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Jonathan Swift
by [?]

In all Swift’s work, save “The Journal to Stella,” the animating motive seems to have been to confound his enemies; and according to the well-known line in that hymn sung wherever the Union Jack flies, we must believe this to be a perfectly justifiable ambition. But occasionally on his pages we find gentle words of wisdom that were meant evidently for love’s eyes alone. There is much that is pure boyish frolic, and again and again there are clever strokes directed at folly. He has shot certain superstitions through with doubt, and in his manner of dealing with error he has proved to us a thing it were well not to forget: that pleasantry is more efficacious than vehemence.

Let me name one incident by way of proof–the well-known one of Partridge, the almanac-maker. This worthy cobbler was an astrologer of no mean repute. He foretold events with much discretion. The ignorant bought his almanacs, and many believed in them as a Bible–in fact, astrology was enjoying a “boom.”

Swift came to London and found that Partridge’s predictions were the theme at the coffeehouses. He saw men argue and wax wroth, grow red in the face as they talked loud and long about nothing–just nothing. The whole thing struck Swift as being very funny; and he wrote an announcement of his intention to publish a rival almanac. He explained that he, too, was an astrologer, but an honest one, while Partridge was an impostor and a cheat; in fact, Partridge foretold only things which every one knew would come true. As for himself, he could discern the future with absolute certainty, and to prove to the world his power he would now make a prophecy. In substance, it was as follows: “My first prediction is but a trifle; it relates to Partridge, the almanac-maker. I have consulted the star of his nativity, and find that he will die on the Twenty-ninth day of March, next.” This was signed, “Isaac Bickerstaff,” and duly issued in pamphlet form. It had such an air of sincerity that both the believers and the scoffers read it with interest.

The Thirtieth of March came, and another pamphlet from “Isaac Bickerstaff” appeared, announcing the fulfilment of the prophecy. It related how toward the end of March Partridge began to languish; how he grew ill and at last took to his bed, and, his conscience then smiting him, he confessed to the world that he was a fraud and a rogue, that all his prophecies were impositions; he then passed away.

Partridge was wild with rage, and immediately replied in a manifesto declaring that he was alive and well, and moreover was alive on March Twenty-ninth.

To this “Bickerstaff” replied in a pamphlet more seriously humorous than ever, reaffirming that Partridge was dead, and closing with the statement that, “If an uninformed carcass still walks about calling itself Partridge, I do not in any way consider myself responsible for that.”

The joke set all London on a grin. Wherever Partridge went he was met with smiles and jeers, and astrology became only a jest to a vast number of people who had formerly believed in it seriously.

When Benjamin Franklin started his “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” twenty-five years later, in the first issue he prophesied the death of one Dart who set the pace at that time as almanac-maker in America. The man was to expire on the afternoon of October Seventeenth, Seventeen Hundred Thirty-eight, at three twenty-nine o’clock.

Dart, being somewhat of a joker himself, came out with an announcement that he, too, had consulted the oracle, and found he would live until October Twenty-sixth, and possibly longer.

On October Eighteenth, Franklin announced Dart’s death, and explained that it occurred promptly on time, all as prophesied.

Yet Dart lived to publish many almanacs; but Poor Richard got his advertisement, and many staid, broad-brimmed Philadelphians smiled who had never smiled before–not only smiled but subscribed.

Benjamin Franklin was a great and good man, as any man must be who fathers another’s jokes, introducing these orphaned children to the world as his own.