CELT document E700001-002

Of Public Absurdities in England

Jonathan Swift

Whole text


Of Public Absurdities in England 1

It is a common topic of satire, which you will hear not only from the mouths of ministers of state, but of every whiffler in office, that half a dozen obscure fellows, over a bottle of wine or a dish of coffee, shall presume to censure the actions of Parliaments and Councils, to form schemes of government, and new-model the commonwealth; and this is usually ridiculed as a pragmatical disposition to politics, in the very nature and genius of the people. It may possibly be true: and yet I am grossly deceived if any sober man, of very moderate talents, when he reflects upon the many ridiculous hurtful maxims, customs, and general rules of life, which prevail in this kingdom, would not with great reason be tempted, according to the present turn of his humour, either to laugh, lament, or be angry; or, if he were sanguine enough, perhaps to dream of a remedy. It is the mistake of wise and good men, that they expect more reason and virtue from human nature, than, taking it in the bulk, it is in any sort capable of. Whoever hath been present at councils or assemblies of any sort, if he be a man of common prudence, cannot but have observed such results and opinions to have frequently passed a majority, as he would be ashamed to advance in private conversation. I say nothing of cruelty, oppression, injustice, and the like, because these are fairly to be accounted for in all assemblies, as best gratifying the passions and interests of leaders; which is a point of such high consideration, that all others must give place to it. But I would be understood here to speak only of opinions ridiculous, foolish, and absurd; with conclusions and actions suitable to them, at the same time when the most reasonable propositions are often unanimously rejected.


And as all assemblies of men are liable to this accusation so likewise there are natural absurdities from which the wisest states are not exempt, which proceed less from the nature of their climate, than that of their government; the Gauls, the Britons, the Spaniards, and Italians, having retained very little of the characters given them in ancient writings.

By these and the like reflections, I have been often led to consider some public absurdities in our own country, most of which are, in my opinion, directly against the rules of right reason, and are attended with great inconveniences to the state. I shall mention such of them as come into memory without observing any method; and I shall give my reason why I take them to be absurd in their nature, and pernicious in their consequences.

It is absurd that any person, who professeth a different form of worship from that which is national, should be trusted with a vote for electing members in the House of Commons. Because every man is full of zeal for his own religion, although he regards not morality; and, therefore, will endeavour, to his utmost, to bring in a representative of his own principles, which, if they be popular, may endanger the religion established; which, as it hath formerly happened, may alter the whole frame of government. 2

A standing army in England, whether in time of peace or war, is a direct absurdity: for it is no part of our business to be a warlike nation, otherwise than by our fleets. 3 In foreign wars we have no concern, further than in conjunction with allies, whom we may either assist by sea, or by foreign troops paid with our money. But mercenary troops in England can be of no use, except to awe senates, and thereby promote arbitrary power in a monarchy or oligarchy. That the election of senators should be of any charge to the candidates, is an absurdity: but that it should be so to a ministry, is a manifest acknowledgment of the worst designs. If a ministry intended the service of their Prince and p.181 country or well understood wherein their own security best consisted 4 they would use the strongest methods to leave the people to their own free choice; the members would then consist of persons who had best estates in the neighbourhood or the county, or at least never of strangers. And surely this is at least as proper, and full as requisite a circumstance to a legislator, as to a juryman, who ought to be, if possible, ex vicino; since such persons must be supposed the best judges of the wants and desires of their several boroughs and counties. To choose a representative for Berwick, whose estate is at the Land's End, would have been thought in former times a very great solecism; 5 how much more as it is at present, where so many persons are returned for boroughs, who do not possess a foot of land in the kingdom.

By the old constitution, whoever possessed a freehold in land, by which he was a gainer of forty shillings a year, had the privilege to vote for a knight of the shire. The good effects of this law are wholly eluded, partly by the course of time, and partly by corruption. It is impossible that a Parliament freely elected according to the original institution can do any hurt to a tolerable Prince or a tolerable ministry. 6 Forty shillings, in those ages, were equal to twenty pounds in ours; and, therefore, it was then a want of sagacity to fix that privilege to a determinate sum, rather than to a certain quantity of land, arable or pasture, able to produce a certain quantity of corn or hay. And therefore it is highly absurd, and against the intent of the law, that this defect is not regulated.

But the matter is still worse; for any gentleman can, upon occasion, make as many freeholders as his estate or settlement will allow, by making leases for life of land at a rackrent of forty shillings; where a tenant, who is not worth one farthing a year when his rent is paid, shall be held a legal  p.182 voter for a person to represent his county. Neither do I enter into half the frauds that are practised upon this occasion.

It is likewise absurd, that boroughs decayed are not absolutely extinguished, because the returned members do in reality represent nobody at all; and that several large towns are not represented, though full of industrious townsmen who much advance the trade of the kingdom. 7

The claim of senators, to have themselves and servants exempted from lawsuits and arrests, is manifestly absurd, The proceedings at law are already so scandalous a grievance upon account of the delays, that they little need any addition. Whoever is either not able, or not willing, to pay his just debts, or to keep other men out of their lands, would evade the decision of the law, is surely but ill qualified to be a legislator. A criminal, with as good reason, might sit on the bench, with a power of condemning men to be hanged for their honesty. By the annual sitting of Parliaments, and the days of privilege preceding and subsequent, a senator is one half of the year beyond the reach of common justice. 8

That the sacred person of a senator's footman should be free from arrest, although he undoes the poor ale-wife by running on score, is a circumstance of equal wisdom and justice, to avoid the great evil of his master's lady wanting her complement of liveries behind the coach.

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Title (uniform): Of Public Absurdities in England

Author: Jonathan Swift

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Electronic edition compiled by: Benjamin Hazard

Funded by: University College, Cork and The Higher Education Authority via the CELT Project.

Edition statement

2. Second draft.

Extent: 2840 words

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Publisher: CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a project of University College Cork.

Address: College Road, Cork, Ireland—http://www.ucc.ie/celt

Date: 2004

Date: 2009

Distributor: CELT online at University College, Cork, Ireland.

CELT document ID: E700001-002

Availability: Available with prior consent of the CELT programme for purposes of academic research and teaching only.

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Manuscript source

  • London, South Kensington Museum, Forster Collection, Jonathan Swift autograph MS.

Editions and secondary literature

  1. An excellent bibliography covering many aspects of Jonathan Swift's Life, his writings, and criticism, compiled by Lee Jaffe, is available at http://www.jaffebros.com/lee/gulliver/bib/index.html.
  2. J. Bowles Daly (ed.), Ireland in the days of Dean Swift, Irish tracts 1720–1734. (London 1887).
  3. Frederick Ryland (ed.), Swift's Journal to Stella, A.D. 1710–1713. (London 1897).
  4. Temple Scott (ed.), A tale of a tub, and other early works. (London 1897).
  5. Frederick Falkiner, Essays on the portraits of Swift: Swift and Stella. (London 1908).
  6. C. M. Webster, Swift's Tale of a Tub compared with Earlier Satires of the Puritans. Proceedings of the Modern Language Association 47/1 (March 1932) 171–178.
  7. Stephen L. Gwynn, The life and friendships of Dean Swift. (London 1933).
  8. Stanley Lane-Poole (ed.), Selections from the prose writings of Jonathan Swift with a preface and notes. (London 1933).
  9. Ricardo Quintana, The mind and art of Jonathan Swift. (Oxford 1936).
  10. Louis A. Landa, Swift's Economic Views and Mercantilism, English Literary History 10/4 (December 1943) 310–335.
  11. R. Wyse Jackson, Swift and his circle. (Dublin 1945).
  12. Herbert Davis, The Satire of Jonathan Swift (New York 1947).
  13. Martin Price, Swift's rhetorical art. (New York 1953).
  14. Robert C. Elliott, Swift and Dr Eachard. Proceedings of the Modern Language Association 69/5 (December 1954) 1250–1257.
  15. John Middleton Murry, Jonathan Swift: A Critical Biography. (London 1954).
  16. John Middleton Murry, Swift. (London: Published for the British Council and the National Book League 1955).
  17. Kathleen Williams, Swift and the age of compromise. (London 1959).
  18. John M. Bullitt, Jonathan Swift and the anatomy of satire: a study of satiric technique. (Harvard 1961).
  19. Richard I. Cook The uses of Saeva Indignatio: Swift's Political Tracts (1710–1714) and his Sense of Audience, in: Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, Vol. 2, No. 3, Restoration and Eighteenth Century (Summer 1962) Rice University, 287–307.
  20. Harold Williams (ed.), The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift. (Oxford 1963–65).
  21. Herbert J. Davis (ed.), Jonathan Swift: essays on his satire and other studies. (New York 1964).
  22. Herbert J. Davis (ed.), Gulliver's Travels. [based on the Faulkner edition, Dublin 1735] (Oxford 1965).
  23. Herbert J. Davis (ed.), Swift: poetical works. (New York 1967).
  24. R. B. McDowell, 'Swift as a political thinker'. In: Roger Joseph McHugh and Philip Edwards, Jonathan Swift: 1667–1967, a Dublin tercentenary tribute (Dublin 1967). 176–186.
  25. Brian Vickers (ed.), The world of Jonathan Swift: essays for the tercentenary. (Oxford 1968).
  26. Kathleen Williams, Jonathan Swift. (London 1968).
  27. Morris Golden, The self observed: Swift, Johnson, Wordsworth. (Baltimore 1972).
  28. Jane M. Snyder, The meaning of 'Musaeo contingens cuncta lepore', Lucretius 1.934, Classical World 66 (1973) 330–334.
  29. Claude Julien Rawson, Gulliver and the gentle reader: studies in Swift and our time. (London and Boston 1973).
  30. A. L. Rowse, Jonathan Swift, major prophet. (London 1975).
  31. Alexander Norman Jeffares, Jonathan Swift. (London 1976).
  32. Clive T. Probyn, Jonathan Swift: the contemporary background. (Manchester 1978).
  33. Clive T. Probyn (ed.), The art of Jonathan Swift. (London 1978).
  34. Irvin Ehrenpreis, Swift: The man, his works, and the age (three volumes). (London 1962–83).
  35. David M. Vieth (ed.), Essential articles for the study of Jonathan Swift's poetry. (Hamden 1984).
  36. James A. Downie, Jonathan Swift, political writer. (London 1985).
  37. Frederik N. Smith (ed.), The genres of Gulliver's travels. (London 1990).
  38. James Kelly, 'Jonathan Swift and the Irish Economy in the 1720s', Eighteenth-century Ireland: Iris an dá chultúr 6 (1991) 7–36.
  39. Joseph McMinn (ed.), Swift's Irish pamphlets. (Gerrards Cross 1991).
  40. Robert Mahony, Jonathan Swift: the Irish identity. (Yale 1995).
  41. Christopher Fox, Walking Naboth's vineyards: new studies of Swift (University of Notre Dame Ward-Philips lectures in English language and literature, Vol. 13). (Notre Dame/Indiana 1995).
  42. Claude Rawson (ed.), Jonathan Swift: a collection of critical essays. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jeresey, 1995).
  43. Michael Stanley, Famous Dubliners: W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, Wolfe Tone, Oscar Wilde, Edward Carson. (Dublin 1996).
  44. Daniel Carey, 'Swift among the freethinkers'. Eighteenth-century Ireland: Iris an dá chultúr, 12 (1997) 89–99.
  45. Victoria Glendinning, Jonathan Swift. (London 1998).
  46. Aileen Douglas; Patrick Kelly; Ian Campbell Ross, (eds.). Locating Swift: essays from Dublin on the 250th anniversary of the death of Jonathan Swift, 1667–1745. (Dublin 1998).
  47. Bruce Arnold, Swift: an illustrated life. (Dublin 1999).
  48. Nigel Wood (ed.), Jonathan Swift. (London and New York 1999).
  49. Christopher J. Fauske, Jonathan Swift and the Church of Ireland, 1710–24 (Portland/Oregon 2001).
  50. David George Boyce; Robert Eccleshall; Vincent Geoghegan (eds.), Political discourse in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Ireland. (Basingstoke and New York 2001).
  51. Ann Cline Kelly, Jonathan Swift and popular culture: myth, media and the man. Basingstoke 2002.
  52. Dirk F. Passmann and Heinz J. Vienken, The library and reading of Jonathan Swift: a bio-bibliographical handbook. 4 vols. (Frankfurt 2003).
  53. Mark McDayter, 'The haunting of St James's Library: librarians, literature, and The Battle of the Books'. Huntington Library Quarterly, 66:1–2 (2003) 1–26.
  54. Frank T. Boyle, 'Jonathan Swift' [A companion to satire]. In: Ruben Quintero (ed.), A companion to satire (Oxford 2007) 196–211.
  55. Harry Whitaker, C. U. M. Smith and Stanley Finger (eds.), Explorations of the Brain, Mind and Medicine in the Writings of Jonathan Swift. Springer (US) 2007.
  56. Leo Damrosch, Jonathan Swift: his life and his world. Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History. New Haven: Yale University Press [2013].

The edition used in the digital edition

‘Of Public Absurdities in England’ (1907). In: The prose works of Jonathan Swift D. D.‍ Ed. by Temple Scott. Vol. 11: Literary essays. London: George Bell and Sons, pp. 177–83.

You can add this reference to your bibliographic database by copying or downloading the following:

  editor 	 = {Temple Scott},
  title 	 = {Of Public Absurdities in England},
  booktitle 	 = {The prose works of Jonathan Swift D. D.},
  editor 	 = {Temple Scott},
  address 	 = {London},
  publisher 	 = {George Bell and Sons},
  date 	 = {1907},
  volume 	 = {11: Literary essays},
  pages 	 = {177–83}


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Project description: CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts

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The text covers pages 177–83.

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Creation: By Jonathan Swift c.1710–1722

Language usage

  • The text is in English. (en)
  • Some words are in Latin. (la)

Keywords: political; prose; tract; 18c

Revision description

(Most recent first)

  1. 2011-02-12: New wordcount made; new SGML and HTML file created. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
  2. 2009-07-24: Header modified, addition to bibliography made. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
  3. 2008-09-23: Keywords added; file validated. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
  4. 2008-07-24: Value of div0 "type" attribute modified, additions to bibliography made, content of 'langUsage' revised; minor modifications made to header. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
  5. 2005-08-25: Normalised language codes and edited langUsage for XML conversion (ed. Julianne Nyhan)
  6. 2005-08-04T14:20:09+0100: Converted to XML (ed. Peter Flynn)
  7. 2004-03-05: Minor modifications to header/file; HTML file created. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
  8. 2004-03-01: File parsed. (ed. Benjamin Hazard)
  9. 2004-02-28: Header constructed; bibliography compiled, structural mark-up inserted and verified, text proofed. (ed. Benjamin Hazard)
  10. 2004-02-17: Text scanned and checked. (Text capture Benjamin Hazard)

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  1. The present text follows the autograph manuscript in the Forster Collection at the South Kensington Museum. The first printed form of the piece is in Swift's Works (1772). 🢀

  2. This absurdity still holds good, and is still considered as such. In these days, however, there are not a small number of the English people who would endeavour to do away with it by a means the opposite to that which Swift advocated. 🢀

  3. Swift is very modern here. 🢀

  4. In printed editions, editors have here added in brackets the following: "(as it is impossible that a parliament freely elected, according to the original institution, can do any hurt to a tolerable Prince or a tolerable ministry)." The words are inserted in the autograph MS. in a later paragraph. See infra. 🢀

  5. The solecism is as "absurd" now as it was in Swift's day. 🢀

  6. Here are the omitted words from the previous paragraph. See note 1 supra🢀

  7. Swift would have made a fine advocate for a Reform Bill. 🢀

  8. Still "absurd" in England, though the "half year" is lengthened somewhat. 🢀


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