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  • The Irish Contribution to the Ideological Origins of the American RevolutionNonimportation and the Reception of Jonathan Swift’s Irish Satires in Early America
  • Sean Moore (bio)

When scholars study the literature and history of the eighteenth century, it is a commonplace to say that the American Revolution inspired similar Irish decolonizing events like the 1798 Rebellion of the United Irishmen or even the 1916 Easter Rising, the one hundredth anniversary of which we commemorated last year. A newly discovered document at Harvard’s Houghton Library, an original copy of a text discussed by T. H. Breen, however, reminds us that the pattern might have been the reverse (236). The 1767 Boston Nonimportation Agreement, a covenant signed by hundreds of Boston merchants to boycott British imports in the wake of the Townshend Acts—new taxes on paper, paint, lead, glass, and tea—seems to have been inspired by Ireland’s similar idea in the 1720s. Led by satirist Jonathan Swift, this advocacy for an Irish boycott of British goods and the encouragement of domestic industry was targeted at the Declaratory Act of 1720, a measure that asserted the British Parliament’s right to levy taxes for Ireland without the Irish Parliament’s consent. This legislation, copied almost word-for-word when the British Parliament passed a similar Declaratory Act for the American colonies in 1766, was symptomatic of a greater centralization of the empire’s fiscal authority, generating much constitutional debate about the proper relationship between England and its external dominions (McIlwain 49–50, 50–51n2). Americans were inspired by this Irish debate because until the radical republican break with Britain in 1776, they were still attempting to make constitutional arguments within the tradition of anglophone political thought about their proper level of sovereignty vis-à-vis Britain. What both the [End Page 333] Anglo-Irish Swift and the Anglo-American Patriots were objecting to was the British fiscal-military state’s endless appetite for revenue, felt particularly keenly by the Americans in the wake of the Seven Years’ War (Brewer xvii). While the debt of the early Americans to the Irish political thought of the previous generations and centuries was well documented in the 1920s by Charles Howard McIlwain and more recently by Carla Mulford and Leo Lemay, little work has been done on literature’s place in articulating this thought. Further, though the Patriot and Loyalist receptions of Swift’s more English writings have been documented by many critics, much less work has been done on the reading and influence of Swift’s Irish satires in early America.

This essay establishes that Swift’s advocacy for an Irish boycott, articulated in such literary works as A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture (1720), the Drapier’s Letters (1724), and A Modest Proposal (1729), influenced British Americans to propose similar political and economic actions to protest what they saw as unconstitutional London measures. It contends that the Anglo-Irish, a colonial elite struggling to protect its assets from imperial confiscation, were a political model for the Anglo-Americans, who similarly found themselves underrepresented in legislative deliberation affecting their economy. What both groups were arguing for in asserting control over their fiscal affairs was a measure of sovereignty, in relation to the British Parliament, over the proceeds of colonialism. This essay argues that the prism of book history, and its focus on reader reception, promises to make visible the relationship of Anglo-American to Anglo-Irish political thinking. It does so by drawing on the work of Hugh Amory, David Hall, and James Raven on the transatlantic book trade—the vehicle for the dissemination of such ideas. There is evidence, I explain, particularly from the America’s Historical Newspapers database and from the catalogues and borrowing records of the Salem Social Library and Redwood Library of Newport, that American readers took Swift’s Irish writings to hand during the nonimportation era. The broader implications of this argument are that Irish writing’s role in the ideological origins of the Revolution not only is manifest in the nonimportation agreements but also is indicative of the fact that American Patriots, like the Anglo-Irish, were not exceptional in their confrontation with...


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