Dean Swift: The Politics of Satire


Conducted on 18-19/10/2005 at the Deanery of St. Patrick's, with Dr Robert Mahony in the Chair

The Prosecution of Power: Swift's Defence of Ireland

Joseph McMinn (University of Ulster, Jordanstown)

Author CV etc

In his role as Drapier, the 'Hibernian Patriot', Swift was playing a complex legal part, appearing for the defence of Ireland's rights while seeking to expose England's arbitrary and unconstitutional practice. The Drapier sees himself as the champion of the law in the face of a corrupt and deceitful administration which merely enjoys power, while failing to command trust. Throughout The Drapier's Letters, we hear the background rhetoric of John Locke's views on the fundamental principle of government by consent of the governed, and the written laws which guaranteed the rights of property in civil society, views which gave retrospective validation to the Glorious Revolution, now adapted to the conflict and confusion in Anglo-Irish constitutional relations. A defiant and confident Drapier reminds his various audiences that the constitutional settlement of 1690 has ensured that government based on freely given consent continues to be Ireland's indisputable legal protection against William Wood and his fraudulent patent to coin money for the country. The Drapier reassures his readers, in the face of legal intimidation, that the law simply cannot force subjects to accept sub-standard coinage, that even the Monarch himself, thanks to the legal framework of a mixed system of government, is limited by laws, and that the Irish nation has Reason as well as God on its side.

For all the Drapier's braggadocio, Swift knows that Reason is rarely a match for Power. After all, he had enthusiastically and unquestioningly served the Tories for over three years as their writer and propagandist. Now that he is on the receiving end of rule from London, he begins to understand the powerlessness faced by those who naively appeal to Power for Justice. Swift's advocacy of Ireland's constitutional freedom and independence is a complex, even an evasive, strategy, full of necessary and inevitable contradictions. He cared little for the legal or constitutional rights of Catholic Ireland (or for those of Dissenters), and was righteously satisfied that, as the Drapier puts it, 'Irish Papists . . . are as inconsiderable, in Point of Power, as the Women and Children'. The power of the minority depends utterly upon the powerlessness of the majority, and in eighteenth century Ireland this was about legal ownership of confiscated territories. Swift is perfectly frank about this, and in the last of the Drapier's Letters, addressed to the Irish Houses of Parliament, he defines the law in Lockean terms as 'the Will of the Majority of those who have the Property in Land.' The Drapier's job, as Swift sees it, is to defend the interests of a factional, indeed a sectarian, interest by dismissing the rights of those who compete with the power of the Established Church, and by the translation of a sectional interest into the representative voice of a nation. In his letter addressed to Mr Harding, the printer, the Drapier tells his countrymen, 'You have all the Laws of God and Man on your side', while in the notorious fourth letter, To the Whole People of Ireland, the judicial rhetoric reaches a climax when the Drapier declares, '. . . by the Laws of GOD, of NATURE, of NATIONS, and of your own Country, you ARE and OUGHT to be as FREE a people as your Brethren in England'. The pair of tenses at the end of this declaration exposes the anxiety behind the assertion, the present tense declaring a seeming self-evident fact, while the subjunctive, which suggests a much deserved but unrealised state of legal security, compromises and almost undermines the rhetorical confidence of the whole passage.

Swift is usually on steadier ground when he is taking apart, in surgical style, the language of power, a vocabulary used to intimidate and bewilder. For example, the Drapier enjoys selecting some of the key legal terms employed by Wood and his London supporters, such as 'Precedent' or 'Prerogative', and then translating them into plain English, demystifying them in the interests of popular understanding and recognition. In ways which make this version of Swift seem quite the modern deconstructionist, or post-colonial observer, his Drapier shows that power depends deeply upon a vocabularly like this for control of its readers and listeners. The majesty of the law is unimaginable without the mystery of its language: those who can control or fix the meaning of key-terms are confident of society's submissive faith in those meanings. This is why the phrase 'Depending Kingdom' exercises the Drapier more than any other, and why he dismisses it - in the face of the legal facts, it has to be said - as what he calls 'a Modern Term of Art, unknown, as I have heard, to all antient Civilians, and Writers upon Government'. In this row over disputed meanings, the Drapier idealises himself as someone 'utterly unskilled in Law', and therefore best qualified through ignorance and innocence to take on the sophisticated arbiters of legal meanings. One of the most skilfull rhetorical ironies of The Drapier's Letters is Swift's ingenious manipulation of the Drapier's seeming lack of ingenuity, whereby the vocabulary of taste and refinement acquires a wholly negative colouring. Even eloquence, the rhetorical foundation of the pamphlets, is dismissed in the name of unvarnished reason, but without diminishing the eloquence of that reason. Sophistication and eloquence, in this version of things, are strategies used by Power to obstruct simple, plain truth: complex reasoning is a way of avoiding simple facts.

The servants, or scribes, of power are lawyers and solicitors, whose profession is dedicated to the cultivation of multiple meanings and interpretations, to the corruption of evidence revealed to the senses.The Drapier repeatedly points to the legalistic vice of over-interpretation, of a sinister need on the part of government lawyers to see complexity where everyone else sees self-explanatory facts requiring no interpretation. At the height of the Drapier's campaign, so concerned is Swift with the prospect of a Grand Jury being bullied into a verdict which would criminalise the Drapier's reasonable language, he secretly writes to each member of that Jury, warning them that 'A Lawyer may pick out Expressions and make them Liable to Exception, where no other Man is able to find any'. In this same correspondence he reminds the jurors that only the jury-system, filled with patriotic middle-class interests, offers any promise of protection against corrupt people in high places, especially judges.

The legal villain of the Drapier's campaign is Lord Chief Justice Whitshed, whose venality Swift exposes at every turn. In the Drapier's letter to Lord Chancellor Middleton, Swift recalls an earlier debate between himself, Middleton and Lord Wharton about the precise meaning of the word 'Liberty' in relation to Ireland. Simultaneously he recalls the motto upon Whitshed's coach, Libertas & natale Solum, (Liberty and my native birthplace), 'at the very Point of Time when he was sitting in his Court, and perjuring himself to betray both'. While the diabolical figure of Whitshed allows Swift to indulge in a savagely personalised form of satire and invective, the profession of lawyers remains a persistent source of indignation throughout Swift's writings. In the letter to Molesworth, however, he shows how comparative imagery used in the service of an instructive moral most effectively captures the true nature of the legal profession:

There are my Lord, three sorts of Persons with whom I am resolved never to dispute: A Highway-man with a Pistol at my Breast, a Troop of Dragoons who come to plunder my House, and a Man of the Law who can make a Merit of accusing Me. In each of these Cases, which are almost the same, the best Method is to keep out of the Way, and the next Best is to deliver your Money, surrender your House, and confess nothing.

In moments like this, we recognise a classic irony for Swift, by which lawyers are revealed as violent criminals, proponents of false reason and enemies of liberty, everything they appear or pretend not to be. In the manuscript of Gulliver's Travels, which he had temporarily put aside during the Drapier's campaign, Swift had exposed the corrupt nature of the English state from a utopian perspective, emphasising above all else the uncontrollable and all-powerful madness of the legal system at the heart of the state. Such is the Drapier's obsession with lawyers, that he often gives the impression that only the King's Inns stand between Ireland and Liberty.

When Gulliver surveys the past from a global perspective, he sees only a depressing pattern of corruption and degeneration, a steady decline in virtue from the glory days of ancient Rome and Greece. A decade earlier, in his memoir of the Tory ministry, he had shown his pessimistic convictions about the progress of politics, arguing that 'Corruptions are more Naturall to Mankind than Perfections.' And now, in The Drapier's Letters, with its very specific contemporary context, Swift reverses this gloomy perspective for ironic effect, and encourages his Drapier to insist that corruption is almost certainly a thing of the past, that the impeccable moral character of the Irish administration and its English overseers guarantees a just and reasonable outcome to this unfortunate but trivial dispute between the two sister-kingdoms. This kind of irony eventually suggests that faith in human nature and in Reason, or optimism about a fair and just resolution to political injustice, are signs of an innocent or simply naïve kind of madness. When the mask of the Drapier occasionally drops, we can hear a Swift whose views on the progress of corruption in human affairs seem very close to those of Gulliver, as when he surveys the previous decades of politics in England, starting with the exemplary character of his friend, Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, recalled as 'the most uncorrupt Minister, I ever conversed with', and culminating in the grotesque figure of the bully Walpole, defender of Wood and his works. This contrast reminds us, finally, that Swift served as well as observed power, that he was a prosecuting as well as a defending voice at different stages in his adversarial writings.

Swift's rhetorical strategy in defence of Ireland during the Drapier's campaign is to insist on the mutually exclusive forces of Power and Reason, as separate and mutually exclusive as day and night, as vice and virtue. In order to dignify the legitimacy of Irish resistance to Wood, he repeatedly portrays the struggle as the heroic, but doomed rebellion of reason against brute force. Knowing the nature of his colonial masters so well, and working meanwhile upon a devastating anatomy of their barbarism in Gulliver's Travels, Swift's patriotic call to arms in The Drapier's Letters regularly acknowledges the necessity and the honour of the cause, but also anticipates its tragic futility. He looks back to the patriotic summons by William Molyneux in the 1690s, and sees yet another pattern of Irish reasonableness defeated by English arbitrary rule. As so often, he portrays this legal and constitutional oppression in graphic images of physical, bodily torment and distortion:

For in Reason, all Government without the Consent of the Governed is the very Definition of Slavery: But in Fact, Eleven Men well Armed will certainly subdue one Single Man in his Shirt. But I have done. For those who have used Power to cramp Liberty have gone so far as to Resent even the Liberty of Complaining, altho' a Man upon the Rack was never known to be refused the Liberty of Roaring as loud as he thought fit.

Even though Swift seems to loathe lawyers, he might have made a pretty good one himself, mainly because he loves a good fight, and knows that he can deploy or invent arguments to suit all occasions, while not necessarily believing in all of them. Unlike his caricature of the legal administration, however, he held strong and largely consistent beliefs, based on his religious faith, about the inevitable corruption of those who served and administered power. As a clergyman who had had deep experience of the secular world of politics and the law, he would, I suggest, contend that the only justice to be properly feared and respected would be divine, the justice of a heavenly tribunal which would reward the virtuous and punish the wicked. Swift would have been very familiar with Locke's argument that 'where there is no judicature on earth to decide controversies among men, God in heaven is judge.' While waiting for Judgement Day, Swift would have to endure a parody of that ideal order.

Joe McMinn

[Back to Table of Contents] [Back to Home Page]

(c) Copyright on the electronic versions of papers as published in these Proceedings is with Dr Bob Mahony and Dr Roy Johnston 2005; copyright on contents of papers remains with the authors, and possibly with their publishers if published eleswhere.