, we shall practise like pedlars, and sacrifice all honesty to the present urging advantage.
What I have said may serve as an answer to the desire made me by the corporation of weavers, that I would offer my notions to the publick. As to any thing farther, let them apply themselves to the parliament in their next session. Let them prevail on the house of commons to grant one very reasonable request; and I shall think there is still some spirit left in the nation, when I read a vote to this purpose: "Resolved, nemine contradicente, That this house will, for the future, wear no cloths but such as are made of Irish growth or of Irish manufacture, nor will permit their wives or children to wear any other; and that they will, to the utmost, endeavour to prevail with their friends, relations, dependents, and tenants, to follow their example." And if, at the same time, they could banish tea and coffee, and chinaware, out of their families, and force their wives to chat their scandal over an infusion of sage, or other wholesome domestick vegetables, we might possibly be able to subsist, and pay our absentees, pensioners, generals, civil officers, appeals, colliers, temporary travellers, students, schoolboys, splenetick visitors of Bath, Tunbridge, and Epsom, with all other smaller drains, by sending our crude unwrought goods to England, and receiving from thence, and all other countries, nothing but what is fully manufactured, and keep a few potatoes and oatmeal for our own subsistence.
I have been for a dozen years past wisely prognosticating the present condition of this kingdom; which any human creature of common sense could foretel, with as little sagacity as myself. My meaning is, that a consumptive body must needs die, which has spent all its spirits, and received no nourishment. Yet I am often tempted to pity, when I hear the poor farmer and cottager lamenting the hardness of the times, and imputing them either to one or two ill seasons, which better climates than ours are more exposed to; or to scarcity of silver, which, to a nation of liberty, would only be a slight and temporary inconvenience, to be removed at a month's warning.