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.
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