Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 18. Swift’s Religious and Political Writings

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

IV. Swift

§ 18. Swift’s Religious and Political Writings

The question of the sacramental test, for the repeal of which there was an agitation in Ireland, was discussed in several pieces. The first of them, the able Letter concerning the Sacramental Test (1708), purported to be written by a member of the Irish parliament, and contained a contemptuous reference to Defoe: “One of these authors (the fellow that was pilloried, I have forgot his name) is indeed so grave, sententious, dogmatical a rogue that there is no enduring him.” The whole body of clergy, says Swift, were against repealing the test, and, in Ireland, the clergy were generally loved and esteemed—and rightly so. It was said that popish interest was so formidable that all should join together to keep it under, and that the abolishing of the test was the only way of uniting all protestants; but there was not any real ground for fear of papists in Ireland. The same views were repeated many years afterwards in The Advantages proposed by repealing the Sacramental Test impartially examined (1732), and in Reasons humbly offered to the Parliament of Ireland for repealing the Sacramental Test, &c. in favour of the Catholics (1733), in which are set out satirically the arguments that could be advanced by Roman catholics, the object being to show that they could urge as good reasons as could their brothers the dissenters.

In 1713, bishop Burnet published an introduction which was to preface the third part of his History of the Reformation of the Church of England. He was an extreme party man and freely accused his opponents of sympathy with the pope, the Jacobites and the French. In A Preface to the B——p of S—r—m’s Introduction, Swift attacked him with a mixture of drollery and irony which must have had a very damning effect. He was hated, says Swift, by everyone who wore the habit or followed the profession of a clergyman. It would be well if he would sometimes hear what Truth said: he should not charge the opinion of one or two (and those, probably, non-jurors) upon the whole portion of the nation that differed from him, and he should not be so outrageous upon the memory of the dead, for it was highly probable he would soon be one of the number. In another pamphlet, also published in 1713, Mr. C—ns’s Discourse on Free Thinking, put into plain English, by way of Abstract, for the use of the Poor, Swift attacked deists by parodying the work of one of their body. The piece purports to be written by a friend of Collins, and the object was to represent—very unfairly—that the views of deists were accepted by the whig party. It seemed to him desirable, he says, that Collins’s valuable work should be brought down to the understanding of the youth of quality and of members of whig clubs, who might be discouraged by the show of logic and the numerous quotations in the original.

A Letter to a Young Gentleman, lately entered into Holy Order (1721) illustrates Swift’s humour when undisturbed by passion, and its serious portions throw considerable light on his views. He regrets that his friend had not remained longer at the university, and that he had not applied himself more to the study of the English language; the clergy were too fond of obscure terms, borrowed from ecclesiastical writers. He had no sympathy with the “moving manner of preaching,” for it was of little use in directing men in the conduct of their lives.

  • Reason and good advice will be your safest guides; but beware of lecting the pathetic part swallow up the rational.… The two principal branches of preaching are first to tell the people what is their duty, and then to convince them that it is so. The topics for both these, we know, are brought from Scripture and reason.
  • It was not necessary to attempt to explain the mysteries of the Christian religion; “indeed, since Providence intended there should be mysteries, I do not see how it can be agreeable to piety, orthodoxy or good sense, to go about such a work.” The proper course was to deliver the doctrine as the church holds it, and to confirm it by Scripture.
  • I think the clergy have almost given over perplexing themselves and their hearers with abstruse points of Predestination, Election, and the like; at least it is time they should.
  • These views are exemplified in Swift’s own Sermons, which contain little rhetoric, and, for the most part, are confined to straightforward reasoning. The appeal was to the head rather than to the heart; but it was marked by great common sense, force and directness. There is no reason for thinking that Swift did not honestly accept the doctrines of Christianity; Bolingbroke called him “a hypocrite reversed.” We know that he concealed his religious observances; he had family prayers with his servants without telling his guests, and, in London, he rose early to attend worship without the knowledge of his friends. His sincerity was never doubted by those who knew him: when they were ill, they asked him to pray with them. In his last years, when his mind had given way, he was seen to pursue his devotions with great regularity. Outwardly, he performed, in an exemplary manner, the duties of his deanship, and was a loyal supporter of his church.

  • “I am not answerable to God,” he says, “for the doubts that arise in my own breast, since they are the consequence of that reason which He hath planted in me, if I take care to conceal those doubts from others, if I use my best endeavours to subdue them, and if they have no influence on the conduct of my life.”
  • He suspected those who made much profession of zeal; but, within his limits, he had a very real sense of his responsibilities.
  • “I look upon myself,” he said, “in the capacity of a clergyman, to be one appointed by Providence for defending a post assigned me, and for gaining over as many enemies as I can. Although I think my cause is just, yet one great motive is my submitting to the pleasure of Providence, and to the laws of my country.”
  • The series of writings on English politics begins with A Discourse of the Contests and Dissensions between the Nobles and the Commons in Athens and Rome (1701), written in defence of Lord Somers, who had been attacked by a tory House of Commons on account of the Partition treaty. The feuds between Lords and Commons were bitter, and, in this soberly written and weighty pamphlet, Swift showed the dangers of the quarrel for both parties, and the need of a due balance of power in the country. If a House of Commons, already possessing more than its share of power, cramped the hand that held the balance, and aimed at more power by attacking the nobles, then, said Swift, the same causes would produce the same consequences among us as they did in Greece and Rome. Party government, he pointed out, tends to destroy all individuality. Some said that this piece was by Somers himself, others that it was by Burnet; but, before long, Swift admitted that he was the author, and his services naturally earned the gratitude of the whigs.

    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; for, in the main, they are concerned with questions of temporary interest or with personal quarrels. One of the ablest and most successful was The Conduct of the Allies and of the late Ministry in beginning and carrying on the present war, which went through many editions and had a great effect on public opinion. Swift’s object was to show the burden of war on the nation; that submission had been made to these impositions for the advancement of private wealth and power or in order to forward the dangerous designs of a faction; so, the side of the war which would have been beneficial to us had been neglected; our allies had broken their promises; and the wiser course was to conclude peace. This carefully thought-out pamphlet was followed by 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, intended to appease extreme tories, who were dissatisfied with Harley.

    During the months that followed the death of queen Anne, Swift wrote several pieces in which he put on record the defence of the late ministry, and, especially, of Oxford; denied the existence of intrigues with Jacobites, of the existence of which he clearly knew nothing, and explained his own connection with tories. One of these pieces was entitled Memoirs relating to that change which happened to the Queen’s ministry in the year 1710; another, Some free thoughts upon the present state of affairs; and another, An inquiry into the behaviour of the Queen’s last Ministry, in which he said that

  • among the contending parties in England, the general interest of Church and State is more the private interest of one side than the other; so that, whoever professeth to act upon a principle of observing the laws of his country, may have a safe rule to follow, by discovering whose particular advantage it chiefly is that the Constitution should be preserved entire in all its parts.
  • Other pamphlets dealt largely in personalities. One of the most violent is A short character of Thomas Earl of Wharton (1711), in which the lord lieutenant of Ireland is charged with every form of vice. He had, says Swift, three predominant passions, seldom united in the same man: love of power, love of money, love of pleasure, which rode him sometimes by turns, sometimes all together. If there were not any visible effects of old age, either in body or mind, it was “in spite of a continual prostitution to those vices which usually wear out both.” The Importance of the Guardian considered (1713), and The Public Spirit of the Whigs (1714), had their origin in Swift’s quarrel with Steele. However much Steele may be to blame for his part in the quarrel, Swift’s personalities cannot be defended. Swift says that Steele, being the most imprudent man alive, never followed the advice of his friends, but was wholly at the mercy of fools or knaves or hurried away by his own caprices. After reading what he said of his sovereign, one asked, not whether Steele was (as he alleged) “a gentleman born,” but whether he was a human creature.