The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 9/Maxims Controlled in Ireland





THERE are certain maxims of state, founded upon long observation and experience, drawn from the constant practice of the wisest nations, and from the very principles of government, nor even controlled by any writer upon politicks. Yet all these maxims do necessarily presuppose a kingdom, or commonwealth, to have the same natural rights common to the rest of mankind, who have entered into civil society: for, if we could conceive a nation where each of the inhabitants had but one eye, one leg, and one hand, it is plain, before you could institute them into a republick, that an allowance must be made for those material defects, wherein they differed from other mortals. Or imagine a legislature forming a system for the government of Bedlam, and proceeding upon the maxim that man is a sociable animal, should draw them out of their cells and form them into corporations or general assemblies; the consequence might probably be, that they would fall foul on each other, or burn the house over their own heads.

Of the like nature, are innumerable errours committed by crude and short thinkers, who reason upon general topicks, without the least allowance for the most important circumstances, which quite alter the nature of the case.

This has been the fate of those small dealers, who are every day publishing their thoughts, either on paper or in their assemblies, for improving the trade of Ireland, and referring us to the practice and example of England, Holland, France, or other nations.

I shall therefore examine certain maxims of government, which generally pass for uncontrolled in the world, and consider how far they will suit with the present condition of this kingdom.

First, it is affirmed by wise men, that the dearness of things necessary for life, in a fruitful country, is a certain sign of wealth, and great commerce; for, when such necessaries are dear, it must absolutely follow that money is cheap and plentiful.

But this is manifestly false in Ireland, for the following reason. Some years ago, the species of money here, did probably amount to six or seven hundred thousand pounds; and I have good cause to believe, that our remittances then, did not much exceed the cash brought in to us. But, by the prodigious discouragements we have since received in every branch of our trade, by the frequent enforcements and rigorous execution of the navigation act, the tyranny of under customhouse officers, the yearly addition of absentees, the payments to regiments abroad, to civil and military officers residing in England, the unexpected sudden demands of great sums from the treasury, and some other drains of perhaps as great consequence, we now see ourselves reduced to a state (since we have no friends) of being pitied by our enemies; at least if our enemies were of such a kind, as to be capable of any regards toward us, except of hatred and contempt.

Forty years are now passed since the revolution, when the contention of the British empire was, most unfortunately for us, and altogether against the usual course of such mighty changes in government, decided in the least important nation; but with such ravages and ruin executed on both sides, as to leave the kingdom a desert, which in some sort it still continues. Neither did the long rebellions in 1641, make half such a destruction of houses, plantations, and personal wealth, in both kingdoms, as two years campaigns did in ours, by fighting England's battles.

By slow degrees, as by the gentle treatment we received under two auspicious reigns, we grew able to live without running in debt. Our absentees were but few: we had great indulgence in trade, and a considerable share in employments of church and state; and while the short leases continued, which were let some years after the war ended, tenants paid their rents with ease and cheerfulness, to the great regret of their landlords, who had taken up a spirit of opposition that is not easily removed. And although, in these short leases, the rent was gradually to increase after short periods; yet as soon as the terms elapsed, the land was let to the highest bidder, most commonly without the least effectual clause for building or planting. Yet, by many advantages, which this island then possessed, and has since utterly lost, the rents of lands still grew higher upon every lease that expired, till they have arrived at the present exorbitance; when the frog overswelling himself, burst at last.

With the price of land, of necessity rose that of corn and cattle, and all other commodities that farmers deal in: hence likewise, obviously, the rates of all goods and manufactures among shopkeepers, the wages of servants, and hire of labourers. But, although our miseries came on fast, with neither trade nor money left; yet neither will the landlord abate in his rent, nor can the tenant abate in the price of what that rent must be paid with, nor any shopkeeper, tradesman, or labourer live, at lower expense for food and clothing, than he did before.

I have been the larger upon this first head, because the same observations will clear up and strengthen a good deal of what I shall affirm upon the rest.

The second maxim of those who reason upon trade and government, is, to assert that low interest, is a certain sign of great plenty of money in a nation, for which, as in many other articles, they produce the examples of Holland and England. But, with relation to Ireland, this maxim is likewise entirely false.

There are two reasons for the lowness of interest in any country. First, that which is usually alleged, the great plenty of species; and this is obvious. The second, is want of trade, which seldom falls under common observation, although it be equally true: for, where trade is altogether discouraged, there are few borrowers. In those countries where men can employ a large stock, the young merchant whose fortune may be four or five hundred pounds, will venture to borrow as much more, and can afford a reasonable interest. Neither is it easy at this day, to find many of those, whose business reaches to employ even so inconsiderable a sum, except among the importers of wine, who, as they have most part of the present trade in these parts of Ireland in their hands, so they are the most exorbitant, exacting, fraudulent dealers, that ever trafficked in any nation, and are making all possible speed to ruin both themselves and the nation.

From this defect of gentlemen's not knowing how to dispose of their ready money, arises the high purchase of lands, which in all other countries is reckoned a sign of wealth. For, the frugal squires, who live below their incomes, have no other way to dispose of their savings but by mortgage or purchase, by which the rates of land must naturally increase; and if this trade continues long, under the uncertainty of rents, the landed men of ready money will find it more for their advantage to send their cash to England, and place it in the funds; which I myself am determined to do, the first considerable sum I shall be master of.

It has likewise been a maxim among politicians, "That the great increase of buildings in the metropolis, argues a flourishing state." But this, I confess, has been controlled from the example of London; when by the long and annual parliamentary session, such a number of senators, with their families, friends, adherents, and expectants, draw such prodigious numbers to that city, that the old hospitable custom of lords and gentlemen living in their ancient seats among their tenants, is almost lost in England; is laughed out of doors; insomuch that in the middle of summer, a legal house of lords and commons might be brought in a few hours to London, from their country villas within twelve miles round.

The case in Ireland is yet somewhat worse: for the absentees of great estates, who, if they lived at home, would have many rich retainers in their neighbourhoods, have learned to rack their lands, and shorten their leases, as much as any residing squire; and the few remaining of those latter, having some vain hope of employments for themselves, or their children, and discouraged by the beggarliness and thievery of their own miserable farmers and cottagers, or seduced by the vanity of their wives, on pretence of their children's education, (whereof the fruits are so apparent) together with that most wonderful, and yet more unaccountable zeal, for a seat in their assembly, though at some years purchase of their whole estates: these, and some other motives, have drawn such concourse to this beggarly city, that the dealers of the several branches of building, have found out all the commodious and inviting places for erecting new houses; while fifteen hundred of the old ones, which is a seventh part of the whole city, are said to be left uninhabited, and falling to ruin. Their method is the same with that which was first introduced by Dr. Barebone at London, who died a bankrupt. The mason, the bricklayer, the carpenter, the slater, and the glazier, take a lot of ground, club to build one or more houses, unite their credit, their stock, and their money; and when their work is finished, sell it to the best advantage they can. But, as it often happens, and more every day, that their fund will not answer half their design, they are forced to undersell it at the first story, and are all reduced to beggary. Insomuch that I know a certain fanatick brewer, who is reported to have some hundreds of houses in this town, is said to have purchased the greatest part of them at half value from ruined undertakers; has intelligence of all new houses where the finishing is at a stand, takes advantage of the builder's distress, and, by the advantage of ready money, gets fifty per cent at least for his bargain.

It is another undisputed maxim in government, "That people are the riches of a nation;" which is so universally granted, that it will be hardly pardonable to bring it into doubt. And I will grant it to be so far true, even in this island, that if we had the African custom, or privilege, of selling our useles bodies for slaves to foreigners, it would be the most useful branch of our trade, by ridding us of a most unsupportable burden, and bringing us money in the stead. But, in our present situation, at least five children in six who are born, lie a dead weight upon us, for want of employment. And a very skilful computer assured me, that above one half of the souls in this kingdom, supported themselves by begging and thievery; two thirds whereof would be able to get their bread in any other country upon earth. Trade is the only incitement to labour; where that fails, the poorer native must either beg, steal, or starve, or be forced to quit his country. This has made me often wish, for some years past, that instead of discouraging our people from seeking foreign soil, the publick would rather pay for transporting all our unnecessary mortals, whether papists or protestants, to America; as drawbacks are sometimes allowed for exporting commodities, where a nation is overstocked. I confess myself to be touched with a very sensible pleasure, when I hear of a mortality in any country parish or village, where the wretches are forced to pay for a filthy cabin, and two ridges of potatoes, treble the worth; brought up to steal or beg, for want of work; to whom death would be the best thing to be wished for, on account both of themselves and the publick.

Among all taxes imposed by the legislature, those upon luxury are universally allowed to be the most equitable, and beneficial to the subject; and the commonest reasoner on government, might fill a volume with arguments on the subject. Yet here again, by the singular fate of Ireland, this maxim is utterly false; and the putting of it in practice may have such a pernicious consequence, as, I certainly believe, the thoughts of the proposers were not able to reach.

The miseries we suffer by our absentees, are of a far more extensive nature, than seems to be commonly understood. I must vindicate myself to the reader so far, as to declare solemnly, that what I shall say of those lords and squires, does not arise from the least regard I have for their understandings, their virtues, or their persons: for, although I have not the honour of the least acquaintance with any one among them, (my ambition not soaring so high) yet I am too good a witness of the situation they have been in for thirty years past; the veneration paid them by the people, the high esteem they are in among the prime nobility and gentry, the particular marks of favour and distinction they receive from the court; the weight and consequence of their interest, added to their great zeal and application for preventing any hardships their country migh suffer from England, wisely considering that their own fortunes and honours were embarked in the same bottom.