The years in Swift’s life that are significant as a background to his writing the Proposal are from 1696, when he left his post at Kilroot and returned to England to resume his work as secretary to Sir William Temple at Moor Park near London, to 1712, when the Proposal was written. It can be safely assumed that he met Daniel Defoe during his time at Moor Park, or at least that he was well acquainted with Defoe’s writings, in particular the Essay upon Projects. After Sir William’s death in 1699, he returned to Ireland to take up a post with a very small congregation some 20 miles outside Dublin. The small size of the congregation meant that his duties in the parish were light enough to enable him to travel to London frequently over the next ten years, where he made friends with Richard Steele and Joseph Addison. The connections between Defoe, Swift, Addison and Steele were as writers, friends and, perhaps more important for Swift, as members of the Whig Party. Swift is known to have contributed articles to the Tatler before deserting the Whigs for the Tories in 1710. In 1710 he also accepted the editorship of the Examiner. the Tory pendant to the Spectator. From 1710 on, Swift was closely connected with the Tory government that was ousted in 1714 on the death of Queen Anne and the accession to the throne of the Hanoverian king George I.

The first decade of the eighteenth century witnessed a concerted effort on the part of a number of writers (e.g. Shaftesbury, Addison, Steele and Swift himself ) to define and exemplify polite behaviour as a culturally and socially desirable goal, intimately linked not only with forms of linguistic behaviour, but also with the chimera of a fixed, prestigious standard language. Shaftesbury went so far as to develop a philosophy of politeness to which those who wished to belong to polite society should ascribe (cf. chap. 8), and in the two short-lived but enormously popular periodicals the Tatler and the Spectator, Addison, Steele and other contributors commented on a wide range of topics that exemplified forms of polite behaviour and opinion.

The final decade of the seventeenth century and the first decade of the eighteenth century were also characterised by strong connections between politicians and literary activists,[1] with Defoe, Addison and Steele firmly in the Whig camp and Pope, Arbuthnot, Gay and St. John in that of the Tories. Robert Harley, who was raised to the peerage as the Earl of Oxford and Mortimer on 23 May 1711, was also well known for his literary interests, and during his early career in Parliament Harley made use of Defoe’s skills as a political writer in 1703. He is known to have also made use of Swift’s talents as a pamphlet writer. Harley also started his political career as a Whig but defected to the Tory Party before taking office as lord high treasurer in 1711. Swift’s career as a political satirist was closely bound up with Harley’s as a politician, and in November 1712 an assassination attempt on Harley known as the Bandbox Plot was forestalled by the prompt intervention of Swift.

The Proposal was thus written at a time of political upheaval between the Whigs and the Tories, and political topics were discussed in issues of the Examiner and the Spectator, as well as in pamphlets such as this one, in efforts to gain support for one side or the other. The issues, however, were generally disguised behind a smokescreen of irony and satire, which would have been relatively easily to interpret for contemporary readers, although not for readers today. Part of that smokescreen consisted of accusations about the language used by Swift’s opponents and allusions to their claims to belong to polite society and their advice to others on how to become “polite”. In the previous section we located an oblique reference to Defoe and what may very well have been a criticism of Addison and Steele. If we lose sight of the veiled political invective in the Proposal, we lose much of its underlying significance when it is looked at from within the sociohistorical framework of the last years of the reign of Queen Anne. It is thus useful to search in the Proposal for possible references to these writers.

  • [1] Steele, for example, also stood for and was elected to parliament in 1713, and Robert Harley, withwhom Swift worked closely, dabbled in literature in the first decade of the eighteenth century and, as a Whigpolitician, was familiar to this circle of Whig writers. Fitzmaurice (2000) is an excellent source of informationon the politics of social networks and the interconnections between writers and politicians around the timewhen Swift published the Proposal.
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