Swift on False Witness

Article excerpt


In the first book of The "Art" of Rhetoric, Aristotle discusses the relative reliability of various kinds of witnesses in proving a judicial case, distinguishing first between ancient and recent witnesses, and then between "well-known persons who have given a decision on any point" and "those who share the risk of the trial if they are thought to be perjurers." The latter are only competent as to "whether an act has taken place or not," while on questions of quality, "witnesses from a distance are very trustworthy" and "ancient witnesses are the most trustworthy of all, for they cannot be corrupted." (1) Nearness to the event, a positive factor in an empiricist assessment of credibility, is negative in Aristotelian thinking. (2) Those near to a crime scene may be involved, interested, or open to bribery; the credibility of direct witness to fact must therefore be guaranteed by punitive sanctions, such as the risk of being brought to trial.

To Jonathan Swift and his friends in Hanoverian Britain, classical skepticism about direct witness would have been pertinent. Until organized police forces came into existence in the nineteenth century, convictions for felony relied heavily on the evidence of professional informers, as--so it was believed--did prosecutions for the upper-class crimes of sedition and treason. Few informers were "well-known persons," i.e., possessed of reputations solid enough to guarantee credibility; many were--certainly in Swift's eyes--quite disreputable. In any case, even the honest could bend under pressure. Not only did those who gave the Whig ministry "informations" against Tories and Jacobites not risk being put on trial for giving false evidence; they also risked arrest if they did not give such evidence. Printers especially were vulnerable to government pressure to inform on authors, since "any 'reflection' or criticism, whether true or false" could be prosecuted as libel. (3)

This is the subject of the section that follows, which deals with Swift's experience of the gathering and use of "informations" in the immediate aftermath of the Hanoverian succession. The second section analyzes his most systematic response to the phenomenon, the sermon "On False Witness" of 1715. Subsequently, I touch on poems written for friends who had fallen victim to informers. I turn finally to Gulliver as both victim and perpetrator of false witness, an eyewitness narrator who both unwittingly and consciously exposes the unreliability of his tribe, of the epistemology on which his testimony is based, and of the modern literary genres, such as the novel, which entrust such witnesses with authority and truth.


In the winter of 1707-08, William Gregg, a clerk in the office of the secretary of state, Robert Harley, was found to have been selling military secrets to the French. Condemned to death, he was repeatedly offered his life in exchange for inculpating Harley. He refused, insisting that the secretary knew nothing, and eventually went to the scaffold. (4) Six years later, in January 1714, Joseph Addison attacked the Tory ministry in The Crisis, to which Swift anonymously replied with The Public Spirit of the Whigs. The House of Lords offered a reward of [pounds sterling]500 for discovery of the author, and took the publisher, Joseph Morphew, and his printer, John Barber, into custody and questioned them. They refused to supply a name, but were saved from imprisonment by a Tory ruse.

Swift was to remember the treatment of Gregg, and the "uneasy Business" over his own pamphlet may have been one factor in his deciding to withdraw from London politics. (5) Another may have been the contacts between Tory ministers and the Pretender's Court at St. Germains. If Swift knew of these contacts, it might have made him all the more vulnerable to judicial pressure, because he would not have been convinced of the innocence of those against whom he might be asked to testify. …