Political views of Samuel Johnson

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Samuel Johnson (18 September 1709 [O.S. 7 September] – 13 December 1784), the celebrated British man of letters, wrote dozens of essays that defined his views on the politics of his time.

Political writings[edit]

Johnson was known as either a staunch Tory or was thought not to be active within politics; his political writings were subsequently disregarded and neglected. Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson is to blame for part of this. Boswell did not meet Johnson until later in life, and he was unable to discuss how politics affected Johnson during his early years. Two periods, Robert Walpole's control over British Parliament and the Seven Years' War, were Johnson's most active periods and are the source for much of his early writings. Although Boswell was present with Johnson during the 1770s and describes four major pamphlets written by Johnson, he neglects to discuss them because he is more interested in their travels to Scotland. This is compounded by the fact that Boswell held an opinion contradictory to two of these pamphlets, The False Alarm and Taxation No Tyranny, and so he attacks Johnson's views in his biography[1]—including Johnson's attacks on slavery.

Boswell was not the only reason why Johnson was disregarded as a political thinker; Thomas Babington Macaulay tried to promote the belief that Johnson's political thoughts were nonsensical and were the writings of a bigot.[2] However, Macaulay was also a Whig, and the one who established the philosophical view that Whigs and Tories were polar opposites, a view that Johnson did not hold.[3] Johnson's views on politics constantly changed through his life, and early on he admitted to sympathies for the Jacobite cause but, by the reign of George III, he came to accept the Hanoverian Succession.[4] It was Boswell who gave people the impression that Johnson was an "arch-conservative", and it was Boswell, more than anyone else, who determined how Johnson would be seen by people years later.[5]

Minor pamphlets[edit]

These Pamphlets played a major role, causing growing tension between America and Britain.

False Alarm[edit]

In 1770, he produced The False Alarm, a political pamphlet attacking John Wilkes.[6]

Thoughts Respecting Falkland's Islands[edit]

In 1771, his Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland's Islands cautioned against war with Spain.[7]

The Patriot[edit]

In 1774, he printed The Patriot, a critique of what he viewed as false patriotism. On the evening of 7 April 1775, he made the famous statement, "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel."[8] This line was not, as is widely believed, about patriotism in general, but the false use of the term "patriotism" by William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham (the patriot-minister) and his supporters. Johnson opposed "self-professed patriots" in general, but valued what he considered "true" self-professed patriotism.[9]

Taxation No Tyranny[edit]

Annotated proofs of Johnson's Taxation No Tyranny (1775)

The last of these pamphlets, Taxation No Tyranny (1775), was a defence of the Coercive Acts and a response to the Declaration of Rights of the First Continental Congress of America, which protested against taxation without representation.[10] Johnson argued that in immigrating to America, colonists had "voluntarily resigned the power of voting", but they still had "virtual representation" in Parliament. In a parody of the Declaration of Rights, Johnson suggested that the Americans had no more right to govern themselves than the Cornish people. If the Americans wanted to participate in Parliament, said Johnson, they could move to England and purchase an estate.[11] Johnson denounced English supporters of America as "traitors to this country", and hoped that the matter would be settled without bloodshed, but that it would end with "English superiority and American obedience".[12]


Johnson was a devout, conservative Anglican and believed in a unity between the High Church and the Crown (the State).[13] Although Johnson respected John Milton's poetry, he could not tolerate Milton's Puritan and Republican beliefs.[4]


Johnson had rather eccentrically advocated that the English and the French were just "two robbers" who were stealing land from the indigenous people of North America, and that neither deserved to live there.[14] After the signing of the 1783 Peace of Paris treaties, marking the American colonists' defeat of the English, Johnson was "deeply disturbed" with the "state of this kingdom".[15]


James Boswell, a Scotsman, was a close companion and friend to Johnson during many important times of his life yet Johnson, like many of his fellow Englishmen, had a reputation for despising Scotland and its people. Even during their journey together through Scotland, Johnson "exhibited prejudice and a narrow nationalism".[16] Hester Thrale, in summarising Johnson's nationalistic views and his anti-Scottish prejudice, said, "We all know how well he loved to abuse the Scotch, & indeed to be abused by them in return".[17]

On 6 August 1773, eleven years after first meeting Boswell, Johnson set out to visit his friend in Scotland, to begin "a journey to the western islands of Scotland", as Johnson's 1775 account of their travels would put it.[18] The work was intended to discuss the social problems and struggles that affected the Scottish people, but it also praised many of the unique facets of Scottish society, such as a school in Edinburgh for the deaf and dumb.[19]


He agreed with the Whigs in being an opponent of slavery, unlike most Tories. This was well before the heyday of abolitionism, and he once proposed a toast to the "next rebellion of the negroes in the West Indies". He had a black manservant, Francis Barber (Frank), whom Johnson made his heir.[20]


  1. ^ Greene 2000 p. xxi
  2. ^ Greene 2000 p. xxii
  3. ^ Greene 2000 p. xx
  4. ^ a b Bate 1977, p. 537
  5. ^ Boswell 1986, p. 365
  6. ^ Bate 1977, p. 443
  7. ^ Bate 1977, p. 445
  8. ^ Boswell 1986, p. 182
  9. ^ Griffin 2005, p. 21
  10. ^ Bate 1977, p. 446
  11. ^ Ammerman 1974, p. 13
  12. ^ Demaria 1994, pp. 252–256
  13. ^ Bate Achievement p. 36
  14. ^ Bate 1977, p. 328
  15. ^ Griffin 2005, p. 15
  16. ^ Rogers 1995, p. 192
  17. ^ Piozzi 1951, p. 165
  18. ^ Bate 1977, p. 463
  19. ^ Bate 1977, p. 471
  20. ^ Boswell Aetat. 75 transcribes Johnson's will


  • Bate, Walter Jackson (1977), Samuel Johnson, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, ISBN 0-15-179260-7.
  • Bate, Walter Jackson (1955), The Achievement of Samuel Johnson, Oxford: Oxford University Press, OCLC 355413.
  • Boswell, James (1986), Hibbert, Christopher (ed.), The Life of Samuel Johnson, New York: Penguin Classics, ISBN 0-14-043116-0.
  • Greene, Donald (2000), "Introduction", in Greene, Donald (ed.), Political Writings, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, ISBN 0-86597-275-3.
  • Johnson, Samuel (2000), Greene, Donald (ed.), Political Writings, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, ISBN 0-86597-275-3.
  • Piozzi, Hester (1951), Balderson, Katharine (ed.), Thraliana: The Diary of Mrs. Hester Lynch Thrale (Later Mrs. Piozzi) 1776–1809, Oxford: Clarendon, OCLC 359617.
  • Rogers, Pat (1995), Johnson and Boswell: The Transit of Caledonia, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-818259-7.

External links[edit]