INTRODUCTION

Samuel Johnson never held political office and cannot be said to have exerted influence as an insider in eighteenth-century government. From his own lifetime to the present, however, his writings and conversation on political topics have raised enormous controversy. In the decades after his death in 1784, hostility or allegiance to his memory could virtually define a person’s position as either a Whig or a Tory, a radical or a conservative.1 Two major participants in the Reform Bill debate in 1831, the Whig Thomas Babington Macaulay and the Tory John Wilson Croker, made Johnson the battleground for their opposed ideologies. In the Edinburgh Review, Macaulay mauled Croker’s new edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, excoriating the editor’s supposed mistakes, but also characterizing Johnson as ‘a bigoted Tory’. Of Johnson Macaulay wrote that ‘The characteristic peculiarity of his intellect was the union of great powers with low prejudices’. Sceptical of false claims on most matters, Johnson was overtaken by irrational passions when faced with political ideas that Macaulay regarded as progressive.2 Croker replied in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, mostly defending his accuracy but also indicating that Macaulay’s savage review reflected his own inveterate prejudices. As Croker scoffed in the voice of a comic rustic, ‘Fee! faw! fum! I smell the bluid of a pairty man’.3 From William Hazlitt to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle to Leslie Stephen, Johnson’s reputation often varied according to the writer’s disposition towards his supposed ‘Toryism’, particularly as portrayed in Boswell’s Life. The controversy has continued to our own time. In The Politics of Samuel Johnson (1960, second edition 1990), Donald J. Greene assailed the whole assumption, epitomized by Macaulay but assumed by most everybody, that Johnson was a convinced ‘Tory’ and royalist. Influenced by Sir Lewis Namier’s thesis that a Tory ‘party’ did not exist in that age of Whig hegemony, Greene portrayed Johnson as a ‘rationalist’ and a ‘skeptic’, ‘a rebel by instinct’ who distrusted all monarchs, spurned authority, and regarded government as a merely secular institution. While conceding that Johnson could be classified among ‘skeptical conservatives’ like Hobbes, Hume, Gibbon and Voltaire, Greene also compared him to Victorian liberals like John Stuart Mill.4 Greene’s reinterpretation pre–1–

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vailed over most Johnson scholarship until the 1980s, when J. C. D. Clark and Howard Erskine-Hill revived a version of the older view of Johnson. According to these revisionist scholars, Johnson was indeed a lifelong Tory, Jacobite, and nonjuror. He believed in the sanctity of the monarchy and was committed to a deeply Anglican view of the state.5 None of these scholars on either side admitted that he was a ‘pairty man’. Nevertheless, disagreement over Johnson’s politics became heated and even personal, as in essays in a volume of the journal Age of Johnson in 1996, and then at a conference followed by a special issue of ELH in 1997.6 Between these sides, there were attempts to position Johnson in a middle ground, as in my previous work and in John Cannon’s Samuel Johnson and the Politics of Hanoverian England (1994). According to Cannon, Johnson was a ‘moderate’ or, given his penchant for belligerent debate, a ‘ferocious moderate’.7 Johnson supported the Established Church and may have had mild Jacobite sympathies, but on the whole he took reasonable positions near the mainstream of Hanoverian politics. But the sheer acrimony of the debate, which reflects different visions not only of Johnson but of the whole eighteenth century, has generally pushed participants in one direction or the other. If only through volume of publication, it is possible that the revisionist view of Johnson has recently gained the upper-hand. Two more collections edited by Clark and Erskine-Hill were published as the present book was being prepared for the press.8 The details of this debate are impossible to summarize briefly, and will emerge in the pages that follow. It is nonetheless useful to remark that the controversy has turned not just on the content of Johnson’s opinions but on questions of historical methodology. Clark’s books and essays on Johnson form part of his larger project to revise our understanding of eighteenth-century politics. Evidence shows, Clark argues, that loyalty to the Stuart dynasty after the Hanoverian Succession was not confined to a small group of fanatics but constituted a fairly large segment of the population. The contractual thesis of government advanced in John Locke’s Two Treatises of Civil Government (1689) was by no means widely accepted, for even most ‘Whigs’ continued to hold that monarchy passed down through hereditary succession, as assured by the divine origin of government articulated most coherently by Tories. Political divisions in the eighteenth century were generated not by class conflict or secular ideologies but by differences of religion, primarily traditional Anglicanism versus Dissent.9 One might well criticize Clark for dramatic overstatement, as in his suggestion that England was an ancien régime little different from absolute monarchies on the continent, or for his tendency to underrate the commercial underpinnings of conflict and change in the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, his thesis has at least provided a useful corrective to previous versions of eighteenth-century history, including Namier’s. Unrelated scholarship by John Cannon and by Laurence and Jeanne Stone has confirmed the heavily aristocratic centre of power

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in Hanoverian England.10 The existence of a vibrant Jacobite culture in the early eighteenth century has been persuasively argued by Eveline Cruickshanks, Paul K. Monod and Nicholas Rogers.11 In the light of this research, Donald Greene’s belief that either Johnson or most English people of this time thought of the state as entirely secular seems properly outdated.12 Clark’s opponents have nonetheless quite reasonably objected that his attempt to enfold Johnson in this vision has exposed the difficulties of relating an overarching historical thesis to the complexities of an individual personality. The damaging resistance created by this move from the general to the particular seems repeatedly illustrated by Clark’s Samuel Johnson: Literature, Religion and English Cultural Politics from the Restoration to Romanticism (1994). Clark creates the impression that Johnson belonged to an ‘Anglo-Latin tradition’ that was largely Tory and Jacobite.13 Yet as argued by a pre-eminent literary historian of this period, Howard D. Weinbrot, this alignment is highly specious. The Tory Dryden, to cite just one example, championed the English vernacular tradition against French neo-classicism.14 Clark attempts to position Johnson in a Jacobite ‘milieu’ among people he probably never met, such as Thomas Ruddiman, or probably met only once, such as William King. Johnson is called a ‘non-juror’ for not taking oaths to the Hanoverian monarch that he was never asked to take. Although his attendance at a certain church, St Clement Danes, is presented as virtually decisive evidence that he was a Jacobite, there are other explanations: he lived in this parish and the church was a local centre for charitable relief, a deeply held cause.15 Having lifted conjecture into certainty, Clark pronounces definitive opinions on ambiguous lines in Johnson’s poetry and prose. Take for example the following line from Johnson’s ‘London’: ‘Behold rebellious virtue quite o’erthrown’ (l. 63). As the speaker Thales claims to have retained his virtue in a city overwhelmed by vice, it is simply untrue to say that ‘The word “rebellious” had no obvious meaning in that context apart from political allusion’.16 Nevertheless, Clark and other revisionist scholars have had no monopoly on methodological error, for their opponents have also been guilty of tendentious and sometimes equivocal interpretations. In his Politics of Samuel Johnson, Greene repeatedly dismisses statements by Johnson that do not square with his thesis as ‘amusing’ or not ‘sober’. He lifts certain works such as A Compleat Vindication of the Licensers of the State into prominence as ‘Whiggism of the first water’ but sweeps over less amenable works, particularly Johnson’s final four political pamphlets, with revealing brevity. Indeed, Greene often seemed unwilling to face squarely what is most noticeable about Johnson’s politics both in his lifetime and now – his inveterate hostility to ‘Whigs’, his hatred of William III, his refusal to offer unambiguous endorsement of the Glorious Revolution, or his reticence in the face of repeated charges that he was a Jacobite Tory.17

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There is of course no way of entirely evading methodological difficulties. Every historian must give certain evidence priority. Historical interpretation must often appeal to inference or conjecture that should be based on a broader understanding of an era. The art of historical or literary analysis is nonetheless not to put more weight on an interpretation than the evidence can stand, and to acknowledge the complexity and ambiguity of the era or individual being examined. The approach demanded in the following study, a political biography, has perhaps certain advantages that can help us to a more judicious assessment of Johnson’s thought. The first advantage concerns the linking of his political thought to his lived experience and character. Donald Greene, who spent his entire career studying Johnson, had good reason to conclude that he was highly individualistic, rebellious and resistant to passive assent. Greene’s more dubious inference was that Johnson for this reason would have rejected ‘any system of government which does not rest on the rational exercise of the mind of free and responsible individuals’.18 Johnson’s recognition of his own aggression, his dislike of restraint and capacity for envy, may in fact have inclined him to exactly the opposite opinion. As he wrote late in his life to Hester Thrale’s daughter, Hester Maria, ‘strongly entwisted with human nature is the desire of exercising power, however that power be gained or given. Let us pity it in others, and despise it in ourselves’.19 Johnson did not regard human beings as particularly rational, and may have surmised that this assumption was one of the fundamental errors of radical politics. There is evidence, as I will suggest, that this pessimism strengthened over his life, particularly during the global violence of the Seven Years War and the sanguinary enthusiasm it provoked in England. He was dismayed but not surprised by the violence of Wilkite agitation in the 1760s and the Gordon Riots in 1780. The law lectures that he wrote with his friend Robert Chambers in the 1760s, evidently a key moment in the formalization of his political philosophy, are founded on the same belief in the competiveness and irrationality of human behaviour, especially in ‘barbarous’ times, strengthening his deeply negative reaction to rebellion in America. The main remedy for this violence was Christian religion, which Johnson believed was best propagated through the authority of a legally established church. The following book fully endorses what, indeed, has hardly been questioned by anyone – that Johnson’s Christian and particularly Anglican convictions represent the most consistent foundation of his social outlook from his youth to the end of his life. Greene also acknowledged that Johnson always upheld the Church of England’s ‘position in the state’, though this did not hinder him from declaring the ‘hard fact’ that Johnson’s ‘secular and rational’ understanding of the state was ‘at least as atheistic as Hobbes’.20 The second remedy was monarchy and, especially later in his life, strong parliamentary government. Here we confront the difficult question of whether this ‘zeal for monarchy’, in Macaulay’s derisive phrase, con-

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tinued the Jacobitism of his earlier years, when this cause was still viable.21 In the 1760s and afterwards it was alleged that Johnson was a Jacobite hypocrite who sold out for a pension to a Hanoverian monarch, a politically convenient attack taken as serious evidence by revisionist historians. Available evidence does not permit us, in my opinion, to reach categorical judgments about the extent of Johnson’s sympathies for the exiled Stuarts in his early life. He did state as an older man that in ‘driving’ James II from the throne, the English people ‘broke the constitution’.22 As Erskine-Hill insists, he never endorsed the ‘legality’ of this expulsion, though he also repeatedly said it was ‘necessary’.23 Nevertheless, in assessing Johnson’s character and opinions, we should seriously weigh the following consideration, which is often skirted by revisionist historians. By the time that Johnson reached maturity in the late 1720s, it was inconceivable that the Stuart claimant, James Francis Edward, could be restored with the ease of Charles II in 1660. There could only have been a civil war supported by a foreign invasion, unleashing all the irrational and violent drives that Johnson believed were inherent in human nature.24 Contrary to what is suggested by Clark and Erskine-Hill, Johnson did not usually move through a Tory or Jacobite ‘milieu’. He was not only befriended, but actively helped and supported, by Whigs such as Gilbert Walmesley whose lives and fortunes would have been subjected to severe risk by the restoration of ‘James III’. His two oldest friends were loyal Hanoverian Whigs, John Taylor and Sir John Hawkins. Taking into account all that we know about Johnson – his desire for order, his conception of Christianity as a religion of peace, his value for friendship – it is difficult to imagine that Johnson could have supported such a convulsion of English society. A second advantage of a biographical approach to Johnson’s politics is that it can set his writings and statements in a specific context. We should weigh carefully John Cannon’s superficially innocuous remark that Johnson was not generally a theorist but ‘a working man-of-letters and a journalist’.25 Despite his popular reputation as an immortal sage speaking for all times and places, Johnson began his literary career in London as a journalist writing in reaction to immediate events. Although Boswell encouraged the impression that ‘Dr Johnson’ uttered continual nuggets of timeless wisdom, he was in fact usually responding strongly to a dialogue informed by an immediate context of events. Even his evidently ‘timeless’ works, like ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ and Rasselas, respond to very specific contexts. These contexts, as I will often suggest, refer not just to an era or even a decade, but to the events of that month or even that very day. Although it is true that Johnson characteristically perceived a general ‘human’ relevance where others did not, to a surprising degree he wrote and even thought as a journalist. This feature of his style is perhaps best illustrated by his periodical the Idler, which was published as the lead article in a newspaper, and frequently reacts to the unfolding events of the war reported in the very

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same issue. Thinking of Johnson as a journalist helps to make sense of the apparent contradictions and provocations that bedevil assessments of his thought. Johnson usually wrote, as he spoke, not just for ‘truth’ but for impact. Johnson evidently learned this lesson early and quickly after the failure of his moralistic and Christian play Irene. By later life, he could elevate this aggressive approach to debate into philosophy. As he wrote to Hester Thrale in 1775, shortly after his explosive Taxation no Tyranny:
To be able [to] say nothing when every one is talking; to have no opinion when every one is judging; to hear exclamations of rapture without power to depress; to listen to falsehoods without right to contradict, is, after all, a state of temporary inferiority, in [which] the mind is rather hardened by stubbornness, than supported by fortitude. If the world be worth winning let us enjoy it, if it is to be despised let us despise it by conviction.26

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This habit of legitimizing caustic argument does not always sit comfortably with his conception of Christianity as a religion of peace, or with his vision of political society as designed for mutual benevolence. He could be belligerent, one-sided and hurtful. For modern historians, the challenge is sorting out when we should take Johnson as speaking his fundamental beliefs as opposed to throwing down the gauntlet of assertions meant to be ‘argumentative’. Indeed, much scholarship on Johnson has depended exactly on these distinctions. In a statement dictated to Boswell in 1781 on the difference between Whigs and Tories, for example, Johnson appears to be unusually placid and therefore truthful: ‘A wise Tory and a wise Whig, I believe, will agree. Their principles are the same, though their modes of thinking are different’. Yet even this statement has a definite rhetorical situation. As Boswell himself intimates, Johnson was attempting to placate his friend’s own painful confusion about his own political identity.27 This statement has been taken as a sign that Johnson was essentially a ‘moderate’, and is highlighted by both Greene and Cannon. ‘Moderate’ nonetheless seems an incongruous adjective when applied to Johnson. He was habitually extreme, and made no apologies for the extreme reactions that he invited. Indeed, distinguishing between what Johnson ‘meant’ and what is merely ‘argumentative’ may not be finally possible, though we are often forced to try. A feature of Johnson’s writing and conversation from an early stage is his skilled ventriloquism. His capacity to imitate various positions is most obvious in the parliamentary debates that he wrote for the Gentleman’s Magazine, but it is also evident, as I will argue, in ‘London’ and in his controversial pamphlets of the late 1730s. I would not suggest that Johnson did not believe in ‘truth’, which he certainly did. For Johnson, however, truth lay mostly in what he called the ‘felt’ experience of daily life. It was in the experience of life, especially among the poor and downtrodden, where ‘tyranny’ and oppression went on in ways not registered by relatively privileged Whigs like Wilkes or Burke (in his earlier days)

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who called for ‘liberty’ in ways that Johnson found merely verbal and abstract. The advantage of political biography is that we find Johnson responding repeatedly to immediate events with the force that he thought appropriate to that moment. As he wrote to Hester Thrale, ‘Chronology … is the eye of history’.28 An exact attention to chronology has thus consistently governed my treatment of what Johnson wrote or said.29 The third advantage of political biography is its emphasis on change and development over the period of a life or an era. In this field, revisionist history has been rather more convincing than its immediate predecessor. Although Greene’s Politics follows Johnson’s career chronologically, he is at pains to show that the supposed ‘Whiggism’ of the early work is consistent with the notorious conservatism of the later work.30 On the contrary, Clark advances a plausible thesis to explain why the oppositional Johnson before 1760 could have transformed into the ardent supporter of king and state after the accession of George III. Any relevant distinction between Whig and Tory dissolved in the 1760s, Clark argues, leaving old Jacobites like Johnson in the painful, and even griefstricken, position of supporting a Hanoverian monarch who at least ensured the principles of strong monarchy. The following book upholds Clark’s thesis that the Seven Years War marks a crucial period of transition in Johnson’s attitudes and in English party politics. On the other hand, Clark neglects the importance of this war in terms of Britain’s perception of itself as a commercial and imperial power. The image of Britain as the conqueror of Catholic France flooded over divisions between Anglicans and Dissenters, as also over England and its Celtic peripheries. All were involved in this transition, which created a new set of economic and ideological exigencies explored in the final chapter. Indeed, the catalyst of the Seven Years War melded a far different Johnson than the anti-imperialist liberal portrayed by Greene and scholars who have generally endorsed his arguments. As noted by Greene, Johnson often expressed intense anger against the violence perpetrated by European invaders in America, Africa and elsewhere.31 The first forays of colonialism illustrated, again, the capacity of human beings for violence and greed disguised under specious slogans. Johnson’s reactions to the Seven Years War are complex, as we will see, and suggest that he, like the nation, was in a state of transition. Nevertheless, a great deal of what Johnson wrote or said about politics after the Seven Years War is connected immediately with or at a slight remove from the consequences of British victories from North America to India. He strongly upheld coercive measures, including military action, to subdue the American colonies. His views on India are more problematic, but he at no time suggested that the East India Company had no business controlling a large part of the subcontinent. He felt increasingly that the responses of Lord North’s government, both abroad and domestically, were weak, and that public disorder was being encouraged in ways

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that undermined the authority of the crown. This diminished authority included a lack of reverence for George III. Johnson was personally honoured to meet the king in 1767 and loyally served him, as on his trip in 1773 to Scotland, which he also regarded as a ‘conquered’ nation. He was nonetheless deeply distressed by the loss of the American part of the empire and by what he regarded as the domestic adjunct of this war, the depletion of respect for the throne and the rise of an irresponsible and self-interested opposition. It was during the last decade of his life, with the background of the American war, that Johnson made some of his most famous statements about the lasting damage of the Glorious Revolution, which ‘broke the constitution’. Johnson was clearly attempting to make sense of what had gone wrong, for his political views near the end of his life became deeply pessimistic. In light of these statements, it may be objected by some scholars that I have not devoted larger sections of this book to the dynastic issues that continue to absorb the most recent studies of Johnson’s politics. The reason for my relative neglect is that this preoccupation has seriously diverted attention from what most concerned Johnson during the final decades of his life – the rise of radicalism in the City, the emptiness of Whig mantras like ‘liberty’, the loss of imperial control in America, and the erosion of authority at home. I must confess that I find much less interesting than other scholars whether Johnson thought George III held de jure legitimacy or whether he could have taken an oath disclaiming the Stuarts. This is because this theoretical question, however fascinating, fails to account adequately for what Clark has called ‘political action and motivation’.32 I am not even sure that Johnson’s actions and writings as a younger man should be examined solely on the grounds of whether or not he was a Jacobite. I have tried to do justice to the current debate around Johnson, which may strike some readers as idiosyncratic and insular. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to wish that we could move on to broader questions with regard to Johnson’s views on liberty and authority, war and empire, commerce and the social order, issues that are admittedly the gravitational pull behind this study. As this admission suggests, the following book is intended not just for scholars of Johnson but for historians and students in general who wish a detailed introduction to his politics. For this reason, I have spent time discussing matters that are familiar to specialists. In these discussions, I have drawn from information provided on all sides of the debate. My goal, however unfashionable, has been to be as objective and fair as possible. This book could have been much longer, and indeed was in its earlier versions. Nonetheless, I have tried to be comprehensive, seeking the political significance of all of Johnson’s major works. Some of my interpretations may be regarded as controversial. It is my hope, however, that all readers will at least find my observations stimulating and useful in the ongoing debate on this complex and fascinating figure in eighteenth-century politics, Samuel Johnson.