tablesetting complete with forks, knives, and spoons, and a baby on the plate in the center above the words "A Modest Proposal"

A Modest Proposal

by Jonathan Swift

Start Free Trial

What evidence supports Swift's claims in "A Modest Proposal"?

Quick answer:

In "A Modest Proposal," Jonathan Swift presents a variety of evidence for his proposition that the Irish poor sell their children for food, including a vivid description of the people's poverty and oppression, numerical calculations of profit, anecdotes about other places with similar practices, and a practical account of benefits to be received.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Jonathan Swift is the author of “A Modest Proposal ,” but he is almost certainly not the narrator who is making the proposal. Thus, the claims we are considering here are those that the narrator makes. This narrator uses two kinds of evidence—quantitative and qualitative—and provides numerous pieces of...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

data of both kinds.

The quantitative, or numerical, evidence includes demographic statistics. Challenging other “computations,” he says he offers more accurate numbers. Of 1.5 million people in the kingdom,

I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couple whose wives are breeders; from which number I subtract thirty thousand couples who are able to maintain their own children . . .

After some additional calculations, he arrives at 120,000 remaining children who are born to poor parents. Rather than start with this questionable “statistic,” which would encourage readers’ doubt, he builds a case by using several statistics. Of course, the source of his numbers is never provided.

The qualitative evidence, which is subjective and non-numerical, includes supposedly authoritative accounts as well as inferences drawn from personal observation. One such account is from an American in London:

I have been assured by a very knowing American 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.

By including details about how the “food” would be prepared, the narrator aims to support the credibility of the claim—after all, it is secondhand information. Similarly, he mentions “merchants” as the source of information about a reasonable sale price for children of specific ages.

[A] boy or girl, before twelve years old, is no saleable age, [because] they will no yield above three pounds, or three pounds a crown and a half, at the most.

A personal observation, from which he extrapolates, concerns overpopulation. His proposal concerns

the whole number of infants at a certain age who are born of parents in effect as little able to support them as [well as] those who demand our charity in the streets.

From having seen women panhandling and other beggars with children, he extends the idea that there are more poor children whose parents need help but do not beg on the streets.

In sum, the narrator includes “statistics” as well as hearsay or personal reports in support of his claims.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

As the other educator has pointed out, it is critical to acknowledge that Swift's piece is a satirical one; thus, the evidence within this essay should not be misconstrued as literal evidence, but taken as clever argumentation intended to comment on heartlessness toward the poor.

In the essay, Swift suggests that the Irish may resolve their economic issues by consuming children as food. He uses made-up calculations to illustrate his point:

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 couples who are able to maintain their own children... there will remain an hundred and seventy thousand breeders. I agains subtract fifty thousand for those women who miscarry, or whose children die by accident or disease with the year. There only remains one hundred and twenty thousand children of poor parents annually born.

This is an appeal to logos through the evidence that it is numerically "practical" to use children as sustenance, with Swift proposing that twenty thousand of these children be kept for breeding and the remaining hundred be sold as food throughout the kingdom. Again, Swift turns to numbers to back up his claims, speculating on everything from the number of meals a child may provide to his or her average weight in flesh to the financial costs of nursing poor children. Swift continues to play a "numbers game" throughout the essay to exaggerate the absurdity of what he is suggesting.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

It is of great importance from the beginning that we take A Modest Proposal for the satirical work that it is. His being absurd in order to make a point.

One of his claims is that this proposal will

"prevent voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of murdering ... bastard children!"

He supports this claim by giving hypothetical and numerical evidence. He calculates that "120,000 children of poor parents annually born" plague the society. These could "be reserved for breed..." and "offered for sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom."

He further gives evidence to the claim for selling children that he has

"been assured by a very knowing American... that a young healthy child well nursed at a year old [is] a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food."

Thus, he tries to imply that he has an expert source that would support his overall idea to eat children.

He provides evidence of discussion with merchants regarding the prices of what the different proportions of the child could yield for the profit of the poor.

He also later cites a time in history when after young persons had been put to death, their bodies were used for profit.

Swift uses statistical, historical, and authoritative types of evidence yet each of his arguments are weak and ill-founded in reality.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What types of evidence does the speaker use to support his argument in "A Modest Proposal"?

In “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift presents a satirical solution to the problem of Irish poverty. He argues that the Irish poor should sell their children to the rich as food. He is not, of course, serious, but he does support his “modest” proposal with a convincing set of evidence. Let's look at that evidence.

Swift begins with a description of the situation. Mothers and their children are begging for food and being exploited at every turn. This situation is intolerable, and the kingdom is in a “deplorable state.” He then goes on to explain that a child may be supported for a year on a mere two shillings, not very much in the grand scheme of things. He also calculates the number of children being born each year to poor parents, namely, about a hundred and twenty thousand. These children, he explains, cannot now be provided for under current circumstances. With these background details, which already begin to introduce supporting evidence, he sets forth the need for his proposal.

Then he presents the proposal itself, namely, the consumption of many of these children as food. He then goes on to explain the “practical” considerations of this new form of nourishment, how each year-old infant will make at least two good meals and four for a single family. Further, it will be “in season” all year long. The mothers who sell their children will benefit from “eight shillings neat profit,” Swift continues.

Swift then goes on to present anecdotal evidence from other places around the world where children even as old as fifteen are consumed, noting that such a fate might be appropriate for many of the plump, useless girls of the kingdom.

After this digression, Swift returns to the practical evidence for his proposal. He explains how Ireland's poor are dying from starvation, disease, and exposure, and he presents many ways in which his proposal will accomplish several goals at once. There will be fewer Catholics, for one thing, and the poor will have a valuable commodity of their own. Further, this is a completely native product, so the profits from it will stay within the country. Parents will not have to support their children longer than a year, and they will be more inclined to marry. Husbands might even be more fond of their wives and care for them better if they can make a profit off of them. Even the tavern keepers will benefit from increased income.

Swift then proceeds to say that he can think of no objections to this proposal and that he does not want to hear of any other solutions (especially since no one seems interested in actually pursuing them). He then goes on to present a long list of the real solutions to the problem of poverty.

Last Updated on