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Thomas Jefferson and Jonathan Swift

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There exists a fine line between the degree of responsibility a government has for its citizens, and the control it assumes to ensure the proliferation of its power. While freedom may be a traditional American value, how it is defined is a question that has long been a source of debate. Furthermore, when an institution follows a course of action that becomes detrimental to society, what responsibility, if any, do the citizens have to show their dissent, and what form should that dissent take?

All of these are questions looking to be answered, with varying degrees of seriousness, by Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Swift. Thomas Jefferson’s A Declaration of Independence may be thought of as a universal symbol of traditional American values, however in it exists several layers of meaning, each appealing to the reader and their sense of social responsibility. While Swift’s A Modest Proposal attempts a similar entreaty to the public’s sympathy, it diverges drastically in its use of satire. While the style of each work individually differs, their function is essentially the same: to seek out the reader’s sense of empathy in an effort to draw support to their cause.

When writing the Declaration of Independence Jefferson not only created something that was shockingly incendiary, it was full of ideas that were revolutionary for the time period it was written. While contemporary American society may think of the question of freedom to be a foregone conclusion, the political culture of 1776 was drastically different. Globally the power rested with the monarchies, who concerned themselves more with furthering their own interests than protecting and empowering their citizens. Jefferson believed this idea undermined individual liberty, and sought to change it by creating a government that derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Jonathan Swift, who, like Jefferson, was a politically progressive presence in the face of the English, sought to find similar support in his scathing satire. While Swift ostensibly claims he is trying to find a solution to the poverty that has ravaged the Irish, his true motivation in writing the pamphlet is to draw some attention to the squalor that the Irish are living in while being constantly oppressed by the wealthy English nobility. Swift doesn’t just direct his aggravation at the English, however, he also finds sees weakness among the Irish, whom he finds just as responsible for the poor state of affairs within the country.

Both Jonathan Swift and Thomas Jefferson have found considerable fault with the ruling party; they are using the written word as a means of protest. The delivery in the Declaration of Independence is rather straightforward, it is divided into three very distinct parts with a preamble that outlines both the structure of the Declaration and the directive the representatives have in writing it. Jefferson opens with his delivery of the entitlements each man has by virtue of simply his own humanity, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The certainty with which Jefferson declares these rights, along with their universal appeal, immediately draw the reader into the introduction. With each subsequent section of the Declaration Jefferson details how these basic human privileges are being violated, who is robbing the colonists of such essential rights, and what, very precisely, is to be done about it. Already having listed rights that seem not only essential but very reasonable, Jefferson argues that the monarchy has committed terrible atrocities against those seeking such entitlements. By the time the Declaration has concluded, the reader is shocked that the colonists, by all accounts such reasonable and well intentioned people, are being treated in such a transparently oppressive manner.

Swift’s delivery in A Modest Proposal is a similar attempt at emotionally manipulating the audience into action, however the sarcastic quality of the essay creates an off-putting air of extremity, robbing Swift of some of his effectiveness. In the introduction Swift invokes the daily sight of poverty on the streets of Ireland, and how families, “are forced to employ all of their time in strolling, to beg sustenance for their helpless infants, who are, as they grow up, either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country.” While Swift opens with a strong sense of compassion, creating a sense of empathy in the reader, his comments about woman as “breeders” and Irish who “fight for the pretender in Spain,” give some insight into his mixed loyalties. The wretched description of poverty certainly creates a need for change, but when Swift begins to attack the same poor people he claim need assistance, the quality of his delivery is compromised and the reader loses some degree of emotional investment in the story.

Another important component of each work individually is the course of action the author claims will be effective against their perceived source of tyranny. The Declaration of Independence, having clearly labelled each offense committed by the king, culminates in a final paragraph of action; the colonies claim to be “absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and out to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which Independent States may of right do.” Jefferson has made his case infinitely clear, those disenfranchised by the British are forging their own path and giving birth to not only a new state but an innovative set of values with which to run it by. The course of action detailed by Jefferson is especially potent in its decision to remove the power from the monarchy and give it to the people. A reader of the declaration would likely feel not only a sense of moral righteousness about declaring independence from such a corrupt monarchy, they would likely feel very empowered about the ability they suddenly have to be part of something revolutionary.

While Swift is also exploring ways in which to secure more freedom for the oppressed, his “Proposal” is different from Jefferson’s in a shockingly unorthodox way. Swift deduces that the best means of help for such a large population of starving people would, undoubtably, be economic; of the 120,000 children born each year 100,000 of them should be sold off as a gourmet delicacy. Swift supports his proposal by assuring the audience that a healthy child, “is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food.” The irony of the proposal, that infanticide is a morally acceptable solution to the problem, is one of the ways Swift is looking to shake his audience out of their indifference. The argument of eating children, as satirical as it may be, is such an extreme form of novelty that it may turn the reader off of the essay as a whole. In emphasizing this remedy for Ireland Swift insinuates that the Irish are so starved for solutions that even cannibalism is preferable to the status quo. Even in a comedic light Swift’s argument falls short, the poor taste and criticisms of the Irish people cause the reader to doubt the integrity of Swift’s intentions.

Both Swift and Jefferson have innovative visions for the subjugated people on whose behalf they are speaking. Jefferson is working to create a new order, free of the oppression of Great Britain. His ideas and straightforward style, along with his definitive call to action for the colonists to separate themselves from the king, help make the Declaration of Independence into the influential and infamous document it is known as today. A Modest Proposal, while working to draw attention to the plight of the Irish people, falls victim to many of Swift’s prejudices as an author. While the underlying message is ultimately one of critical importance, especially for the era in which it was written, Swift fails to incite in the reader the same level of emotional response and Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence has indeed earned its place as one of the most critically important, and politically potent, documents of all time.

Works Cited

Henderson, Gloria Mason, Anna Dunlap Higgins, Bill Day, and Sandra Stevenson Waller, eds. Literature and Ourselves: A Thematic Introduction for Readers and Writers. 6th ed. New York: Longman, 2009. Print. Jefferson, Thomas. “Declaration of Independence.” Henderson, Higgins, Day and Waller 703-06. Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal.” Henderson, Higgins, Day and Waller 696-702.

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