Friday, November 19, 2010

Swift and English Politics of His Time

The Whigs and the Tories
In order to understand some of the allusions to political personalities and events in Gulliver’s time, we have to become acquainted with the historical background of Swift’s book. In the first place we should know who the Whigs and the Tories were. There existed at that time two major political parties known as the Whigs and the Tories.
These parties had taken shape under Charles II. The Whigs were those who (a) opposed the King’s attempt to make himself independent of Parliament by means of a subsidy from France; and (b) worked up the Popish Plot scare to exclude the Duke of York (afterwards James II) from the succession to the throne. The Tories were those who took the opposite line on these matters. There were also certain social distinctions between these two parties. The Whigs were mainly town-­dwellers-shop-keepers, merchants, bankers, professional men, Low Churchmen, etc. The Tories were mainly country-dwellers-squires and parsons with their tenants and dependants-still the backbone of the country (mostly the descendants of the old Royalists). The Whigs wanted to safeguard the powers of Parliament. As Low Churchmen they attached little importance to the privileges of the Church and wanted toleration for dissenters. In foreign affairs they supported an alliance with the Dutch to check Louis XIV. The Tories believed in the supremacy of the Crown (Divine Right and Non­resistance), until James II frightened them by using his Divine Right to attack Protestantism. As High Churchmen they attached great importance to the privileges of the Church of England, and wanted the dissenters to be persecuted. In foreign affairs they believed in a “splendid isolation”-no entangling alliances with the Dutch, and no hostility to France. They were in favour of international peace because war increased the land tax which fell mostly on Tory squires, while the money mostly went in army contracts which put much of it into the pockets of Whig merchants and bankers.
The Attitude of the Tories to War
In 1702 the Tories had been forced by the actions of Louis XIV of France into supporting England’s entry into the Grand Alliance. But this step was contrary to their basic principles, and they soon turned against it. In Parliament they belittled the victories of Marlborough, and restricted the scope of his operations as much as they could. Marlborough, originally a Tory, was alienated from that party by their opposition to the war. He used his great influence to procure a Whig Parliament and Ministry. Thus the war became a Whig war.

The Tories in Power
In course of time the nation grew tired of the war which had become more expensive and less successful each year. The result was that public opinion swung round to support the Tory opposition to war. The Queen !1lso became sick of the interference by the Duchess of Marlborough. In 1710 the Tories came into power. They at once restricted Marlborough’s activities and then dismissed him from his command. The Tory government next withdrew British troops (1711) and then opened negotiations with France. Eventually the Tories signed a treaty of peace with France at Utrecht in 1713.
George I and Sir Robert Walpole
Queen Anne was the English monarch from 1702 to 1714. When she died suddenly in August, 1714, she was succeeded on the throne by George I. The new monarch favoured the Whigs as against the Tory sympathies of Queen Anne. An important event of the reign of George I was the financial crisis known as the South Sea Bubble (1720). The South Sea Company had been formed in 1711 from people who lent money to the government for the war. But the company came to grief on account of malpractices and frauds by the directors. At this time a Whig government was in power, and it seemed as if the Whigs would be thrown out from the government. But among the subordinate members of the government was a man called Robert Walpole. By a skilful manipulation of the assets of the South Sea Company he was able to cut down the losses of the shareholders to a minimum. This was the beginning of his rise to power, although the methods which he employed to keep himself in power would in our days be thought to be shamelessly corrupt.
Swift, First a Whig, Then a Tory
During the reign of William III, party strife in England was bitter between the Whigs and the Tories, and this struggle was continued in the reign of Queen Anne. Almost all the prominent literary men of the time were engaged on one side or the other. Swift, who after 1708 was much in London, engaged in promoting the interests of the Anglican Church in Ireland, first wrote on the side of the Whigs; but in 1710 he joined the Tories who were just coming into power and who were more friendly to the interests of the Church. The Tories were determined to stop the war with France, and in defence of this policy Swift wrote one of his strongest political articles under the heading, The Conduct of the Allies. His life during these years is reflected in his Journal to Stella, a series of letters which he wrote to his friend, Esther Johnson. Here we find Swift playing the part in which he most delighted, that of a man of affairs, active, successful, and powerful. He records with gusto his hours spent with the members of the government, their politeness and his own proud familiarity with them, his ability to serve his friends and to punish his enemies. In 1713, as a reward for his support of the Tory government, he was appointed Dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin, an office little to his taste. The next year, upon the death of Queen Anne, the Tories went out of power, and Swift returned to Ireland to live as a discredited Tory among violent Whigs.
Writings in Defence of the Irish
In Ireland his unceasing activity found an outlet in defending the Irish from the tyranny of the English government in London. In this context he published the Drapier’s Letters, most of them in 1724, as a protest against debasing the Irish coinage, a protest which proved most successful. But, as the years passed, his hatred for the world grew stronger, and his satire more bitter. His growing misanthropy was shown in the terrible satire called A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burden to their Parents or the Country. Ireland, he said, was a mass of beggars, thieves, oppressors, fools, and knaves; but he must be content to die there: with such a people, it was better to die than to live.
The Political Pamphlets Written by Swift
The political pamphlets which Swift wrote during the closing years of Queen Anne’s reign are of interest rather to the historian than to the student of literature because they are largely concerned with questions of temporary interest or with personal quarrels. The Conduct of the Allies, already mentioned above, was followed by a pamphlet called Some Remarks on the Barrier Treaty (1712), which forms a supplement to it; and, in the same year, by Some Advice Humbly Offered to the Members of the October Club, which was intended to pacify the extreme Tories who were dissatisfied with Harely. During the months that followed the death of Queen Anne, Swift wrote several pieces in which he defended the late ministry, denied the existence of intrigues with Jacobites, and explained his own connection with the Tories. One of these pieces was entitled Memoirs, Relating to that Change Which Happened to the Queen’s Ministry in the Year 1710. One of Swift’s most violent pamphlets was entitled A Short Character of Thomas Earl of Wharton in which the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland was charged with every form of vice.

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