CELT document E700001-018

A proposal to pay off the debt of the nation

Jonathan Swift

A proposal to pay off the debt of the nation

1. A proposal for an Act of Parliament, to pay off the debt of the nation, without taxing the subject


The debts contracted some years past for the service and safety of the nation, are grown so great, that under our present distressed condition by the want of trade, the great remittances to pay absentees, regiments serving abroad, and many other drains of money, well enough known and felt; the kingdom seems altogether unable to discharge them by the common methods of payment: And either a poll or land tax would be too odious to think of, especially the latter, because the lands, which have been let for these ten or dozen years past, were raised so high, that the owners can, at present, hardly receive any rent at all. For, it is the usual practice of an Irish tenant, rather than want land, to offer more for a farm than he knows he can be ever able to pay, and in that case he grows desperate, and pays nothing at all. So that a land-tax upon a racked estate would be a burthen wholly insupportable.

The question will then be, how these national debts can be paid, and how I can make good the several particulars of my proposal, which I shall now lay open to the public.

The revenues of their Graces and Lordships the Archbishops and Bishops of this kingdom (excluding the fines) do amount by a moderate computation to 36,800£ per ann. I mean the rents which the bishops receive from their tenants. But the real value of those lands at a full rent, taking the several sees one with another, is reckoned to be at least three-fourths more, so that multiplying 36,800£ by  p.254 four, the full rent of all the bishops' lands will amount to 147,200£ per ann. from which subtracting the present rent received by their lordships, that is 36,800£ the profits of the lands received by the first and second tenants (who both have great bargains) will rise to the sum of 110,400£ per ann. which lands, if they were to be sold at twenty-two years' purchase, would raise a sum of 2,428,800£ reserving to the Bishops their present rents, only excluding fines. 1

Of this sum I propose, that out of the one-half which amounts to 1,214,400£ so much be applied as will entirely discharge the debts of the nation, and the remainder laid up in the treasury, to supply contingencies, as well as to discharge some of our heavy taxes, until the kingdom shall be in a better condition.

But whereas the present set of bishops would be great losers by this scheme for want of their fines, which would be hard treatment to such religious, loyal and deserving personages, I have therefore set apart the other half to supply that defect, which it will more than sufficiently do.

A bishop's lease for the full term, is reckoned to be worth eleven years' purchase, but if we take the bishops round, I suppose, there may be four years of each lease elapsed, and many of the bishops being well stricken in years, I cannot think their lives round to be worth more than seven years' purchase; so that the purchasers may very well afford fifteen years' purchase for the reversion, especially by one great additional advantage, which I shall soon mention.

This sum of 2,428,800£ must likewise be sunk very considerably, because the lands are to be sold only at fifteen years' purchase, and this lessens the sum to about 1,656,000£ of which I propose twelve hundred thousand pounds to be applied partly for the payment of the national debt, and partly as a fund for future exigencies, and the remaining 456,000£ I propose as a fund for paying the present set of bishops their fines, which it will abundantly do, and a great part remain as an addition to the public stock.

Although the bishops round do not in reality receive three fines a-piece, which take up 21 years, yet I allow it to  p.255 be so; but then I will suppose them to take but one year's rent, in recompense of giving them so large a term of life, and thus multiplying 36,800£ by 3 the product will be only 110,400£ so that above three-fourths will remain to be applied to public use.

If I have made wrong computations, I hope to be excused, as a stranger to the kingdom, which I never saw till I was called to an employment, and yet where I intend to pass the rest of my days; but I took care to get the best information I could, and from the most proper persons; however, the mistakes I may have been guilty of, will very little affect the main of my proposal, although they should cause a difference of one hundred thousand pounds more or less.

These fines, are only to be paid to the bishop during his incumbency in the same see; if he changeth it for a better, the purchasers of the vacant see lands, are to come immediately into possession of the see he hath left, and both the bishop who is removed, and he who comes into his place, are to have no more fines, for the removed bishop will find his account by a larger revenue; and the other see will find candidates enough. For the law maxim will here have place, that caveat, &c. I mean the persons who succeed may choose whether they will accept or no.

As to the purchasers, they will probably be tenants to the see, who are already in possession, and can afford to give more than any other bidders.

I will further explain myself. If a person already a bishop, be removed into a richer see, he must be content with the bare revenues, without any fines, and so must he who comes into a bishopric vacant by death: And this will bring the matter sooner to bear; which if the Crown shall think fit to countenance, will soon change the present set of bishops, and consequently encourage purchasers of their lands. For example, if a Primate should die, and the gradation be wisely made, almost the whole set of bishops might be changed in a month, each to his great advantage, although no fines were to be got, and thereby save a great part of that sum which I have appropriated towards supplying the deficiency of fines.

I have valued the bishops' lands two years' purchase  p.256 above the usual computed rate, because those lands will have a sanction from the King and Council in England, and be confirmed by an Act of Parliament here; besides, it is well known, that higher prices are given every day, for worse lands, at the remotest distances, and at rack rents, which I take to be occasioned by want of trade, when there are few borrowers, and the little money in private hands lying dead, there is no other way to dispose of it but in buying of land, which consequently makes the owners hold it so high.

Besides paying the nation's debts, the sale of these lands would have many other good effects upon the nation; it will considerably increase the number of gentry, where the bishops' tenants are not able or willing to purchase; for the lands will afford an hundred gentlemen a good revenue to each; several persons from England will probably be glad to come over hither, and be the buyers, rather than give thirty years' purchase at home, under the loads of taxes for the public and the poor, as well as repairs, by which means much money may be brought among us, and probably some of the purchasers themselves may be content to live cheap in a worse country, rather than be at the charge of exchange and agencies, and perhaps of non-solvencies in absence, if they let their lands too high.

This proposal will also multiply farmers, when the purchasers will have lands in their own power, to give long and easy leases to industrious husbandmen.

I have allowed some bishoprics of equal income to be of more or less value to the purchaser, according as they are circumstanced. For instance, the lands of the primacy and some other sees, are let so low, that they hardly pay a fifth penny of the real value to the bishop, and there the fines are the greater. On the contrary, the sees of Meath and Clonfert, consisting, as I am told, much of tithes, those tithes are annually let to the tenants without any fines. So the see of Dublin is said to have many fee-farms which pay no fines, and some leases for lives which pay very little, and not so soon nor so duly.

I cannot but be confident, that their Graces my Lords the Archbishops, and my Lords the Bishops will heartily join in this proposal, out of gratitude to his late and present  p.257 Majesty, the best of Kings, who have bestowed such high and opulent stations, as well as in pity to this country which is now become their own; whereby they will be instrumental towards paying the nation's debts, without impoverishing themselves, enrich an hundred gentlemen, as well as free them from dependence, and thus remove that envy which is apt to fall upon their Graces and Lordships from considerable persons, whose birth and fortunes rather qualify them to be lords of manors, than servile dependants upon Churchmen however dignified or distinguished.

If I do not flatter myself, there could not be any law more popular than this; for the immediate tenants to bishops, being some of them persons of quality, and good estates, and more of them grown up to be gentlemen by the profits of these very leases, under a succession of bishops, think it a disgrace to be subject both to rents and fines, at the pleasure of their landlords. Then the bulk of the tenants, especially the dissenters, who are our loyal Protestant brethren, look upon it both as an unnatural and iniquitous thing that bishops should be owners of land at all; (wherein I beg to differ from them) being a point so contrary to the practice of the Apostles, whose successors they are deemed to be, and who although they were contented that land should be sold, for the common use of the brethren, yet would not buy it themselves, but had it laid at their feet, to be distributed to poor proselytes.

I will add one word more, that by such a wholesome law, all the oppressions felt by under-tenants of Church leases, which are now laid on by the bishops would entirely be prevented, by their Graces and Lordships consenting to have their lands sold for payment of the nation's debts, reserving only the present rent for their own plentiful and honourable support.

I beg leave to add one particular, that, when heads of a Bill (as I find the style runs in this kingdom) shall be brought in for forming this proposal into a law; I should humbly offer that there might be a power given to every bishop (except those who reside in Dublin) for applying one hundred acres of profitable land that lies nearest to his palace, as a demesne for the conveniency of his family.

I know very well, that this scheme hath been much talked  p.258 of for some time past, and is in the thoughts of many patriots, neither was it properly mine, although I fell readily into it, when it was first communicated to me.

Though I am almost a perfect stranger in this kingdom, yet since I have accepted an employment here, of some consequence as well as profit, I cannot but think myself in duty bound to consult the interest of a people, among whom I have been so well received. And if I can be any way instrumental towards contributing to reduce this excellent proposal into a law which being not in the least injurious to England, will, I am confident, meet with no opposition from that side, my sincere endeavours to serve this Church and kingdom will be well rewarded.

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Title (uniform): A proposal to pay off the debt of the nation

Author: Jonathan Swift

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Electronic edition compiled by: Beatrix Färber

Funded by: University College, Cork and Writers of Ireland II Project

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2. Second draft, revised and corrected.

Extent: 3380 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: 2008

Date: 2010

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

CELT document ID: E700001-018

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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.

The edition used in the digital edition

‘A proposal for an Act of Parliament, to pay off the debt of the nation, without taxing the subject’ (1905). In: The prose works of Jonathan Swift D. D.‍ Ed. by Temple Scott. Vol. 7: Historical and political tracts—Irish. London: George Bell & Sons, pp. 253–258.

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

  editor 	 = {Temple Scott},
  title 	 = {A proposal for an Act of Parliament, to pay off the debt of the nation, without taxing the subject},
  booktitle 	 = {The prose works of Jonathan Swift D. D.},
  editor 	 = {Temple Scott},
  address 	 = {London},
  publisher 	 = {George Bell \& Sons},
  date 	 = {1905},
  volume 	 = {7: Historical and political tracts—Irish},
  pages 	 = {253–258}


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Creation: By Jonathan Swift

Date: 1732

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Keywords: political; prose; satire; 18c

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  1. By fines is meant the increase made in rents on the occasion of renewals of leases. 🢀


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