CELT document E700001-008

Maxims controlled in Ireland

Jonathan Swift

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Maxims controlled in Ireland. 1

The truth of maxims in State and Government examined with reference to Ireland. 2

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 ever controlled by any writer upon politics. 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 that, before you could institute them into a republic, an allowance must be made for those material defects wherein they differed from other mortals. Or, imagine a legislator 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 errors committed by crude and short thinkers, who reason upon general topics, without the least allowance for the most important circumstances, which quite alter the nature of the case.

This hath 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  p.66 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; 3 and I have good cause to believe, that our remittances then did not much exceed the cash brought in to us. But, the prodigious discouragements we have since received in every branch of our trade, by the frequent enforcements and rigorous execution of the navigation-act, 4 the tyranny of under custom-house 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, 5 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 regard towards us except of hatred and contempt.

Forty years are now passed since the Revolution, when  p.67 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, and by the gentle treatment we received under two auspicious reigns, 6 we grew able to live without running in debt. Our absentees were but few: we had great indulgence in trade, 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 oppression 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 hath 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, over-swelling 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  p.68 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, the 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, ariseth 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 hath likewise been a maxim among politicians, “That the great increase of buildings in the metropolis argues a flourishing state.” But this, I confess, hath been controlled from the example of London; where, 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 these 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 I apparent,) together with that most wonderful, and yet more I unaccountable zeal, for a seat in their assembly, though at I some years' purchase of their whole estates: these, and some other motives better let pass, have drawn such a 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. 7 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,  p.70 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 fanatic brewer, who is reported to have some hundreds of houses in this town, is said to have purchased the greater part of them at half value from ruined undertakers; hath 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 in 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 useless bodies for slaves to foreigners, it would be the most useful branch of our trade, by ridding us of a most unsupportable burthen, 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 them selves by begging and thievery; whereof two thirds would be able to get their bread in any other country upon earth. 8 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 hath made me often wish, for some years past, that instead of discouraging our people from seeking foreign soil, the public 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 over stocked. I confess myself to be touched with a very sensible p.71 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 public. 9 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 it in practice may have such pernicious a 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, doth 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 anyone 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 might suffer from England, wisely considering that their own fortunes and honours were embarked in the same bottom.

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Title (uniform): Maxims controlled in Ireland

Author: Jonathan Swift

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Electronic edition compiled by: Benjamin Hazard

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2. Second draft, revised and corrected.

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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. Harold Williams (ed.), The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift. (Oxford 1963–65).
  20. Herbert J. Davis (ed.), Jonathan Swift: essays on his satire and other studies. (New York 1964).
  21. Herbert J. Davis (ed.), Gulliver's Travels. [based on the Faulkner edition, Dublin 1735] (Oxford 1965).
  22. Herbert J. Davis (ed.), Swift: poetical works. (New York 1967).
  23. 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.
  24. Brian Vickers (ed.), The world of Jonathan Swift: essays for the tercentenary. (Oxford 1968).
  25. Kathleen Williams, Jonathan Swift. (London 1968).
  26. Morris Golden, The self observed: Swift, Johnson, Wordsworth. (Baltimore 1972.)
  27. Jane M. Snyder, The meaning of 'Musaeo contingens cuncta lepore', Lucretius 1.934, Classical World 66 (1973) 330–334.
  28. Claude Julien Rawson, Gulliver and the gentle reader: studies in Swift and our time. (London and Boston 1973).
  29. A. L. Rowse, Jonathan Swift, major prophet. (London 1975).
  30. Alexander Norman Jeffares, Jonathan Swift. (London 1976).
  31. Clive T. Probyn, Jonathan Swift: the contemporary background. (Manchester 1978).
  32. Clive T. Probyn (ed.), The art of Jonathan Swift. (London 1978).
  33. Irvin Ehrenpreis, Swift: The man, his works, and the age (three volumes). (London 1962–83).
  34. David M. Vieth (ed.), Essential articles for the study of Jonathan Swift's poetry. (Hamden 1984).
  35. James A. Downie, Jonathan Swift, political writer. (London 1985).
  36. Frederik N. Smith (ed.), The genres of Gulliver's travels. (London 1990).
  37. James Kelly, 'Jonathan Swift and the Irish Economy in the 1720s', Eighteenth-century Ireland: Iris an dá chultúr 6 (1991) 7–36.
  38. Joseph McMinn (ed.), Swift's Irish pamphlets. (Gerrards Cross 1991).
  39. Robert Mahony, Jonathan Swift: the Irish identity. (Yale 1995).
  40. 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).
  41. Claude Rawson (ed.), Jonathan Swift: a collection of critical essays. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jeresey, 1995).
  42. Michael Stanley, Famous Dubliners: W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, Wolfe Tone, Oscar Wilde, Edward Carson. (Dublin 1996).
  43. Daniel Carey, 'Swift among the freethinkers'. Eighteenth-century Ireland: Iris an dá chultúr 12 (1997) 89–99.
  44. Victoria Glendinning, Jonathan Swift. (London 1998).
  45. 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).
  46. Bruce Arnold, Swift: an illustrated life. (Dublin 1999).
  47. Nigel Wood (ed.), Jonathan Swift. (London and New York 1999).
  48. Christopher J. Fauske, Jonathan Swift and the Church of Ireland, 1710–24 (Portland/Oregon 2001).
  49. David George Boyce; Robert Eccleshall; Vincent Geoghegan (eds.), Political discourse in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Ireland. (Basingstoke and New York 2001).
  50. Ann Cline Kelly, Jonathan Swift and popular culture: myth, media and the man. (Basingstoke 2002).
  51. Dirk F. Passmann and Heinz J. Vienken, The library and reading of Jonathan Swift: a bio-bibliographical handbook. 4 vols. (Frankfurt 2003).
  52. 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.
  53. Frank T. Boyle, 'Jonathan Swift' [A companion to satire]. In: Ruben Quintero (ed.), A companion to satire (Oxford 2007) 196–211.
  54. 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.
  55. 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

‘Maxims controlled in Ireland’ (1905). In: The prose works of Jonathan Swift D. D.‍ Ed. by Temple Scott. Vol. 7: Historical and political tracts—Irish. London: George Bell and Sons, pp. 63–73.

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  title 	 = {Maxims controlled in Ireland},
  booktitle 	 = {The prose works of Jonathan Swift D. D.},
  editor 	 = {Temple Scott},
  address 	 = {London},
  publisher 	 = {George Bell and Sons},
  date 	 = {1905},
  volume 	 = {7: Historical and political tracts—Irish},
  pages 	 = {63–73}


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Creation: By Jonathan Swift

Date: 1724

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  • The text is in English. (en)

Keywords: political; prose; 18c

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  1. These maxims, written in the year 1724, may be taken as Swift's opening of his campaign against the oppressive legislation of England which had brought Ireland to the degraded and poverty-stricken condition it existed in at the time he wrote. Burke characterises these maxims as “a collection of State Paradoxes, abounding with great sense and penetration.” The subjects they touch on are dealt with in greater detail in the tracts which follow in this volume, and the reader is referred to them and the notes for the causes which had brought Ireland in so low a state. The text of the present edition is based on that given by Deane Swift in the eighth volume of the edition of 1765. 🢀

  2. Sir Henry Craik remarks on this title: “In modern language this might well have been entitled, “The theories of political economy proved to have no application to Ireland.”. The word “controlled” is used in the now obsolete sense of “confuted”.” 🢀

  3. Sir John Browne, in his Scheme of the Money Matters of Ireland (Dublin, 1729), calculated that the total currency, including paper, was about £914,000, but the author of Considerations on Seasonable Remarks stated that the entire currency could not be more than £600,000. Browne was no reliable authority; he is the writer to whom Swift wrote a reply. See p. 122. 🢀

  4. See A Short View of the State of Ireland, p. 86. 🢀

  5. Lecky refers to a remarkable letter written by an Irish peer in the March of 1702, and preserved in the Southwell Correspondence in the British Museum, in which the writer complains that the money of the country is almost gone, and the poverty of the towns so great that it was feared the Court mourning for the death of William would be the final blow. (Lecky, vol. L, p. 181, 1892 ed.). 🢀

  6. Those of Charles II. and James II. in which, for political reasons on the part of the Crown, Ireland was peculiarly favoured. 🢀

  7. This was Dr. Nicholas Barbou, the friend of John Asgill and author of two works on trade and money. After the Great Fire of London he speculated largely in building, and greatly assisted in making city improvements. He was the founder of fire insurance in England and was active in land and bank speculations. He died in 1698, leaving a will directing that none of his debts should be paid. 🢀

  8. The beggars of Ireland are spoken of by Bishop Berkeley. But Arthur Dobbs, in the second part of his Essay on Trade, published in 1731, gives a descriptive picture of the gangs who travelled over Ireland as professional paupers. In the 2,295 parishes, there was in each an average of at least ten beggars carrying on their trade the whole year round; the total number of these wandering paupers he puts down at over 34,000. Computing 30,000 of them able to work, and assuming that each beggar could earn 4d. a day in a working year of 284 days, he calculates that their idleness is a loss to the nation of £142,000. (Pp. 444-445 of Thorn's reprint; Dublin, 1861). 🢀

  9. See Swift's terrible satire on the Modest Proposal for preventing Children of Poor People from being a burthen🢀


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