This year (2013) marks the 300th anniversary of Swift becoming Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral (he was installed on 13th June, 1713). The picture above is from the title page to Jonathan Swift’s Works of 1735. Beneath Swift’s feet lies a figure, probably Mr. Wood, with his brass half-pennies strewn below. Ireland kneels before Swift to thank him. The Latin inscription, from Horace, says, “I have made a monument more lasting than brass.” This all refers to Swift’s work that combines political philosophy with rhetoric, the Drapier Letters,
Drapier’s Letters were a series of pamphlets, supposedly written by a Mr. Drapier, a draper by trade. They were written in response to the decision in 1722 to allow Mr Wood to create new copper coinage for Ireland up to the value of £180,000, a right obtainedafter payment of £100,000 as a bribe to the Duchess of Kendal, mistress to King George I. New coinage was needed in Ireland but this measure was imposed on Ireland without the consultation or control of the Irish government.
The first Drapier’s Letter was A Letter to the shopkeepers, tradesmen, farmers and the common people of Ireland concerning the brass halfpence coined by Mr. Woods (1724) . His analysis of the faults of the inferior coinage and its probable effects on the Irish economy due to hoarding of good quality coinage triggered an enquiry, which advised reducing the number of coins. It also produced a report by Isaac Newton, head of the Mint arguing that the coins were good.
Swift continued on the offensive, however. In A Letter to Mr. Harding the printer, he criticised the assay process and urged that the Irish people should refuse the coins. Mr Wood, “Drapier” says, will force the coins onto a nation who do not want them, and profit greatly thereby. Who “with the figure of a man can think with patience of being devoured alive by a rat?” In this way, Swift widened the field of the controversy: the question of the patent is framed by the wider question of the lack of freedom of the Irish, whose indifference “Drapier” can scarcely credit. As a result of this letter, a group comprising bankers, merchants and tradesmen gathered together to declare they would not accept Wood’s coins. However Walpole’s government pressed on with the plan, despite a noticeable lack of support from the Irish parliament.
The third letter was called Some Observations upon a paper called the Report of the Committee of the most honourable the Privy Council in England relating to Wood’s halfpence and continued to question the need for the coins, their value and the patent they were produced under. It invokes the free state of the Irish people: “Drapier” asks, at various points: “Were not the People of Ireland born as Free as those of England? How have they forfeited their Freedom?” “Am I a free man in England and do I become a slave in six hours by crossing the Channel?” So then, why should the British system override the rights of the Irish people by passing the patent without allowing the Irish Parliament a say? He also refers to other grievances: “We know our own Wants but too ?; They are Many and Grievous to be born, quite of another Kind”. The English government had previously enacted laws curtailing Ireland’s beef and woolen industries, seriously affecting the wider economy. As Swift later says in A Short View of the State of Ireland (1727)
IRELAND is the only Kingdom I ever heard or read of, either in ancient or modern Story, which was denied the Liberty of exporting their native Commodities and Manufactures, wherever they pleased
In the close of the letter, “Drapier” compares himself to a David, too small to fill the armour of the king, battling the Goliath Wood. This image resonated with the people. Swift’s fourth letter was Letter to the whole People of Ireland, which refuted arguments for the new coinage and against the series of pamphlets.
The most important and long-lived element of the third and fourth letters are the arguments for the political liberty of the Irish people. In similar arguments to those used earlier by Molyneaux, based on Locke’s Second Treatise, Swift argues that consent is necessary for political power over a population to be legitimate. In the fourth letter Swift states the Irish are loyal to their king, who is “King of Ireland”, but not to England. They are equal subjects to any Englishman…
I have digressed a little in order to refresh and continue that spirit so seasonably raised amongst you, and to let you see that 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
These two letters were viewed as treasonous, the printer was arrested and a proclamation made offering a reward to any who identified the Drapier. But the people were on the side of the “Drapier” and this protected Swift. By the time Swift wrote his Letter to the Right Honourable the Lord Viscount Molesworth, Walpole had already decided to abandon Wood’s half-pence scheme. It seems likely that Swift wrote to Molesworth to secure the decision and to further bind the people of Ireland together in common cause. Molesworth was a Whig, a religious dissenter, a nobleman and philosophically radical; very different from both Swift and the “Drapier”. Any common cause that would bind such a pair would plausibly bind any Irish person. The letter itself refers to the arrest and imprisonment of the printer Mr Harding. It then recounts the previous arguments regarding Ireland as a kingdom on a footing with England, and informs us the Drapier has been reading
the Writings of your Lordship, Mr. Lock, Mr. Molineaux, Collonel Sidney and other Dangerous Authors, who talk of Liberty as a Blessing, to which the whole Race of Mankind hath an original Title, whereof nothing but unlawful Force can divest them. […] Freedom consists in a People being Governed by Laws made with their own Consent, and Slavery in the Contrary.
This was the last of the Drapier Letters printed at the time. The patent was withdrawn. Swift was the hero of Dublin and the country, and was christened “Our Irish Copper-Farthen Dean” by the ubiquitous Archbishop King. The arguments in these letters were praised by later Irish nationalists, and the names of Molyneaux and Swift were linked to the regain of powers of the Grattan government . It has been questioned whether Swift was aiming to speak for all Irish people at the time, and whether he had the moral authority to do so, but the force of his arguments applies equally to all people of Ireland, regardless of ancestry or religion.
Swift continued to wrote other pieces about Irish grievances, culminating in A Modest Proposal (1729), where Swift suggests, with mock seriousness masking bitterness, that the poor should provide for themselves by selling their children as food for the rich. (I wonder if the woman to the left in the picture above symbolises such an impoverished parent.) None of his political campaigns, before or after, gained any shadow of the success of the Drapier Letters.
Swift died in 1745, and is buried in St Patricks Cathedral. He wrote his own epitaph, which William Butler Yeats translated from the Latin as follows:
Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller; he
Served human liberty.
The Jonathan Swift Archive makes available digitized texts of Jonathan Swift’s prose works, transcribed from a great variety of early printed editions.