Near 500 words: Benjamin Franklin Takes On Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift was a funny guy. If you’ve read Gulliver’s Travels, you know just how funny he is. Who else would have given us names we can’t pronounce? He could have made it much simpler to call a spade a spade. Or, in his case, a horse. Like Mr. Ed used to sing, “A horse is a horse, of course, of course, unless the horse is the famous Mister Ed.” Instead he gave us Houyhnhnms.

And that wasn’t the only one that was utterly unpronounceable. There’s Brobdingnag,  Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib and Japan. If there’s ever been a word that’s harder to pronounce than Japan, I haven’t found it. And why use Lilliputian when munchkin is a perfectly fine word for short people?

After he published his Gulliver, he couldn’t leave well enough alone. When you’re a satirist, you end up trying to top yourself. Like Mark Twain couldn’t settle for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He had to go and write Pudd’nhead Wilson. Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal.”

You might say the word “modest” was a tongue-in-cheeker. Most of the Irish of his day lived in poverty and suffered from hunger. So Swift suggested the English ought to cook the Irish children and serve them as fricassee or ragout. The English may have found it funny but I don’t think the Irish did. I’m sure the Americans didn’t. For an obvious reason explained below.

Benny Franklin knew satire when he read it. His Poor Richard’s Almanac left Americans laughing all the way to Bunker Hill and back. When Benny read A Modest Proposal, he was livid. Instead of telling Swift to go fly a kite, he sent a letter.

That letter was recently discovered by archaeologists under the toilet of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Swift was the Dean of the Cathedral. For those of you who don’t know what a Dean is, he’s a head guy at an Anglican (Episcopalian) Cathedral.

Experts consider that Swift may have run out of toilet paper and Franklin’s letter was the closest thing at hand. Fortunately, for us, the letter fell through the cracks and left Swift without a thing to wipe his bottom with.

So here’s Benny Franklin’s letter:

“My dear Johnny:

I recently read A Modest Proposal. Needless to say, I was not happy with the text. Not happy at all.

This scheme of yours is totally immodest. What an unsettling proposition. Cooking Irish children in a fricassee or a ragout. Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. Then blame the suggestion on an American. And in London, of all places.

I ask you what American on God’s green earth would know what a fricassee or a ragout is. I don’t even know what a fricassee or a ragout is. And I’ve been to Boston and New York City and Philadelphia.

No, it sounds like a French suggestion to me. What with all their fancy eating. Any people who will eat snails will eat just about anything. Including the Irish.

Besides we Americans don’t have the time to go fricassee-ing and ragout-ing about. We’re way too busy with witches to hang, tea parties to organize, independence to declare, constitutions to write, cherry trees to chop down, apple trees to plant, slaves to free, destinies to manifest. And we’re still trying to finish off the leftovers from that first Thanksgiving dinner.

So please, pretty please with sugar and cream on it, don’t blame an American. If we’re going anywhere, it won’t be to London. We’ll be going west, thanks to Horace Greeley.

Sincerely,
Benny Franklin, Esq.”