Author logo A Modest Proposal - study guide

About A Modest Proposal
Studying A Modest Proposal
What does Swift propose?
Writing tasks
Task 1
Task 2
Comparing the Proposal with other texts
The full text of A Modest Proposal


This study guide has been written for students and their teachers in KS3 and KS4 in the UK but may be suitable for students elsewhere. The guide suggests ways of responding to Jonathan Swift's pamphlet A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the publick. Read the text thoroughly - perhaps with some help from a teacher, and attempt one of the tasks described on this guide - or agree some other task with your teacher.

If you wish to work traditionally these activities can be done in an exercise book, or as a booklet using your own skills in illustration and writing. If you wish to use computer software for your work, this is quite appropriate. The tasks may work well as speaking and listening activities; you are encouraged to present these “live” or make use of tape-recording or multi-media software recording to show your work. In such cases, where the guide refers to writing, you may respond by speaking.

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About A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal was written by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), who is well-known as the author of the satirical political fantasy, Gulliver's Travels. Swift published the Modest Proposal in 1729 as a pamphlet (a kind of essay in an unbound booklet). At this time, and for many years afterward, Ireland (not an independent country) was far poorer than England. Most people born there were Roman Catholics and employed as agricultural labourers or tenant farmers. The landlords (landowners) were paid from the produce of the land, at rates which the workers could rarely afford. This ruling class were usually Protestants. Many of them were not born in Ireland, nor did they live there permanently. If the labourers lost their work, there would always be other poor people to take it up. There was no social security system and starvation was as common as in the Third World today. Swift knows, in writing the Proposal, that in living memory, Irish people had been driven to cannibalism.

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Studying A Modest Proposal

You are not expected to have any special knowledge of the history of Ireland, and most of the information you need can be found in the Proposal itself. You are expected to write about what Swift says and how he does so. Later, you will be expected to write about other texts which are like this one in some way or ways, and compare them together. You should choose one of the two tasks below, and use the study guide to direct your writing about the Modest Proposal. In doing either task you should quote directly (in quotation marks) or refer to details of the text to support your comments.

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What does Swift propose in this pamphlet?

The Modest Proposal begins by describing the very real poverty of people in Ireland. Swift presents this quite sympathetically but sets out facts and details, showing that there is a “surplus” of children who cannot be fed. He considers the possibility of selling the children into slavery, but objects to this - not because it is cruel or wrong, but because no-one will buy children below twelve years of age. This means that there is a long period in which the children cannot be fed, because their parents are too poor, but are too small and weak to be sold into work. Next he digresses to make the shocking claim that, according to an American whom he knows, a healthy child at one year old is:

“a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome Food, whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked or Boyled”

From this beginning, Swift proceeds to develop his scheme by breeding children for food. For example, he states that landlords will be popular with tenants because they will be able to pay them more, to buy the children for the table. He reasons that, by selling their children so soon, mothers will be able to go back to work, until they produce the next child. He notes that, as Catholics seem to breed more rapidly than Protestants, his scheme will help reduce their numbers - as most of the children sold for food will be “Papists”, as he calls them. And he suggests that some purchasers will not only wish to eat the children, but will flay the skin and make gloves or boots from it, as from a fine leather.

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Swift considers the possibility of eating older children, but decides against it - the boys would be tough and lean, while the girls would be near to the time when they could “become Breeders themselves”, and it would be best to let them do so. He moves to list six reasons why his scheme is a good one. Before concluding he advises people not to suggest other solutions - like taxing absentee landlords, of encouraging the domestic economy by buying Irish goods, of discouraging pride, vanity, idleness and gambling, and generally of expecting the wealthy to be more compassionate to the poor. He argues finally, that an early death would have been preferable to the misery many poor people experience in their adult lives. And he claims to be quite impartial, because his oldest child is nine and his wife past child-bearing - so that he will not be able to make any profit by selling his own children.

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Some of the unfamiliar terms in the Modest Proposal are explained below

  • Chair: (Here) a Sedan Chair - a covered chair supported by poles, carried by two bearers.
  • Episcopal: To do with (here appointed by) a bishop - the adjective refers to church administration at the time Swift wrote.
  • Gibbet: Place where criminals are hanged.
  • Mandarin: Important official serving an oriental (originally Chinese) ruler, or any high official today.
  • Papists: Supporters of the Pope, an insulting name for Catholics.
  • Pretender: James Stuart, a Catholic who pretended to (claimed) the English and Scottish thrones. He is sometimes known as the Old Pretender, while his son, Charles Edward Stuart, is known as the Young Pretender (or Bonnie Prince Charlie)
  • Shambles: Place (usually in a town) where animals are slaughtered and butchered.
  • Solar year: A year in the ordinary sense (as measured by the earth's going once round the sun).

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Writing tasks

In the tasks below you can show your understanding of the Modest Proposal. For some kinds of assessed work in England you will need to write about another text, too. You will find some suggestions below.

Task 1

This is quite a straightforward task - it could be taken by any student. If you are doing work for GCSE exams in the UK, it is suitable for those entered for the Foundation Tier (target grades G to E).

This task is in several parts. You should try to do all of them.

  • First, write a report (as detailed as you can make it) for the King (His Majesty, George II), explaining Mr. Swift's proposal. At the end of your report, you should write your views on
    • the scheme's good points (if any) and also
    • on its drawbacks.
  • Next, write a letter (choose the date of a day in 1729) to the Irish Times, giving your views in support of Swift's suggestion, or against it. Write as if you are the mother of a baby, a farm worker, a landlord or any other person who might have an interest in the matter. You may write more than one such letter.
  • Finally, writing as yourself now, say what you think of Swift's Proposal. Try to show what you think Swift's real views are about how to relieve poverty (look at the section in italics near the end of the pamphlet). Try to comment on his irony (irony is found where what an author seems to say is different from what he or she really thinks, and the reader or audience is expected to pick this up). Say whether Swift's writing has any relevance to the modern world.

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Task 2

Introduce the Proposal | What problem does Swift seek to solve? | The Proposal in detail | Swift's ambiguity | The reader's response | Swift's real targets | Attending to the details | Conclusion

This is a more ambitious task - it could be taken by any student. If you are doing work for GCSE exams in the UK, it is suitable for those entered for the Higher Tier (target grades D to A*).

This requires you to explain the Proposal, comment on Swift's writing methods, and make a judgement and personal response to it.

Introduce the Proposal

First you should briefly introduce the Proposal: in a paragraph or two, outline what it is about and when and why it appeared. You may use the information at the start of the guide for this.

What problem does Swift seek to solve?

Next, you should outline the problem for which Swift proposes a solution: What is it? Who (if anyone) causes it? Why is it so hard to solve?

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The Proposal in detail

Now you need to explain the Proposal. You may use Swift's words sometimes, but should also explain or summarize in your own words. Try not to make judgements here (you will do so later). This will probably be the longest section of your work. Break it into paragraphs. Look at the different parts of Swift's account. You may also write about some developments or modifications of his scheme which others have suggested, and Swift's comments on these.

Swift's ambiguity

Near the end of the pamphlet (in coloured type on this page) Swift dismisses some alternative solutions to the problem of poverty. He lists them, but does not explain them in detail. See if you can work out what any of them are. Write in each case whether the solution here would be better than the Modest Proposal.

This part of the Proposal is ambiguous - we cannot be sure of Swift's real intention. On the surface he is dismissing alternatives to his scheme - but we can see that they may be quite good ideas. Do you think that he really wants the reader to dismiss these ideas?

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The reader's response

At this point it will be helpful to explain the reader's response (what Swift expects, anyway) first to the Proposal and then to the other solutions which Swift dismisses. You must write about Swift's use of irony: what he says literally (surface meaning) is quite different from what he really believes (deep or underlying meaning) and the reader is (you are) expected to see this.

Swift's real targets

Who, if anyone, is (or are) really to blame for the state of Ireland? See if you can find those whom Swift casts as the villains of the piece. Give your reasons.

Attending to the details

Next, you should comment on some of the details which you may have found interesting. You can take these in any order (no need for everyone's work to be identical!) and can find things for yourself. You may like to include the following (as Swift sees them):

  • religious differences;
  • attitudes to marriage;
  • men's attitudes (to their wives and children, and to their livestock);
  • the effects of poverty on family life.

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You may now wish to comment on some individual phrases which are not quite what they seem, or where Swift is making fun of some target. These could include:

  • “a very knowing American of my acquaintance”;
  • “persons of Quality” (several times);
  • “advising the Mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month”;
  • “very proper for Landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the Parents, seem to have the best Title to the Children”;
  • “which of them could bring the fattest child to market”;
  • “I have no Children, by which I can propose to get a single Penny...”.

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You should definitely comment on the word “modest” in the title: in Swift's day a “modest” proposal would be one which is simple, easy to achieve and unlikely to meet with objections. Is his proposal “modest” in this sense?


To finish, comment on how far this pamphlet is relevant to our own society and to the modern reader. Write about things that have changed and about anything which, you think, has not changed much. Do you think Swift cares much or little for the poor? Does he support the powerful and wealthy classes? How well does he make his case?

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Comparing A Modest Proposal with other texts

For some kinds of exam work you may want to compare this text to others with similar themes or subjects. There are many novels, stories, essays, plays and poems that present the plight of poor and vulnerable people - far too many to list here. You will also find other texts that criticise the unjust way in which some people treat their fellows. Here are a very few suggestions:

Depictions of poverty
  • William Wordworth: Animal Tranquility and Decay (poem; also called Old Man Travelling)
  • George Orwell: The Road to Wigan Pier (reportage)
  • Charles Causley: Timothy Winters (poem)
  • R.S. Thomas: A Tramp (poem)
Depictions of injustice
  • George Orwell: Animal Farm (novella)
  • J.B. Priestley: An Inspector Calls (play)
  • Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird (novel)

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The full text of A Modest Proposal

(Note that this text uses Swift's original spelling - do not use this as a model for your own writing. Text that appears in italics in some printed versions of the Proposal is here shown in brown like this.)

A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the publick.

by Dr. Jonathan Swift; 1729

It is a melancholy object to those, who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabbin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in stroling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants who, as they grow up, either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country, to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.

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I think it is agreed by all parties, that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom, a very great additional grievance; and therefore whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the common-wealth, would deserve so well of the publick, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.

But my intention is very far from being confined to provide only for the children of professed beggars: it is of a much greater extent, and shall take in the whole number of infants at a certain age, who are born of parents in effect as little able to support them, as those who demand our charity in the streets.

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As to my own part, having turned my thoughts for many years, upon this important subject, and maturely weighed the several schemes of other projectors, I have always found them grossly mistaken in their computation. It is true, a child just dropt from its dam, may be supported by her milk, for a solar year, with little other nourishment: at most not above the value of two shillings, which the mother may certainly get, or the value in scraps, by her lawful occupation of begging; and it is exactly at one year old that I propose to provide for them in such a manner, as, instead of being a charge upon their parents, or the parish, or wanting food and raiment for the rest of their lives, they shall, on the contrary, contribute to the feeding, and partly to the cloathing of many thousands.

There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas! too frequent among us, sacrificing the poor innocent babes, I doubt, more to avoid the expence than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast.

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The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couple whose wives are breeders; from which number I subtract thirty thousand couple, who are able to maintain their own children, (although I apprehend there cannot be so many, under the present distresses of the kingdom) but this being granted, there will remain an hundred and seventy thousand breeders. I again subtract fifty thousand, for those women who miscarry, or whose children die by accident or disease within the year. There only remain an hundred and twenty thousand children of poor parents annually born. The question therefore is, How this number shall be reared, and provided for? which, as I have already said, under the present situation of affairs, is utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto proposed. For we can neither employ them in handicraft or agriculture; we neither build houses, (I mean in the country) nor cultivate land: they can very seldom pick up a livelihood by stealing till they arrive at six years old; except where they are of towardly parts, although I confess they learn the rudiments much earlier; during which time they can however be properly looked upon only as probationers: As I have been informed by a principal gentleman in the county of Cavan, who protested to me, that he never knew above one or two instances under the age of six, even in a part of the kingdom so renowned for the quickest proficiency in that art.

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I am assured by our merchants, that a boy or a girl before twelve years old, is no saleable commodity, and even when they come to this age, they will not yield above three pounds, or three pounds and half a crown at most, on the exchange; which cannot turn to account either to the parents or kingdom, the charge of nutriments and rags having been at least four times that value.

I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.

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I do therefore humbly offer it to publick consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine, and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore, one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune, through the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

I have reckoned upon a medium, that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, encreaseth to 28 pounds. I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.

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Infant's flesh will be in season throughout the year, but more plentiful in March, and a little before and after; for we are told by a grave author, an eminent French physician, that fish being a prolifick dyet, there are more children born in Roman Catholick countries about nine months after Lent, than at any other season: therefore reckoning a year after Lent, the markets will be more glutted than usual, because the number of Popish infants, is at least three to one in this kingdom, and therefore it will have one other collateral advantage, by lessening the number of Papists among us.

I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggar's child (in which list I reckon all cottagers, labourers, and four-fifths of the farmers) to be about two shillings per annum, rags included; and I believe no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat, when he hath only some particular friend, or his own family to dine with him. Thus the squire will learn to be a good landlord, and grow popular among his tenants, the mother will have eight shillings neat profit, and be fit for work till she produces another child.

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Those who are more thrifty (as I must confess the times require) may flay the carcass; the skin of which, artificially dressed, will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen.

As to our City of Dublin, shambles may be appointed for this purpose, in the most convenient parts of it, and butchers we may be assured will not be wanting; although I rather recommend buying the children alive, and dressing them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs.

A very worthy person, a true lover of his country, and whose virtues I highly esteem, was lately pleased, in discoursing on this matter, to offer a refinement upon my scheme. He said, that many gentlemen of this kingdom, having of late destroyed their deer, he conceived that the want of venison might be well supply'd by the bodies of young lads and maidens, not exceeding fourteen years of age, nor under twelve; so great a number of both sexes in every country being now ready to starve for want of work and service: And these to be disposed of by their parents if alive, or otherwise by their nearest relations.

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But with due deference to so excellent a friend, and so deserving a patriot, I cannot be altogether in his sentiments; for as to the males, my American acquaintance assured me from frequent experience, that their flesh was generally tough and lean, like that of our school-boys, by continual exercise, and their taste disagreeable, and to fatten them would not answer the charge. Then as to the females, it would, I think, with humble submission, be a loss to the publick, because they soon would become breeders themselves: And besides, it is not improbable that some scrupulous people might be apt to censure such a practice, (although indeed very unjustly) as a little bordering upon cruelty, which, I confess, hath always been with me the strongest objection against any project, how well soever intended.

But in order to justify my friend, he confessed, that this expedient was put into his head by the famous Salmanaazor, a native of the island Formosa, who came from thence to London, above twenty years ago, and in conversation told my friend, that in his country, when any young person happened to be put to death, the executioner sold the carcass to persons of quality, as a prime dainty; and that, in his time, the body of a plump girl of fifteen, who was crucified for an attempt to poison the Emperor, was sold to his imperial majesty's prime minister of state, and other great mandarins of the court in joints from the gibbet, at four hundred crowns. Neither indeed can I deny, that if the same use were made of several plump young girls in this town, who without one single groat to their fortunes, cannot stir abroad without a chair, and appear at a play-house and assemblies in foreign fineries which they never will pay for; the kingdom would not be the worse.

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Some persons of a desponding spirit are in great concern about that vast number of poor people, who are aged, diseased, or maimed; and I have been desired to employ my thoughts what course may be taken, to ease the nation of so grievous an incumbrance. But I am not in the least pain upon that matter, because it is very well known, that they are every day dying, and rotting, by cold and famine, and filth, and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected. And as to the young labourers, they are now in almost as hopeful a condition. They cannot get work, and consequently pine away from want of nourishment, to a degree, that if at any time they are accidentally hired to common labour, they have not strength to perform it, and thus the country and themselves are happily delivered from the evils to come.

I have too long digressed, and therefore shall return to my subject. I think the advantages by the proposal which I have made are obvious and many, as well as of the highest importance. For first, as I have already observed, it would greatly lessen the number of Papists, with whom we are yearly over-run, being the principal breeders of the nation, as well as our most dangerous enemies, and who stay at home on purpose with a design to deliver the kingdom to the Pretender, hoping to take their advantage by the absence of so many good Protestants, who have chosen rather to leave their country, than stay at home and pay tithes against their conscience to an episcopal curate.

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Secondly, The poorer tenants will have something valuable of their own, which by law may be made liable to a distress, and help to pay their landlord's rent, their corn and cattle being already seized, and money a thing unknown.

Thirdly, Whereas the maintainance of an hundred thousand children, from two years old, and upwards, cannot be computed at less than ten shillings a piece per annum, the nation's stock will be thereby encreased fifty thousand pounds per annum, besides the profit of a new dish, introduced to the tables of all gentlemen of fortune in the kingdom, who have any refinement in taste. And the money will circulate among our selves, the goods being entirely of our own growth and manufacture.

Fourthly, The constant breeders, besides the gain of eight shillings sterling per annum by the sale of their children, will be rid of the charge of maintaining them after the first year.

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Fifthly, This food would likewise bring great custom to taverns, where the vintners will certainly be so prudent as to procure the best receipts for dressing it to perfection; and consequently have their houses frequented by all the fine gentlemen, who justly value themselves upon their knowledge in good eating; and a skilful cook, who understands how to oblige his guests, will contrive to make it as expensive as they please.

Sixthly, This would be a great inducement to marriage, which all wise nations have either encouraged by rewards, or enforced by laws and penalties. It would encrease the care and tenderness of mothers towards their children, when they were sure of a settlement for life to the poor babes, provided in some sort by the publick, to their annual profit instead of expence. We should soon see an honest emulation among the married women, which of them could bring the fattest child to the market. Men would become as fond of their wives, during the time of their pregnancy, as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, or sow when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage.

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Many other advantages might be enumerated. For instance, the addition of some thousand carcasses in our exportation of barrel'd beef: the propagation of swine's flesh, and improvement in the art of making good bacon, so much wanted among us by the great destruction of pigs, too frequent at our tables; which are no way comparable in taste or magnificence to a well grown, fat yearly child, which roasted whole will make a considerable figure at a Lord Mayor's feast, or any other publick entertainment. But this, and many others, I omit, being studious of brevity.

Supposing that one thousand families in this city, would be constant customers for infants flesh, besides others who might have it at merry meetings, particularly at weddings and christenings, I compute that Dublin would take off annually about twenty thousand carcasses; and the rest of the kingdom (where probably they will be sold somewhat cheaper) the remaining eighty thousand.

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I can think of no one objection, that will possibly be raised against this proposal, unless it should be urged, that the number of people will be thereby much lessened in the kingdom. This I freely own, and 'twas indeed one principal design in offering it to the world. I desire the reader will observe, that I calculate my remedy for this one individual Kingdom of Ireland, and for no other that ever was, is, or, I think, ever can be upon Earth. Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: Of using neither cloaths, nor houshold furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance: Of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken: Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.

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Therefore I repeat, let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, 'till he hath at least some glympse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice. But, as to my self, having been wearied out for many years with offering vain, idle, visionary thoughts, and at length utterly despairing of success, I fortunately fell upon this proposal, which, as it is wholly new, so it hath something solid and real, of no expence and little trouble, full in our own power, and whereby we can incur no danger in disobliging England. For this kind of commodity will not bear exportation, and flesh being of too tender a consistence, to admit a long continuance in salt, although perhaps I could name a country, which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without it.

After all, I am not so violently bent upon my own opinion, as to reject any offer, proposed by wise men, which shall be found equally innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual. But before something of that kind shall be advanced in contradiction to my scheme, and offering a better, I desire the author or authors will be pleased maturely to consider two points.

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First, As things now stand, how they will be able to find food and raiment for a hundred thousand useless mouths and backs. And secondly, There being a round million of creatures in humane figure throughout this kingdom, whose whole subsistence put into a common stock, would leave them in debt two million of pounds sterling, adding those who are beggars by profession, to the bulk of farmers, cottagers and labourers, with their wives and children, who are beggars in effect; I desire those politicians who dislike my overture, and may perhaps be so bold to attempt an answer, that they will first ask the parents of these mortals, whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old, in the manner I prescribe, and thereby have avoided such a perpetual scene of misfortunes, as they have since gone through, by the oppression of landlords, the impossibility of paying rent without money or trade, the want of common sustenance, with neither house nor cloaths to cover them from the inclemencies of the weather, and the most inevitable prospect of intailing the like, or greater miseries, upon their breed for ever.

I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavouring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the publick good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children, by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.

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© Andrew Moore, 2002; Contact me

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