Jonathan Swift and the Union with Scotland

In the latest in our series on Anglo-Scottish relations throughout the centuries, Dr Ruth Paley, editor of the House of Lords 1660-1832 section, discusses the satirist Jonathan Swift’s provocative attack on the Scots during the early days of union and the political consequences that followed…

The winter of 1713-14 was fraught with political tension. The queen’s health, never good, was visibly deteriorating, sparking fears of a contested succession. Her ministry, led by Robert Harley, earl of Oxford, was grappling with the fall out from the peace of Utrecht which ended the war that had wasted the revenue and cost countless lives since before the queen came to the throne in the spring of 1702. The previous summer had seen an attempt to dissolve the as yet fledgling Union of England and Scotland led by Scots upset at what they perceived to be infringements of the articles of Union. The ministry itself faced problems controlling its more extreme Tory supporters and was riven by factional infighting between supporters of Oxford and his disgruntled secretary of state, Viscount Bolingbroke. Furthermore the ministry had a very shaky grasp on Parliament, and was particularly weak in the House of Lords. Oxford’s problems were further compounded by his own increasing reliance on alcohol. Not surprisingly all these factors provided considerable scope for exploitation by opposition Whigs hoping to destabilise the ministry and return to power.

Early in 1714 the Whig propagandist and MP for Stockbridge, Richard Steele, published The Crisis – a pamphlet that amounted to a panegyric on the previous (Whig) ministry and attacked all those who were suspected of opposition to the Hanoverian succession (i.e. Tories in general and the Oxford ministry in particular). He also included an anti-Catholic diatribe. Without the Hanoverian succession Britain stood in danger of becoming a province of France or of being ruled by a ‘train of popish princes’ intent on ‘the extirpation of our religion, laws and liberties’. Steele’s recital of events leading up to and following the Revolution of 1688 included a brief reference to the Union with Scotland – the Union had after all been pushed through to ensure that there would be no chance of Scotland choosing to opt out of the Hanoverian succession.

So successful – and so extensively dispersed – was Steele’s pamphlet that it demanded a Tory response. Fortunately the Tories had their own skilled propagandist in the person of Jonathan Swift. Swift quickly set to work, producing The Public Spirit of the Whigs by the end of February. Designed to counter ‘the malice and falsehood of every line’ of The Crisis, Swift overstepped the mark by including an extraordinarily provocative and vitriolic attack on the Union, on the leading Scots peers, Argyle and Islay, and describing Scotland and the Scots as an economic drain on English resources. The Whigs were quick to pounce. The Scots peers complained to the queen and on 2 March the Junto leader Wharton made a formal complaint in the House of Lords. The House resolved

that the said Pamphlet is a false, malicious, and factious Libel, highly dishonourable and scandalous to the Scotch Nation, tending to the Destruction of the Constitution, and most injurious to Her Majesty, who has often declared from the Throne, That the Union of the Two Kingdoms of England and Scotland was the peculiar Happiness of Her Reign.

Although Swift’s authorship was widely suspected, the pamphlet had been published anonymously and so the only targets available for censure were the printers. Given the known connections between the printers, Swift and the ministry, the Whigs must have been confident that they would be able to out Swift and pin responsibility for the pamphlet firmly on Oxford, but Oxford out-manoeuvred them. On 6 March, Lord Mar, the secretary of state for Scotland, rose to inform the House that he had ordered the printers to be prosecuted for seditious libel, thus stifling the Lords’ enquiry and wresting a degree of control back to the ministry. The Whigs did not give up. They used their strength in the House of Lords to secure a vote to petition the queen for a proclamation offering a reward for the discovery of the author. The proclamation was issued but the reward was deliberately low and Oxford had already bought off the only people who could have identified Swift – the printers. He disguised his handwriting and sent an anonymous letter to Swift enclosing £100 purportedly sent by ‘an obscure person but charitable’ desirous of assisting the printers. He made it clear that this was but a down payment and that the printers could expect to receive more.

Even before the complaint in the Lords, Swift and the ministry were conducting a damage limitation exercise; the printers recovered all the unsold copies and prepared a new edition in which the most inflammatory sentences were removed; all the offensive paragraphs were removed from yet another edition published in mid-March. The Tories were also preparing to go onto the offensive. In the Commons, where they were more assured of a majority, they began a concerted attack on Steele. As a result of a complaint made by Thomas Foley, Steele was ordered to attend the Commons on 13 March when several paragraphs from The Crisis and another publication The Englishman were lambasted as seditious. Steele spoke for three hours in his defence on the 18th. The Whigs were convinced that they had won the argument, but the House nevertheless found by an overwhelming majority that Steele’s writings were ‘scandalous and seditious libels’ and expelled him.


You can read the other blogposts in our Anglo-Scottish series here:

Dr Andrew Spencer on ‘Parliament and Bannockburn’,

MPs at the Battle of Flodden’,

Dr Alan MacDonald onScotland and the Jacobean Union of 1604-7

Dr Patrick Little on Union with Scotland: Cromwellian style

More to follow soon!


3 thoughts on “Jonathan Swift and the Union with Scotland

  1. I would be very interested to understand which “war” is the bone of contention mentioned in the first para. The only war in which England* was conducting before 1702 and into 1713 must have been the “War of the Spanish Succession”. Therefore it is difficult to see why the winter of 1713-14 should be of such concern to Parliament about stopping it. The “Peace of Utrecht”, which ended the “War of the Spanish Succession”, was concluded in April 1713, but had been largely negotiated and agreed between Britain* and France during 1711-1712. Thus by the winter of 1713, Britain was formally no longer at war with anyone. (Fully agreed that some of the individual nation-to-nation Treaties took some further years to be concluded.)
    * When the War began in 1700, the nation known as England was formally part of the anti-Bourbon coalition. The formation of “Britain” came with the 1707 Act of Union, thus the various Peace Treaties of 1713 and later were signed on behalf of “Britain”.

    1. Thanks very much for your comment- that was a minor slip! I should have written that Harley’s ministry was ‘grappling with the fall out from the peace of Utrecht which ended the war…’ RP
      We’ll edit the post now too! EP

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