- The Snare in the Constitution: Defoe and Swift on Liberty by Zouheir Jamoussi
It is not the economy, stupid; it is context, context, context. Mr. Jamoussi’s effort contains four weighty chapters: Religious Freedom, Civil Liberty, Swift and Defoe on Ireland and Scotland, and Freedom of the Press. Two chapters examine freedom and liberty in Defoe’s fiction and in Gulliver’s Travels. The penultimate chapter, “Irreconcilables,” paints the stark differences between the two on savage versus civilized man, colonialism, and civilization. The chapters are broken up into 126 subdivisions, some consisting of little more than a page of commentary. In almost every subdivision, there is a citation that can be qualified, a judgment that can be challenged, thus making a customary review impossible. Let me then focus on Chapter One to explain Mr. Jamoussi’s modus operandi.
Quick summaries of the religious history of England before and after the Revolution are followed by subdivisions on free thinking, the Test Act, toleration, and the controversy over occasional conformity, to name a few. The contextual problem that infects much of Mr. Jamoussi’s study begins immediately. Swift’s veneration for Charles I is supported by his 1726 sermon on the martyred king, drawn from the obligatory January 30 exercise that can be echoed earlier and later in countless sermons by Tory and even Whig churchmen. Later the same sermon will be cited to justify Swift’s less than exuberant praise of William III. No distinctions are made between quotations drawn from Swift writing on the Sacramental Test, Swift’s polemical voice in the Examiner, or his private correspondence in 1736 to a friend. (It is not yet the occasion for the Drapier to be added to the list.) Thus, the sentiments on the dramatically unique moments in these most rash and controversial times, by a Church of England priest, a member of the House of Commons in Ireland, and the most forceful propagandist for Harley’s Tory ministry are given equal weight, the context of the positions overlooked. Even phrases from Swift’s poetry and the gently chiding writer arguing against the abolishment of Christianity rest uncomfortably with some of the above in the text and in the notes. Surely, then, liberty has a different cast when Swift writes in the Examiner, or as a Church of England adherent, or pens a letter to a Whig lord, or challenges the English parliament as a [End Page 247] Dublin drapier. Swift himself admits to polemics when he writes to Pope about his history of the four last years of the Queen’s reign, “as necessary materials to qualify me for doing something in an employment then designed me.”
Given the chronological limits of the themes pursued in this chapter, Mr. Jamoussi has an easier time with Defoe, with citations of his generally consistent positions during his early years writing for his benefactor, Harley. Much is written about Defoe’s views on liberty and freedom with use made of his “Appeal to Honour and Justice,” supposedly his true account of his conduct in public affairs; but how reliable is a concocted apology by a frightened polemicist who fears drastic penalties for his earlier party diatribes, penned to elicit sympathy for a very sick and frightened propagandist who had not long to live? (He died in 1731.)
A tic in Chapter One becomes more pronounced in the chapters that follow. To confirm a position that Swift and Defoe held, Mr. Jamoussi will surround or overwhelm each with quotations from their contemporaries. These accumulated evidences of shared beliefs, or at times binary models, displace any consideration of the writers’ occasional narratives. Thus Defoe will generally echo, or will be echoed by, John Toland, William Tindall, John Tutchin, and Robert Molesworth. Swift will be in cahoots with Davenant, Henry Sacheverell, and Charles Leslie. In a later subdivision on Limited Monarchy are Defoe, Mandeville, Thomson’s “Liberty,” Steele, Toland, and a Swift sermon “On Mutual Subjection.” In these two pages the comments run from 1701 to 1735, encompassing four reigns; Swift’s quoted...