Babies As Food?

In 1729, Jonathan Swift (of Gulliver’s Travels fame) wrote “A Modest Proposal,” a great satiric essay on that very possibility, as a possibile alleviation of poverty for families who could not afford to feed all of their mouths. It is amazing how, nearly 300 years after the words were written, Swift’s essay is still quite easy to read and rife with black humor.

He leads into the proposal quite nimbly, not mentioning his true intent until he is several paragraphs into the argument of the necessity of a plan to aid poor, hungry families. Indeed, reading the first two paragraphs, it is easy to believe that Swift is preparing to propose a serious and substantial solution.

It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants: who as they grow up either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.

I think it is agreed by all parties that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom a very great additional grievance; and, therefore, whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these children sound, useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.

In the fourth paragraph, Swift signals his true intent (but does not yet tip his hand) via an economical analysis of the costs of raising a child.

It is true, a child just dropped from its dam may be supported by her milk for a solar year, with little other nourishment; at most not above the value of 2s., which the mother may certainly get, or the value in scraps, by her lawful occupation of begging; and it is exactly at one year old that I propose to provide for them in such a manner as instead of being a charge upon their parents or the parish, or wanting food and raiment for the rest of their lives, they shall on the contrary contribute to the feeding, and partly to the clothing, of many thousands.

Swift may still be in the process of proposing a grand plan to lift these families out of their hunger. He strings his readers along some more in the following paragraph, when he argues that using babies as food will help alleviate cruelty to children.

There is likewise another great advantage in my scheme, that it will prevent those voluntary abortions, and that horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children, alas! too frequent among us! sacrificing the poor innocent babes I doubt more to avoid the expense than the shame, which would move tears and pity in the most savage and inhuman breast.

The reasoned and considered tone that Swift employs draws his readers in, even if they do know where he’s going with this piece. That he argues for his plan as a solution to “the horrid practice of women murdering their bastard children” is a neat bit of humor, impressively executed under the (still-continuing) guise of this being a serious piece. All the same, it is a bit shocking the candor with which Swift calculates how much meat might be obtained via the sale and slaughter of impoverished youth.

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, although I apprehend there cannot be so many, under the present distresses of the kingdom; but this being granted, there will remain an hundred and seventy thousand breeders. I again subtract fifty thousand for those women who miscarry, or whose children die by accident or disease within the year. There only remains one hundred and twenty thousand children of poor parents annually born. The question therefore is, how this number shall be reared and provided for, which, as I have already said, under the present situation of affairs, is utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto proposed.

[...]I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection. I have been assured by a very knowing American of my 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; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

Lest his readers think he is proposing the wholesale slaughter of all children born to the less-than-well-to-do, Swift ennumerates his plan in more specificity.

I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one-fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine; and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table.

At this point, some readers are doubtlessly shocked and disgusted by Swift’s proposal; they think him a heartless man, second only to the savage soul who would actually eat a human child. Thus, Swift indicates his empathy for the commoner with a not-so-subtle dig at the individuals who put many of the poor in their dire straits.

I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.

Swift was a prominent Protestant and many of his pieces include digs at Catholics (for the question of reformation of the church was one of the foremost issues of his time). This piece is no exception.

Infant’s flesh will be in season throughout the year, but more plentiful in March, and a little before and after; for we are told by a grave author, an eminent French physician, that fish being a prolific diet, there are more children born in Roman Catholic countries about nine months after Lent than at any other season; therefore, reckoning a year after Lent, the markets will be more glutted than usual, because the number of popish infants is at least three to one in this kingdom: and therefore it will have one other collateral advantage, by lessening the number of papists among us.

Of course, no mother could be expected to part with her child sans monetary recompense.

I believe no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat…the mother will have eight shillings net profit, and be fit for work till she produces another child.

Swift continues with his argument for quite a bit longer, including a tangential consideration of whether older children might also be sold for meat (perhaps as a replacement for venison). Where he hits his stride, though, is at the end of the essay where, by means of summary, he addresses six problems he sees in Ireland (Catholocism, individuals’ poverty, the nation’s poverty, a workforce hampered by the difficulties of childrearing, the paucity of good fare, and the often fractured nature of familial life) and explains how infantophagy might rectify these ills.

For first, as I have already observed, it would greatly lessen the number of papists, with whom we are yearly overrun, being the principal breeders of the nation as well as our most dangerous enemies; and who stay at home on purpose with a design to deliver the kingdom to the Pretender, hoping to take their advantage by the absence of so many good protestants, who have chosen rather to leave their country than stay at home and pay tithes against their conscience to an episcopal curate.

Secondly, The poorer tenants will have something valuable of their own, which by law may be made liable to distress and help to pay their landlord’s rent, their corn and cattle being already seized, and money a thing unknown.

Thirdly, Whereas the maintenance of an hundred thousand children, from two years old and upward, cannot be computed at less than ten shillings a-piece per annum, the nation’s stock will be thereby increased fifty thousand pounds per annum, beside the profit of a new dish introduced to the tables of all gentlemen of fortune in the kingdom who have any refinement in taste. And the money will circulate among ourselves, the goods being entirely of our own growth and manufacture.

Fourthly, The constant breeders, beside the gain of eight shillings sterling per annum by the sale of their children, will be rid of the charge of maintaining them after the first year.

Fifthly, This food would likewise bring great custom to taverns; where the vintners will certainly be so prudent as to procure the best receipts for dressing it to perfection, and consequently have their houses frequented by all the fine gentlemen, who justly value themselves upon their knowledge in good eating: and a skilful cook, who understands how to oblige his guests, will contrive to make it as expensive as they please.

Sixthly, This would be a great inducement to marriage, which all wise nations have either encouraged by rewards or enforced by laws and penalties. It would increase the care and tenderness of mothers toward their children, when they were sure of a settlement for life to the poor babes, provided in some sort by the public, to their annual profit instead of expense. We should see an honest emulation among the married women, which of them could bring the fattest child to the market. Men would become as fond of their wives during the time of their pregnancy as they are now of their mares in foal, their cows in calf, their sows when they are ready to farrow; nor offer to beat or kick them (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage.

Indeed, just to make certain that his readers realize there are many ways in which the difficulties of the era could be fixed, he includes two paragraphs of explanation of what changes might be made to make life more comfortable for the average Irishman.

Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: Of using neither cloaths, nor houshold furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance: Of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken: Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.

Therefore I repeat, let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, ’till he hath at least some glympse of hope, that there will ever be some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.

These are obviously the words of a man frustrated by the state of affairs he sees surrounding him and who genuinely wants to encourage the nation as a whole to band together and find a sustainable solution shy of eating their young. Just to be certain the point is made, though, he notes that he has no specter of profit in the adoption of his modest proposal.

I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past child-bearing.

Swift’s work shows us, the modern readers, that many of the problems we face today are not new to our generation. People have been struggling for years with the issue of how to maintain a nation that imports more than it produces and the resulting widespread poverty that results from businessmen’s decision to procure their goods from overseas. It also demonstrates that many of the answers to our problems are staring us plain in the face, even if the individuals with the power to effect change would rather not sacrafice even a modicum of their robust way of life to alleviate the suffering of untold numbers affected by their decisions.

In the meantime, Damion Armentrout of Columbus, OH, is taking steps to keep Swift’s Modest Proposal alive in the 21st century.

“A Modest Proposal” may be found in its entirety at If you enjoyed Swift’s wit in this piece, check out another of his works of satire, “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” in which a haplessly naive suitor discovers that the object of his desires is just as human as he.

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