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Boswell goes on to cite an unpublished paragraph from Taxation no Tyranny (op.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.