The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 9/Answer to Several Letters from Unknown Persons






I AM inclined to think that I received a letter from you two[1] last summer, directed to Dublin, while I was in the country, whither it was sent me: and I ordered an answer to it to be printed; but, it seems, it had little effect, and I suppose this will have not much more. But the heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed. And, gentlemen, I am to tell you another thing; that the world is too regardless of what we write for the publick good: that after we have delivered our thoughts, without any prospect of advantage, or of reputation, which latter is not to be had but by subscribing our names, we cannot prevail upon a printer to be at the charge of sending it into the world, unless we will be at all or half the expense: and although we are willing enough to bestow our labours, we think it unreasonable to be out of pocket; because it probably may not consist with the situation of our affairs.

I do very much approve your good intentions, and in a great measure, your manner of declaring them; and I do imagine you intended that the world should not only know your sentiments, but my answer, which I shall impartially give.

That great prelate, in whose cover you directed your letter, sent it to me this morning; and I begin my answer to night, not knowing what interruption I may meet with.

I have ordered your letter to be printed, as it ought to be, along with my answer; because I conceive, it will be more acceptable and informing to the kingdom.

I shall therefore now go on to answer your letter in all manner of sincerity.

Although your letter be directed to me, yet I take myseif to be only an imaginary person: for, although I conjecture I had formerly one from you, yet I never answered it otherwise than in print; neither was I at a loss to know the reasons why so many people of this kingdom were transporting themselves to America. And if this encouragement were owing to a pamphlet written, giving an account of the country of Pennsylvania, to tempt people to go thither; I do declare, that those who were tempted, by such a narrative, to such a journey, were fools, and the author a most impudent knave; at least, if it be the same pamphlet I saw when it first came out, which is above twenty-five years ago, dedicated to William Penn (whom by a mistake you call sir William Penn) and styling him by authority of the Scripture most noble governor. For I was very well acquainted with Penn, and did, some years after, talk with him upon that pamphlet, and the impudence of the author, who spoke so many things in praise of the soil and climate, which Penn himself did absolutely contradict. For he did assure me, "That this country wanted the shelter of mountains, which left it open to the northern winds from Hudson's Bay, and the Frozen Sea, which destroyed all plantations of trees, and was even pernicious to all common vegetables." But, indeed, New York, Virginia, and other parts less northward, or more defended by mountains, are described as excellent countries; but, upon what conditions of advantage foreigners go thither, I am yet to seek.

What evils our people avoid by running from hence, is easier to be determined. They conceive themselves to live under the tyranny of most cruel exacting landlords, who have no views farther than increasing their rent-rolls. Secondly, You complain of the want of trade, whereof you seem not to know the reason. Thirdly, You lament most justly the money spent by absentees in England. Fourthly, You complain that your linen manufacture declines. Fifthly, That your tithe collectors oppress you. Sixthly, That your children have no hopes of preferment in the church, the revenue, or the army; to whch you might have added the law, and all civil employments whatsoever. Seventhly, You are undone for want of silver, and want all other money.

I could easily add some other motives, which, to men of spirit, who desire and expect, and think they deserve the common privileges of human nature, would be of more force than any you have yet named, to drive them out of this kingdom. But, as these speculations may probably not much affect the brains of your people, I shall choose to let them pass unmentioned. Yet, I cannot but observe, that my very good and virtuous friend, his excellency Burnet[2] (O fili, nec tali indigne parente!) has not hitherto been able to persuade his vassals, by his oratory in the style of a commander, to settle a revenue on his viceroyal person. I have been likewise assured, that in one of those colonies on the continent, which nature has so far favoured, as (by the industry of the inhabitants) to produce a great quantity of excellent rice, the stubborn people, having been told that the world was wide, took it into their heads that they might sell their own rice at whatever foreign market they pleased, and seem, by their practice, very unwilling to quit that opinion.

But, to return to my subject: I must confess to you both, that if one reason of your people's deserting us, be, the despair of things growing better in their own country, I have not one syllable to answer; because that would be to hope for what is impossible; and so I have been telling the publick these ten years. For there are three events which must precede any such blessing: First, A liberty of trade; secondly, A share of preferments in all kinds, equal to the British natives; and thirdly, A return of those absentees, who take away almost one half of the kingdom's revenue. As to the first and second, there is nothing left us but despair; and for the third, it will never happen till the kingdom has no money to send them, for which, in my own particular, I shall not be sorry.

The exaction of landlords has indeed been a grievance of above twenty years standing. But, as to what you object about the severe clauses relating to the improvement, the fault lies wholly on the other side: for, the landlords, either by their ignorance, or greediness of making large rent-rolls, have performed this matter so ill, as we see by experience, that there is not one tenant in five hundred, who has made any improvement worth mentioning: for which I appeal to any man who rides through the kingdom, where little is to be found among the tenants but beggary and desolation; the cabins of the Scotch themselves, in Ulster, being as dirty and miserable as those of the wildest Irish. Whereas good firm penal clauses for improvement, with a tolerable easy rent, and a reasonable period of time, would, in twenty years, have increased the rents of Ireland at least a third part of the intrinsick value.

I am glad to hear you speak with some decency of the clergy, and to impute the exactions you lament to the managers or farmers of the tithes. But you entirely mistake the fact: for I defy the most wicked, and the most powerful clergyman in the kingdom, to oppress the meanest farmer in the parish; and I defy the same clergyman to prevent himself from being cheated by the same farmer, whenever that farmer shall be disposed to be knavish or peevish. For, although the Ulster tithing-teller is more advantageous to the clergy, than any other in the kingdom, yet the minister can demand no more than his tenth; and where the corn much exceeds the small tithes, as, except in some districts, I am told it always does, he is at the mercy of every stubborn farmer, especially of those, whose sect as well as interests, incline them to opposition. However, I take it that your people bent for America, do not show the best side of their prudence, in making this, one part of their complaint: yet they are so far wise, as not to make the payment of tithes a scruple of conscience, which is too gross for any protestant dissenter, except a quaker, to pretend. But do your people indeed think, that if tithes were abolished, or delivered into the hands of the landlord, after the blessed manner in the Scotch spiritual economy, the tenant would sit easier in his rent under the same person, who must be lord of the soil and of the tithe together?

I am ready enough to grant, that the oppression of landlords, the utter ruin of trade, with its necessary consequences, the want of money, half the revenues of the kingdom spent abroad, the continued dearth of three years, and the strong delusion in your people by false allurement from America, may be the chief motives of their eagerness after such an expedition. But, there is likewise another temptation, which is not of inconsiderable weight; which is, their itch of living in a country where their sect is predominant, and where their eyes and consciences will not be offended by the stumbling block of ceremonies, habits, and spiritual titles. But I was surprised to find that those calamities, whereof we are innocent, have been sufficient to drive many families out of their country, who had no reason to complain of oppressive landlords. For, while I was last year in the northern parts, a person of quality, whose estate was let above twenty years ago, and then at a very reasonable rent, some for leases of lives, and some perpetuities, did, in a few months, purchase eleven of those leases at a very inconsiderable price, although they were two years ago reckoned to pay but half value. Whence it is manifest that our present miserable condition, and the dismal prospect of worse, with other reasons above assigned, are sufficient to put men upon trying this desperate experiment, of changing the scene they are in, although landlords should, by a miracle, become less inhuman.

There is hardly a scheme proposed for improving the trade of this kingdom, which does not manifestly show the stupidity and ignorance of the proposer: and I laugh with contempt at those weak wise heads, who proceed upon general maxims, or advise us to follow the examples of Holland and England. These empiricks talk by rote, without understanding the constitution of the kingdom: as if a physician, knowing that exercise contributed much to health, should prescribe to his patient under a severe fit of the gout, to walk ten miles every morning. The directions for Ireland are very short and plain; to encourage agriculture and home consumption, and utterly discard all importations which are not absolutely necessary for health or life. And how few necessaries, conveniencics, or even comforts of life, are denied us by nature, or not to be attained by labour and industry! Are those detestable extravagancies of Flanders lace, English cloths made of our own wool, and other goods, Italian or Indian silks, tea, coffee, chocolate, chinaware, and that profusion of wines, by the knavery of merchants growing dearer every season, with a hundred unnecessary fopperies, better known to others than me; are these, I say, fit for us, any more than for the beggar who could not eat his veal without oranges? Is it not the highest indignity to human nature, that men should be such poltroons, as to suffer the kingdom and themselves to be undone, by the vanity, the folly, the pride, and wantonness of their wives, who, under their present corruptions, seem to be a kind of animal suffered, for our sins, to be sent into the world for the destruction of families, societies, and kingdoms; and whose whole study seems directed to be as expensive as they possibly can, in every useless article of living; who, by long practice, can reconcile the most pernicious foreign drugs to their health and pleasure, provided they are but expensive, as starlings grow fat with henbane; who contract a robustness by mere practice of sloth and luxury; who can play deep several hours after midnight, sleep beyond noon, revel upon Indian poisons, and spend the revenues of a moderate family, to adorn a nauseous, unwholesome living carcase? Let those few who are not concerned in any part of this accusation, suppose it unsaid; let the rest take it among them. Gracious God, in his mercy, look down upon a nation so shamefully besotted!

If I am possessed of a hundred pounds a year, and by some misfortune it sinks to fifty, without a possibility of ever being retrieved; does it remain a question, in such an exigency, what I am to do? must not I retrench one half in every article of expense? or retire to some cheap, distant part of the country, where necessaries are at half value?

Is there any mortal who can show me, under ths circumstances we stand with our neighbours, under their inclinations towards us, under laws never to be repealed, under the desolation caused by absentees, under many other circumstances not to be mentioned, that this kingdom can ever be a nation of trade, or subsist by any other method than that of a reduced family, by the utmost parsimony, in the manner I have already prescribed?

I am tired with letters from many unreasonable well meaning people, who are daily pressing me to deliver my thoughts in this deplorable juncture; which, upon many others, I have so often done in vain. What will it import, that half a score people in a coffeehouse, may happen to read this paper, and even the majority of those few, differ in every sentiment from me? If the farmer be not allowed to sow his corn, if half the little money among us be sent to pay rents to Irish absentees, and the rest for foreign luxury and dress for the women, what will our charitable dispositions avail, when there is nothing left to be given? when, contrary to all custom and example, all necessaries of life are so exorbitant, when money of all kinds was never known to be so scarce; so that gentlemen of no contemptible estates, are forced to retrench in every article (except what relates to their wives) without being able to show any bounty to the poor?

  1. Trueman and Layfield.
  2. Son to the bishop of Salisbury.