Samuel Johnson on Americans, etc.

September 18, 2009

Some of us have been celebrating our fiftieth birthdays this year, and that fact has occasioned reflections on this blog upon the passage of time; so perhaps it is fitting for me to mark also the commemoration today of the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of Dr. Samuel Johnson, the English lexicographer and man of letters. Not long ago, I had picked up again James Boswell’s monumental biography of him, without realizing that this anniversary was coming up; and I was struck by certain passages of that book which relate Johnson’s dislike of Americans and his contempt for democracy (“Whiggism”), passages which I reproduce below. In spite of his anti-Americanism, Johnson is a favorite author of mine, and has been since I was in high school. When I was in England in the 1980’s, I attended the college at Oxford where Johnson had been enrolled, Pembroke; among the various Johnsoniana on display in the college’s library is his teapot. I give below also a sampling of Dr. Johnson’s prayers.

From Boswell’s Life of Johnson, R. W. Chapman, ed. (Oxford 1953), p. 590.

The doubts which, in my correspondence with him, I had ventured to state as to the justice and wisdom of the conduct of Great-Britain towards the American colonies, while I at the same time requested that he would enable me to inform myself upon that momentous subject, he had altogether disregarded; and had recently published a pamphlet, entitled, Taxation no Tyranny; an answer to the Resolutions and Address of the American Congress.

He had long before indulged most unfavourable sentiments of our fellow-subjects in America. For, as early as 1769, I was told by Dr. John Campbell, that he had said of them, ‘Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for any thing we allow them short of hanging.’

Boswell goes on to cite an unpublished paragraph from Taxation no Tyranny (op. cit., p. 592):

‘Their numbers are, at present, not quite sufficient for the greatness which, in some form of government or other, is to rival the ancient monarchies; but by Dr. Franklin’s rule of progression, they will, in a century and a quarter, be more than equal to the inhabitants of Europe. When the Whigs of America are thus multiplied, let the Princes of the earth tremble in their palaces. If they should continue to double and to double, their own hemisphere would not contain them. But let not our boldest oppugners of authority look forward with delight to this futurity of Whiggism.’

Op. cit., p. 946:

From this pleasing subject he, I know not how or why, made a sudden transition to one upon which he was a violent aggressor; for he said, ‘I am willing to love all mankind, except an American:’ and his inflammable corruption bursting into horrid fire, he ‘breathed out threatenings and slaughter;’ calling them, ‘Rascals—Robbers—Pirates;’ and exclaiming, he’d ‘burn and destroy them.’ Miss Seward, looking to him with mild but steady astonishment, said, ‘Sir, this is an instance that we are always most violent against those whom we have injured.’ —He was irritated still more by this delicate and keen reproach; and roared out another tremendous volley, which one might fancy could be heard across the Atlantick. During this tempest I sat in great uneasiness, lamenting his heat of temper; till, by degrees, I diverted his attention to other topicks.

Op. cit., pp. 947-950:

He as usual defended luxury; ‘You cannot spend money in luxury without doing good to the poor. Nay, you do more good to them by spending it in luxury, than by giving it: for by spending it in luxury, you make them exert industry, whereas by giving it, you keep them idle. I own, indeed, there may be more virtue in giving it immediately in charity, than in spending it in luxury; though there may be a pride in that too.’ Miss Seward asked, if this was not Mandeville’s doctrine of ‘private vices publick benefits.’ Johnson. ‘The fallacy of that book is, that Mandeville defines neither vices nor benefits. He reckons among vices everything that gives pleasure. He takes the narrowest system of morality, monastick morality, which holds pleasure itself to be a vice, such as eating salt with our fish, because it makes it taste better; and he reckons wealth as a publick benefit, which is by no means always true. Pleasure of itself is not a vice. Having a garden, which we all know to be perfectly innocent, is a great pleasure. At the same time, in this state of being there are many pleasures vices, which however are so immediately agreeable that we can hardly abstain from them. The happiness of Heaven will be, that pleasure and virtue will be perfectly consistent. Mandeville puts the case of a man who gets drunk in an ale-house; and says it is a publick benefit, because so much money is got by it to the publick. But it must be considered, that all the good gained by this, through the gradation of alehouse-keeper, brewer, maltster, and farmer, is overbalanced by the evil caused to the man and his family by his getting drunk. This is the way to try what is vicious, by ascertaining whether more evil than good is produced by it upon the whole, which is the case in all vice. It may happen that good is produced by vice; but not as vice; for instance, a robber may take money from its owner, and give it to one who will make a better use of it. Here is good produced; but not by the robbery as robbery, but as translation of property. I read Mandeville forty, or, I believe, fifty years ago. He did not puzzle me; he opened my views into real life very much. No, it is clear that the happiness of society depends on virtue. In Sparta, theft was allowed by general consent: theft, therefore, was there not a crime, but then there was no security; and what a life must they have had, when there was no security. Without truth there must be a dissolution of society. As it is, there is so little truth, that we are almost afraid to trust our ears; but how should we be, if falsehood were multiplied ten times? Society is held together by communication and information; and I remember this remark of Sir Thomas Brown’s, “Do the devils lie? No; for then Hell could not subsist.”’…

Somebody mentioned the Reverend Mr. Mason’s prosecution of Mr. Murray, the bookseller, for having inserted in a collection of Gray’s Poems, only fifty lines, of which Mr. Mason had still the exclusive property, under the statute of Queen Anne; and that Mr. Mason had persevered, notwithstanding his being requested to name his own terms of compensation. Johnson signified his displeasure at Mr. Mason’s conduct very strongly; but added, by way of shewing that he was not surprized at it, ‘Mason’s a Whig.’ Mrs. Knowles. (not hearing distinctly,) ‘What! a Prig, Sir?’ Johnson. ‘Worse, Madam; a Whig! But he is both.’

I expressed a horrour at the thought of death. Mrs. Knowles. ‘Nay, thou should’st not have a horrour for what is the gate of life.’ Johnson. (standing upon the hearth rolling about, with a serious, solemn, and somewhat gloomy air,) ‘No rational man can die without uneasy apprehension.’ Mrs. Knowles. ‘The Scriptures tell us, “The righteous shall have hope in his death.”’ Johnson. ‘Yes, Madam; that is, he shall not have despair. But, consider, his hope of salvation must be founded on the terms on which it is promised that the mediation of our Saviour shall be applied to us,—namely, obedience; and where obedience has failed, then, as suppletory to it, repentance. But what man can say that his obedience has been such, as he would approve of in another, or even in himself upon close examination, or that his repentance has not been such as to require being repented of? No man can be sure that his obedience and repentance will obtain salvation.’ Mrs. Knowles. ‘But divine intimation of acceptance may be made to the soul.’ Johnson. ‘Madam, it may; but I should not think the better of a man who should tell me on his death-bed he was sure of salvation. A man cannot be sure himself that he has divine intimation of acceptance; much less can he make others sure that he has it.’ Boswell. ‘Then, Sir, we must be contented to acknowledge that death is a terrible thing.’ Johnson. ‘Yes, Sir. I have made no approaches to a state which can look on it as not terrible.’ Mrs. Knowles. (seeming to enjoy a pleasing serenity in the possession of benignant divine light,) ‘Does not St. Paul say, “I have fought the good fight of faith, I have finished my course; henceforth is laid up for me a crown of life?”’ Johnson. ‘Yes, Madam; but here was a man inspired, a man who had been converted by supernatural interposition.’ Boswell. ‘In prospect death is dreadful; but in fact we find that people die easy.’ Johnson. ‘Why, Sir, most people have not thought much of the matter, so cannot say much, and it is supposed they die easy. Few believe it certain that they are then to die; and those who do, set themselves to behave with resolution, as a man does who is going to be hanged.’ Miss Seward. ‘There is one mode of the fear of death, which is certainly absurd; and that is the dread of annihilation, which is only a pleasing sleep without a dream.’ Johnson. ‘It is neither pleasing, nor sleep; it is nothing. Now mere existence is so much better than nothing, that one would rather exist even in pain, than not exist.’ Boswell. ‘If annihilation be nothing, then existing in pain is not a comparative state, but a positive evil, which I cannot think we should choose. I must be allowed to differ here; and it would lessen the hope of a future state founded on the argument, that the Supreme Being, who is good as he is great, will hereafter compensate for our present sufferings in this life. For if existence, such as we have it here, be comparatively a good, we have no reason to complain, though no more of it should be given to us. But if our only state of existence were in this world, then we might with some reason complain that we are so dissatisfied with our enjoyments compared with our desires.’ Johnson. ‘The lady confounds annihilation, which is nothing, with the apprehension of it, which is dreadful. It is in the apprehension of it that the horrour of annihilation consists.’

From E. L. McAdam, Jr., ed., Samuel Johnson: Diaries, Prayers, and Annals (New Haven and London, 1958), pp. 138-140.

O Lord God, in whose hand are the wills and affections of men, kindle in my mind holy desires, and repress sinful and corrupt imaginations. Enable me to love thy commandments, and to desire thy promises; let me by thy protection and influence so pass through things temporal, as finally not to lose the things eternal, and among the hopes and fears, the pleasures and sorrows, the dangers and deliverances, and all the changes of this life, let my heart be surely fixed by the help of thy Holy Spirit on the everlasting fruition of thy presence, where true joys are to be found, grant O Lord, these petitions.

Forgive, O merciful Lord, whatever I have done contrary to thy laws. Give me such a sense of my Wickedness as may produce true contrition and effectual repentance, so that when I shall be called into another state, I may be received among the sinners, to whom sorrow and reformation have obtained pardon, for Jesus Christs Sake. Amen.

O merciful God, full of compassion, long-suffering, and of great pity, who sparest when we deserve punishment, and in thy wrath thinkest upon mercy, make me earnestly to repent, and heartily to be sorry for all my misdoings, make the remembrance so burdensome and painful, that I may flee to Thee with a troubled spirit, and a contrite heart; and O merciful Lord visit, comfort, and relieve me, cast me not out from thy presence and take not thy Holy Spirit from me, but excite in me true repentance, give me in this world knowledge of thy truth, and confidence in thy mercy, and in the world to come life everlasting, for the sake of our Lord and Saviour, thy Son Jesus Christ. Amen.

6 Responses to “Samuel Johnson on Americans, etc.”

  1. Fr Paul Says:

    Putting aside Johnston’s violent Tory prejudice, I am surprised at how profoundly he and his interlocutors reason about spiritual and theological themes. Johnson is not normally thought of as a pious man, but here we see a man of strong religious instincts, inspite of the deistic overtones chaqracteristic of the age. We English Catholics are often loathe to see the positive sides of our state religion, but this passage might be thought of as a testimony to how the Church of England, while born from a cataclysm which almost wiped out the inestimable spititual patrimony of English medieval Catholicism, nonetheless did succeed in the long term in creating for many a christocentric religious sensibility infused with a wide and far from superficial knowledge of scripture. Alas, it is difficult to judge it sucessful in that regard these days. In Johnston’s dialogue we see a tension between rationalism and Calvinism – in our own day it seems to be more between charismatic sentimentality and radical liberalism. I am not sure that the Anglican communion today plays as positive a role in informing the masses – on either side of the Atlantic – with a genuine Christian ethos as it did in Johnson’s day. Still, you have stimulated me into desiring to learn more of my illustrious compatriot.

  2. Cristian C. Says:

    I would say that Dr Johnson is and always has been regarded as a very religious and pious man, and was ridiculed in his lifetime, by some, for this. Moreover, he famously uphold some ‘divisive’ Catholic doctrines and practices, the prayers fot the dead, etc..

  3. bekkos Says:

    Fr. Paul,

    Perhaps a tension “between charismatic sentimentality and radical liberalism” is one of the consequences of democracy which Johnson foresaw with foreboding. Certainly “charismatic sentimentality,” as a form of religious life, is virtually an American invention, although some of its first seeds were planted by English missionaries to America like George Whitefield and John Wesley. By the second or third decades of the nineteenth century, Protestant Revivalism had become a defining part of the culture of backwoods America; and that cultural locus still deeply affects the Evangelical Movement (although, increasingly, it is adapting new forms as it takes root in places like Latin America and East Asia). As for radical liberalism, although it has closer ties with the French Revolution than with the American one, America did have its share of people who thought that human freedom and Christian faith were irreconcilable — one thinks of Thomas Paine and his “Rights of Man.” Not that I think Thomas Paine has had all that much influence upon what you are calling radical liberalism in the Church of England.

    All of this is perhaps simply to say that Johnson’s Tory prejudices against America, combined with his manifest Christian piety, raise for me a question. To what extent are Christian orthodoxy and democracy compatible? In America, and perhaps in Britain, most people would view such a question as nonsensical, like asking to what extent apples are compatible with oranges. There are, in democracies, orthodox Christians, just as there are, in democracies, non-orthodox Christians and non-Christians and people of all shapes and sizes and colors and creeds; the beauty of democracy, in some people’s view, is precisely the fact that all such people, jumbled together, manage somehow to live and work with each other in relative peace. But your example of the contemporary Anglican Church suggests that democracy is not simply an external environment in which Christians, of various persuasions, live, but it is a shaping influence upon what, as Christians, they believe, and on how their belief is expressed. And I doubt that that shaping influence is confined to the contemporary Anglican Church.

    I say this as someone who cares, both about orthodox Christianity (and Orthodox Christianity, with a capital O) and about democracy. I know that, just as Protestant Evangelicalism has its historical locus in backwoods America, so the Orthodox Church has its historical locus in the Byzantine and Russian empires; as for the Roman Catholic Church, it perhaps still has something of its historical locus in the medieval, feudal West, when most of the defining battles between papacy and empire occurred. For many centuries, the Orthodox Church, in its home environment, was closely tied with political autocracy; those ties deeply affected its rituals, its poetry, its sense of religious identity. In both Byzantium and the Russian Empire, a Christian autocratic state was eventually replaced by a non-Christian or anti-Christian autocratic state (Moslem, on the one hand, Communist, on the other) with which the Orthodox Church achieved a modus vivendi. But, at present, most Orthodox Christians, like myself, live under a form of government that at least purports to be democratic, and in a society that is increasingly pluralistic.

    I find something paradoxical in this situation. Much of what I find beautiful in Orthodox worship holds a reminiscence of a political order that, on the whole, I would not choose to live in. By contrast, most democratizing of Orthodox worship, e.g., the introduction of gender-non-specific language in some parishes, and the tendency in some parishes for the priest to present himself as “just one of the guys,” strikes me as vaguely sappy, that is, sort of radical and sentimental at the same time. Friends of mine who attend Catholic churches have had similar experiences; one friend, a Byzantine Catholic, goes so far as to regard the revised language in the official translation of the divine liturgy as verging on theological heresy.

    This comment is certainly long enough, and I should close it. I’ll simply note one more thing about Samuel Johnson: he cared about the English language, probably as much as anyone who has ever written in it. Those of us who speak English, whether in its native or in one of its exported varieties, owe a great debt to him. He was the first person to give a sort of complete account of where it was and how it had come to be what it is.


  4. Fr Paul Says:

    Cristian C.
    when I wrote that “Johnson is not normally thought of as a pious man”, then perhaps I should have added “by me”, and confessed that this was a case of ignorance. I might plead in my defence that in contemporary Britain Johnson is not often talked or written about other than as a man of letters and lexicographer – but that is a weak excuse.
    THe positive side of ignorance is that it may often be emedied with relative ease and indeed in a pleasurable manner. Thanks to Peter for putting me on the path of ammendment.

  5. Cristian Says:

    I read and read the excerpt opened by the paragraph that begins with ‘He as usual defended luxury …’, and I can’t have enough of it, as it is amazingly well phrased and thought, this prose of the finest intellectuality; and look at Boswell, our dear friend, too—how well he answers–If annihilation be nothing, then existing in pain …–these gentlemen knew logic ….
    Boswell was very great, too. Beautiful people, a lost world. Makes contemporary debates about the Last Things look like slapdash. Also, how well does Dr Johnson discuss Mandeville’s theories; and not Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot, awesome as they were, constituted the essential witnesses of the 18th century—but the English scholar, Dr Johnson. And this biblical phrase–:”When the Whigs of America are thus multiplied, let the Princes of the earth tremble in their palaces”. [It has to be remarked that, in this rhetorical pattern, whatever the Princes of the Earth do, they surely do it in their palaces. The Romantic poets—citizens will use much this trope.]

    And when reading Boswell, the Johnson aficionado says to himself—‘This is my place in the world, this is where I belong—here, reading about Dr Johnson himself’.

  6. Cristian Says:

    ‘On the Roman Catholick religion he said, “If you join the Papists externally, they will not interrogate you strictly as to your belief in their tenets. No reasoning Papist believes every article of their faith. There is one side on which a good man might be persuaded to embrace it. A good man, of a timorous disposition, in great doubt of his acceptance with God, and pretty credulous, might be glad to be of a church where there are so many helps to get to Heaven. I would be a Papist if I could. I have fear enough; but an obstinate rationality prevents me. I shall never be a Papist, unless on the near approach of death, of which I have a great terrour. I wonder that women are not all Papists.” Boswell: “They are not more afraid of death than men are.” Johnson: “Because they are less wicked.” Dr. Adams: “They are more pious.” Johnson: “No, hang ’em, they are not more pious. A wicked fellow is the most pious when he takes to it. He’ll beat you all at piety.” [Boswell]

    ‘I said, “Would not the same objection hold against the Trinity as against transubstantiation?” “Yes,” said he, “if you take three and one in the same sense. If you do, to be sure you cannot believe it: but the three persons in the Godhead are Three in one sense, and One in another. We cannot tell how; and that is the mystery!”’ [JOURNAL OF A TOUR …]

    Seward: “One should think that sickness, and the view of death, would make more men religious.” Johnson: “Sir, they do not know how to go about it: they have not the first notion. A man who has never had religion before, no more grows religious when he is sick, than a man who has never learnt figures can count when he has need of calculation.” [Boswell]

    [Georg Simmel, who in 1918 reposed in the Lord and went before us with the sign of the Faith, died of a dreadful illness, he knew he was ill and dying, and those around him said that he was illuminated by this prospect of death, that he became a beautiful person, he integrated the event of his coming death.]

    ‘Now the Christian Religion is a most beneficial system, as it gives us light and certainty where we were before in darkness and doubt. The miracles which prove it are attested by men who had no interest in deceiving us; but who, on the contrary, were told that they should suffer persecution, and did actually lay down their lives in confirmation of the truth of the facts which they asserted. Indeed, for some centuries the heathens did not pretend to deny the miracles; but said they were performed by the aid of evil spirits. This is a circumstance of great weight. Then, Sir, when we take the proofs derived from prophecies which have been so exactly fulfilled, we have most satisfactory evidence. Supposing a miracle possible, as to which, in my opinion, there can be no doubt, we have as strong evidence for the miracles in support of Christianity, as the nature of the thing admits’ [Boswell]

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