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  • Swift and Jacobitism
  • J. A. Downie

The most striking thing about the Jacobites was that they considered kingship to be indefeasible, a God-given right that could not be taken away by man, whatever the monarch did.

Frank McLynn, The Jacobites 1

I think it manifest from the Practice of the wisest Nations, and who have had the truest Notions of Freedom; that when a Prince was laid aside for Male-Administration, the Nobles and People, if they thought it necessary for the Public Weal, did resume the Administration of the supreme Power, (the Power it self having been always in them) and did not only alter the Succession, but often the very Form of Government too; because they believed there was no natural Right in one Man to govern another; but that all was by Institution, Force, or Consent.

Jonathan Swift, “The Sentiments of a Church-of-England Man” 2

That the old chestnut of Swift’s Jacobitism should have resurfaced in the 1990s is a reflection of the recent resurgence of interest in Jacobitism tout court. As I have written elsewhere: “It is a task for the historian of culture to explain why in the past few years there has been such a revival of interest in Jacobitism.” 3 Students of the eighteenth century have rather different concerns. Considerable doubt has been cast on the evidence and methodology used by those historians who would contend that Jacobitism was much more widespread and important than used to be thought. As Clyve Jones puts it: “many historians of Jacobitism have been at best naïve in their use of evidence.” 4 This is not calculated to make the life of the literary scholar any easier, because few critics possess first-hand knowledge of the sources to which Jones refers. And unless one has such an acquaintance with the evidence, one is in no position to form an opinion on the disputes between historians over its interpretation.

The words from “The Sentiments of a Church-of-England Man” quoted in the epigraph to this essay are not out of line with Swift’s other [End Page 887] statements on the Protestant Succession. “I will tell you what my Political principles were in the time of her late glorious Majesty, which I never contradicted by any action, writing, or discourse,” he wrote in his curious “open letter” to Pope. “First, I always declared my self against a Popish Successor to the Crown, whatever Title he might have by the proximity of blood; Neither did I ever regard the right line except upon two accounts, first as it was establish’d by law; and secondly, as it hath much weight in the opinions of the people.” 5 This merely echoes the burden of his marginalia, in which Swift’s opinions on the succession appear to be stated unequivocally. In the margin to Howells’s Medulla Historiae Anglicanae, against the statement that “A Bill was voted to be brought in to EXCLUDE THE DUKE OF YORK from succeeding to the Crown,” Swift wrote: “W[oul]d to God it had passed” (P, 6:264). In the margin to Burnet’s History of His Own Time, where Burnet notes that Shaftesbury proposed excluding the Duke of York, “which certainly the King and Parliament might do,” Swift wrote: “It was certainly in the power of King and Parliament to exclude the next heir” (P, 6:279). And it was also in the margin to Burnet’s History that Swift made his (by now) well-known claim that he was of the party “of those who thought that there was an original contract between the kings and the people of England” (P, 6:291).

These do not sound like the opinions of an adherent of the doctrine of indefeasible hereditary right, but then Swift wrote mockingly of the Tory “Veneration for Monarchical Government in the common Course of Succession, and their Hatred to Republican Schemes” (P, 2:3). Indeed, given his impeccable Whig credentials, Swift’s contemporaries would scarcely have thought of him as a closet Jacobite prior to his involvement with Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, and Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke.

Let us recall his...

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