Gulliver's Travels Historical and Social Context
by Jonathan Swift

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

England in the 1720s

While Swift was writing Gulliver's Travels in the 1720s, England was undergoing a lot of political shuffling. George I, a Hanoverian prince of Germany, had ascended the British throne in 1714 after the death of Queen Anne ended the Stuart line. Although he was not a bad or repressive king, he was unpopular. King George had gained his throne with the assistance of the Whig party, and his Whig ministers subsequently used their considerable gains in power to oppress members of the opposition Tory party. Swift had been a Tory since 1710, and bitterly resented the Whig actions against his friends, who often faced exile or worse. Understanding how events in Europe and England led to this political rivalry can help the reader of Swift's novel better understand his satire.

The Restoration

The Restoration era began in 1660, a few years before Swift was born. At this time Charles Stuart (King Charles II) became king of England, restoring the Protestant Stuart family to the throne. Charles II supported a strong Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church. He was supported by the Tories, a political party made up mostly of church officials and landowning noblemen. Protestants who did not support the Anglican church teamed with Roman Catholics to form the opposing Whig party. The main source of contention between the parties was the Test Act of 1673, which forced all government employees to receive communion according to the Anglican church's customs. In effect, this prevented non-Anglicans from holding government jobs. Swift himself supported the act, and even switched from Whig to Tory in 1710 because he believed a strong Church of England was necessary to keep the balance of power in the government. Throughout his life, he felt that institutions such as the church and government had to be strong in order to rein in people's tendency toward chaos and sin; he explored this idea in Gulliver's Travels. Over the years, however, Swift came to believe the Tories were as much to blame as the Whigs for engaging in partisan politics, locking horns over minor issues and bringing the government to a stalemate. Whenever one party was in favor with the reigning king and in power in the Parliament, it attacked the other party, exiling and imprisoning the opposition's members. Swift satirized their selfish and petty politics in Part I of Gulliver's Travels, where the Lilliputian heir (who represented George II, the future king of England) has to hobble about with one short heel and one high as a compromise between the two parties that wear different heights of heels.

The Glorious Revolution and War of Spanish Succession

Charles II' s brother King James II, a Catholic, came to the British throne in 1685. He immediately repealed the Test Act and began to hire Whigs for his government. The Anglican-dominated Parliament secretly negotiated with William of Orange, the Protestant Dutch husband of James's Protestant daughter Mary, to take over the throne. In December 1688, William did so, and James II fled to France without a fight. This was called the Glorious Revolution because no one was killed in the coup.

Soon after King William III and Queen Mary II came to power, the Catholic Louis XIV of France declared war on Spain over trade and religious issues. William entered the war on the side of Spain, a war the English called William's War. This conflict was satirized by Swift in the war between the Lilliputians (England) and Blefuscudians (England with the Spanish, Dutch, and Germans as allies) was fighting France, it was also warring with Ireland. Irish Catholics wanted freedom from British rule, and England feared that France could invade their country through a sympathetic Ireland. Peace came about in 1697, but England got almost none of the spoils of war—land in Spain. In order to appear strong, William declared war again, this time on the Spanish and the French. This began the War of Spanish Succession.

In 1702 William died and his...

(The entire section is 1,487 words.)