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Ch. 12: The Bill For Settling the Tithe of Hemp, Flax, &c.




About the end of 1733 the Irish House of Commons had under consideration a bill for the encouragement of the growth of flax and the manufacture of linen. This bill contained a clause by which the tithe upon flax should be commuted by a modus or money composition. The clergy, to whom this tithe was an important source of revenue, and, naturally, not wishing to lose its advantage, took steps to petition Parliament to be heard by counsel against the bill. Swift signed the petition, which set forth the injury which would be done to their order if the clause in the bill, then before the House, were allowed to become law. In addition to this he committed and arranged his arguments to writing, and issued them in the following pamphlet. The activity against the bill proved so efficacious that the House of Commons dropped it. It may be remarked that Swift's interference was purely disinterested, since no part of the revenue of St. Patrick's, as Monck Mason points out, comes from the "district appropriated to the culture of flax;" nor did Swift, "or any of his predecessors or successors, ever receive one shilling upon account of that tithe."

This attempt on the part of the House of Commons to regulate the affairs of the clergy of Ireland seems to have been one of a series which divided laity and clergy into two strongly opposing parties. On the one side were the House of Commons and its supporters, on the other the general body of the Irish clergy, with, for a time, at any rate, Swift at the head. The tithe of pasturage, or, as it was called, the tithe of agistment, was being strongly resisted at the time, and many of the clergy were forced to sue in court before they could obtain it. The matter of this tithe had been already before an Irish court in 1707, and had been settled in favour of the suing clergyman, one Archdeacon Neal; and although the cause was removed to King's Bench in England, the previous judgment was confirmed. In spite of this decision, however, the tithe continued to be a subject of litigation, and the landed proprietors even formed themselves into associations for the purpose of resisting the clergy's claim. In 1734 the House of Commons aggravated matters by passing resolutions against the claims, many of which were then the subject of legal actions, and prevented decisions being come to while it had the matter under its consideration. From the pamphlets written at the time it may easily be seen that this interference on the part of the lower House was both unseemly and unjust. Its conduct so roused Swift that his indignation found expression in one of his bitterest and most terrible poetical satires--"The Legion Club"--a satire so bitter and so scathing that reading it now, after the lapse of more than a century and a half, one shudders at its invective--"a blasting flood of filth and vitriol, out of some hellish fountain," Mr. Churton Collins calls it. We are told that its composition brought on a violent attack of vertigo, and it remained unfinished.

The text here given is that of the first edition collated with those given by Faulkner, Hawkesworth, and Scott.


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SOME REASONS AGAINST THE Bill for settling the Tyth of Hemp, Flax, &c. by a Modus.


The Clergy did little expect to have any cause of complaint against the present House of Commons; who in the last sessions, were pleased to throw out a Bill[1] sent them from the Lords, which that reverend body apprehended would be very injurious to them, if it passed into a law; and who, in the present sessions, defeated the arts and endeavours of schismatics to repeal the Sacramental Test.

[Footnote 1: For the bishops to divide livings. See the two preceding Tracts. [T. S.]]

For, although it hath been allowed on all hands, that the former of those Bills might, by its necessary consequences, be very displeasing to the lay gentlemen of the kingdom, for many reasons purely secular; and, that this last attempt for repealing the Test, did much more affect, at present, the temporal interest than the spiritual; yet the whole body of the lower Clergy have, upon both these occasions, expressed equal gratitude to that honourable House, for their justice and steadiness, as if the clergy alone were to receive the benefit.

It must needs be, therefore, a great addition to the Clergy's grief, that such an assembly as the present House of Commons; should now, with an expedition more than usual, agree to a bill for encouraging the linen manufacture; with a clause, whereby the Church is to lose two parts in three, of the legal tithe in flax and hemp.

Some reasons, why the Clergy think such a law will be a great hardship upon them, are, I conceive, those that follow. I shall venture to enumerate them with all deference due to that honourable assembly.

First; the Clergy suppose that they have not, by any fault or demerit, incurred the displeasure of the nation's representatives: neither can the declared loyalty of the present set, from the highest prelate to the lowest vicar, be in the least disputed: because, there are hardly ten clergymen, through the whole kingdom, for more than nineteen years past, who have not been either preferred entirely upon account of their declared affection to the Hanover line; or higher promoted as the due reward of the same merit.

There is not a landlord in the whole kingdom, residing some part of the year at his country-seat, who is not, in his own conscience, fully convinced, that the tithes of his minister have gradually sunk, for some years past, one-third, or at least one-fourth of their former value, exclusive of all non-solvencies.

The payment of tithes in this kingdom, is subject to so many frauds, brangles, and other difficulties, not only from Papists and Dissenters, but even from those who profess themselves Protestants; that by the expense, the trouble, and vexation of collecting, or bargaining for them, they are, of all other rents, the most precarious, uncertain, and ill paid.

The landlords in most parishes expect, as a compliment, that they shall pay little more than half the value of their tithes for the lands they hold in their own hands; which often consist of large domains: And it is the minister's interest to make them easy upon that article, when he considers what influence those gentlemen have upon their tenants.

The Clergy cannot but think it extremely severe, that in a bill for encouraging the linen manufacture, they alone must be the sufferers, who can least afford it: If, as I am told, there be a tax of three thousand pounds a year, paid by the public, for a further encouragement to the said manufacture; are not the Clergy equal sharers in the charge with the rest of their fellow subjects? What satisfactory reason can be therefore given, why they alone should bear the whole additional weight, unless it will be alleged that their property is not upon an equal foot with the properties of other men? They acquire their own small pittance, by at least as honest means, as their neighbours, the landlords, possess their estates; and have been always supposed, except in rebellious or fanatical times, to have as good a title: For, no families now in being can shew a more ancient. Indeed, if it be true, that some persons (I hope they were not many) were seen to laugh when the rights of the Clergy were mentioned; in this case, an opinion may possibly be soon advanced, that they have no rights at all. And this is likely enough to gain ground, in proportion as the contempt of all religion shall increase; which is already in a very forward way.

It is said, there will be also added to this Bill a clause for diminishing the tithe of hops, in order to cultivate that useful plant among us: And here likewise the load is to lie entirely on the shoulders of the Clergy, while the landlords reap all the benefit. It will not be easy to foresee where such proceedings are like to stop: Or whether by the same authority, in civil times, a parliament may not as justly challenge the same power in reducing all things titheable, not below the tenth part of the product, (which is and ever will be the Clergy's equitable right) but from a tenth-part to a sixtieth or eightieth, and from thence to nothing.

I have heard it granted by skilful persons, that the practice of taxing the Clergy by parliament, without their own consent, is a new thing, not much above the date of seventy years: before which period, in times of peace, they always taxed themselves. But things are extremely altered at present: It is not now sufficient to tax them in common with their fellow subjects, without imposing an additional tax upon them, from which, or from anything equivalent, all their fellow-subjects are exempt; and this in a country professing Christianity.

The greatest part of the Clergy throughout this kingdom, have been stripped of their glebes by the confusion of times, by violence, fraud, oppression, and other unlawful means: All which glebes are now in the hands of the laity. So that they now are generally forced to lie at the mercy of landlords, for a small piece of ground in their parishes, at a most exorbitant rent, and usually for a short term of years; whereon to build a house, and enable them to reside. Yet, in spite of these disadvantages, I am a witness that they are generally more constant residents than their brethren in England; where the meanest vicar hath a convenient dwelling, with a barn, a garden, and a field or two for his cattle; besides the certainty of his little income from honest farmers, able and willing, not only to pay him his dues, but likewise to make him presents, according to their ability, for his better support. In all which circumstances, the Clergy of Ireland meet with a treatment directly contrary.

It is hoped, the honourable House will consider that it is impossible for the most ill-minded, avaricious, or cunning clergyman, to do the least injustice to the meanest cottager in his parish, in any bargain for tithes, or other ecclesiastical dues. He can, at the utmost, only demand to have his tithe fairly laid out; and does not once in a hundred times obtain his demand. But every tenant, from the poorest cottager to the most substantial farmer, can, and generally doth impose upon the minister, by fraud, by theft, by lies, by perjuries, by insolence, and sometimes by force; notwithstanding the utmost vigilance and skill of himself and his proctor. Insomuch, that it is allowed, that the Clergy in general receive little more than one-half of their legal dues; not including the charges they are at in collecting or bargaining for them.

The land rents of Ireland are computed to about two millions, whereof one-tenth amounts to two hundred thousand pounds. The benefited clergymen, excluding those of this city, are not reckoned to be above five hundred; by which computation, they should each of them possess two hundred pounds a year, if those tithes were equally divided, although in well cultivated corn countries it ought to be more; whereas they hardly receive one half of that sum; with great defalcations, and in very bad payments. There are indeed, a few glebes in the north pretty considerable, but if these and all the rest were in like manner equally divided, they would not add five pounds a year to every clergyman. Therefore, whether the condition of the Clergy in general among us be justly liable to envy, or able to bear a heavy burden, which neither the nobility, nor gentry, nor tradesmen, nor farmers, will touch with one of their fingers; this, I say, is submitted to the honourable House.

One terrible circumstance in this Bill, is, that of turning the tithe of flax and hemp into what the lawyers call a Modus, or a certain sum in lieu of a tenth part of the product. And by this practice of claiming a Modus in many parishes by ancient custom, the Clergy in both kingdoms have been almost incredible sufferers. Thus, in the present case, the tithe of a tolerable acre of flax, which by a medium is worth twelve shillings, is by the present Bill reduced to four shillings. Neither is this the worst part in a Modus; every determinate sum must in process of time sink from a fourth to a four-and-twentieth part, or a great deal lower, by that necessary fall attending the value of money, which is now at least nine tenths lower all over Europe than it was four hundred years ago, by a gradual decline; and even a third part at least within our own memories, in purchasing almost everything required for the necessities or conveniencies of life; as any gentleman can attest, who hath kept house for twenty years past. And this will equally affect poor countries as well as rich. For, although, I look upon it as an impossibility that this kingdom should ever thrive under its present disadvantages, which without a miracle must still increase; yet, when the whole cash of the nation shall sink to fifty thousand pounds; we must in all our traffic abroad, either of import or export, go by the general rate at which money is valued in those countries that enjoy the common privileges of human kind. For this reason, no corporation, (if the Clergy may presume to call themselves one) should by any means grant away their properties in perpetuity upon any consideration whatsoever; Which is a rock that many corporations have split upon, to their great impoverishment, and sometimes to their utter undoing. Because they are supposed to subsist for ever; and because no determination of money is of any certain perpetual intrinsic value. This is known enough in England, where estates let for ever, some hundred years ago, by several ancient noble families, do not at this present pay their posterity a twentieth part of what they are now worth at an easy rate.

A tax affecting one part of a nation, which already bears its full share in all parliamentary impositions, cannot possibly be just, except it be inflicted as a punishment upon that body of men which is taxed, for some great demerit or danger to the public apprehended from those upon whom it is laid: Thus the Papists and Nonjurors have been doubly taxed for refusing to give proper securities to the government; which cannot be objected against the Clergy. And therefore, if this Bill should pass; I think it ought to be with a preface, shewing wherein they have offended, and for what disaffection or other crime they are punished.

If an additional excise upon ale, or a duty upon flesh and bread, were to be enacted, neither the victualler, butcher, or baker would bear any more of the charge than for what themselves consumed; but it would be an equal general tax through the whole kingdom: Whereas, by this Bill, the Clergy alone are avowedly condemned to be deprived of their ancient, inherent, undisputed rights, in order to encourage a manufacture by which all the rest of the kingdom are supposed to be gainers.

This Bill is directly against Magna Charta, whereof the first clause is for confirming the inviolable rights of Holy Church; as well as contrary to the oath taken by all our kings at their coronation, where they swear to defend and protect the Church in all its rights.

A tax laid upon employments is a very different thing. The possessors of civil and military employments are no corporation; neither are they any part of our constitution: Their salaries, pay, and perquisites are all changeable at the pleasure of the prince who bestows them, although the army be paid from funds raised and appropriated by the legislature. But the Clergy as they have little reason to expect, so they desire no more than their ancient legal dues; only indeed with the removal of many grievous impediments in the collection of them; which it is to be feared they must wait for until more favourable times. It is well known, that they have already of their own accord shewn great indulgence to their people upon this very article of flax, seldom taking above a fourth part of their tithe for small parcels, and oftentimes nothing at all from new beginners; waiting with patience until the farmers were able, and until greater quantities of land were employed in that part of husbandry; never suspecting that their good intentions should be perverted in so singular a manner to their detriment, by that very assembly, which, during the time that convocations (which are an original part of our constitution ever since Christianity became national among us) are thought fit to be suspended, God knows for what reason, or from what provocations; I say, from that very assembly, who, during the intervals of convocations, should rather be supposed to be guardians of the rights and properties of the Clergy, than to make the least attempt upon either.

I have not heard upon inquiry, that any of those gentlemen, who, among us without doors, are called the Court Party, discover the least zeal in this affair. If they had thoughts to interpose, it might be conceived they would shew their displeasure against this Bill, which must very much lessen the value of the King's patronage upon promotion to vacant sees; in the disposal of deaneries, and other considerable preferments in the Church, which are in the donation of the Crown; whereby the viceroys will have fewer good preferments to bestow on their dependants, as well as upon the kindred of members, who may have a sufficient stock of that sort of merit, whatever it may be, which may in future times most prevail.

The Dissenters, by not succeeding in their endeavours to procure a repeal of the Test, have lost nothing, but continue in full enjoyment of their toleration; while the Clergy without giving the least offence, are by this Bill deprived of a considerable branch of their ancient legal rights, whereby the schismatical party will have the pleasure of gratifying their revenge. Hoc Graii voluere.

The farmer will find no relief by this Modus, because, when his present lease shall expire, his landlord will infallibly raise the rent in an equal proportion, upon every part of land where flax is sown, and have so much a better security for payment at the expense of the Clergy.

If we judge by things past, it little avails that this Bill is to be limited to a certain time of ten, twenty, or thirty years. For no landlord will ever consent that a law shall expire, by which he finds himself a gainer; and of this there are many examples, as well in England, as in this kingdom.

The great end of this Bill is, by proper encouragement to extend the linen manufacture into those counties where it hath hitherto been little cultivated: But this encouragement of lessening the tithe of flax and hemp is one of such a kind as, it is to be feared, will have a directly contrary effect. Because, if I am rightly informed, no set of men hath for their number and fortunes been more industrious and successful than the Clergy, in introducing that manufacture into places which were unacquainted with it; by persuading their people to sow flax and hemp, by procuring seed for them and by having them instructed in the management thereof; and this they did not without reasonable hopes of increasing the value of their parishes after some time, as well as of promoting the benefit of the public. But if this Modus should take place, the Clergy will be so far from gaining that they will become losers by any extraordinary care, by having their best arable lands turned to flax and hemp, which are reckoned great impoverishers of land: They cannot therefore be blamed, if they should shew as much zeal to prevent its being introduced or improved in their parishes as they hitherto have shewed in the introducing and improving of it. This, I am told, some of them have already declared at least so far as to resolve not to give themselves any more trouble than other men about promoting a manufacture by the success of which, they only of all men are to be sufferers. Perhaps the giving them even a further encouragement than the law doth, as it now stands, to a set of men who might on many accounts be so useful to this purpose, would be no bad method of having the great end of the Bill more effectually answered: But this is what they are far from desiring; all they petition for is no more than to continue on the same footing with the rest of their fellow-subjects.

If this Modus of paying by the acre be to pass into a law, it were to be wished that the same law would appoint one or more sworn surveyors in each parish to measure the lands on which flax and hemp are sown, as also would settle the price of surveying, and determine whether the incumbent or farmer is to pay for each annual survey. Without something of this kind, there must constantly be disputes between them, and the neighbouring justices of peace must be teazed as often as those disputes happen.

I had written thus far, when a paper was sent to me with several reasons against the Bill, some whereof although they have been already touched, are put in a better light, and the rest did not occur to me. I shall deliver them in the author's own words.

N.B. Some Alterations have been made in the Bill about the Modus, since the above paper was writ; but they are of little moment.


I. That tithes are the patrimony of the Church: And if not of Divine original, yet at least of great antiquity.

II. That all purchases and leases of titheable lands, for many centuries past, have been made and taken, subject to the demand of tithes, and those lands sold and taken just so much the cheaper on that account.

III. That if any lands are exempted from tithes; or the legal demands of such tithes lessened by act of parliament, so much value is taken from the proprietor of the tithes, and vested in the proprietor of the lands, or his head tenants.

IV. That no innocent unoffending person can be so deprived of his property without the greatest violation of common justice.

V. That to do this upon a prospect of encouraging the linen, or any other manufacture, is acting upon a very mistaken and unjust supposition, inasmuch as the price of the lands so occupied will be no way lessened to the farmer by such a law.

VI. That the Clergy are content cheerfully to bear (as they now do) any burden in common with their fellow-subjects, either for the support of his Majesty's government, or the encouragement of the trade of the nation but think it very hard, that they should be singled out to pay heavier taxes than others, at a time when by the decrease of the value of their parishes they are less able to bear them.

VII. That the legislature hath heretofore distinguished the Clergy by exemptions, and not by additional loads, and the present Clergy of the kingdom hope they have not deserved worse of the legislature than their predecessors.

VIII. That by the original constitution of these kingdoms, the Clergy had the sole right of taxing themselves, and were in possession of that right as low as the Restoration: And if that right be now devolved upon the Commons by the cession of the Clergy, the Commons can be considered in this case in no other light than as the guardians of the Clergy.

IX. That besides those tithes always in the possession of the Clergy; there are some portion of tithes lately come into their possession by purchase; that if this clause should take place, they would not be allowed the benefit of these purchases, upon an equal footing of advantage with the rest of their fellow-subjects. And that some tithes in the hands of impropriators, are under settlements and mortgages.

X. That the gentlemen of this House should consider, that loading the Clergy is loading their own younger brothers and children; with this additional grievance, that it is taking from the younger and poorer, to give to the elder and richer. And,

Lastly, That, if it were at any time just and proper to do this, it would however be too severe to do it now, when all the tithes of the kingdom are known for some years past to have sunk above one-third part in their value.

Any income in the hands of the Clergy, is at least as useful to the public, as the same income in the hands of the laity.

It were more reasonable to grant the clergy in three parts of the nation an additional support, than to diminish their present subsistence.

Great employments are and will be in the hands of Englishmen; nothing left for the younger sons of Irishmen but vicarages, tide-waiters' places, &c.; therefore no reason to make them worse.

The Modus upon the flax in England, affects only lands reclaimed since the year 1690, and is at the rate of five shillings the English acre, which is equivalent to eight shillings and eightpence Irish, and that to be paid before the farmer removed it from the field. Flax is a manufacture of little consequence in England, but is the staple in Ireland, and if it increases (as it probably will) must in many places jostle out corn, because it is more gainful.

The Clergy of the Established Church, have no interest like those of the Church of Rome, distinct from the true interest of their country; and therefore ought to suffer under no distinct impositions or taxes of any kind.

The Bill for settling the Modus of flax in England, was brought in, in the first year of the reign of King George I., when the Clergy lay very unjustly under the imputation of some disaffection. And to encourage the bringing in of some fens in Lincolnshire, which were not to be continued under flax: But it left all lands where flax had been sown before that time, under the same condition of tithing, in which they were before the passing of that Bill: Whereas this bill takes away what the Clergy are actually possessed of.

That the woollen manufacture is the staple of England, as the linen is that of Ireland, yet no attempt was ever made in England to reduce the tithe of wool, for the encouragement of that manufacture.

This manufacture hath already been remarkably favoured by the Clergy, who have hitherto been generally content with less than half--some with sixpence a garden--and some have taken nothing.

Employments they say have been taxed, the reasons for which taxation will not hold with regard to property, at least till employments become inheritances.

The Commons always have had so tender a regard to property; that they never would suffer any law to pass, whereby any particular persons might be aggrieved without their own consent.

Jonathan Swift