Tag Archives: The myth of Johnson the blind and frightened political reactionary can easily be shown to be as unsubstantial as the myths of Johnson the dogmatic critic and Johnson the academic versemaker.

Samuel Johnson’s politics


Since we all know that Samuel Johnson was a Tory, and since we all know what a Tory is, we at once know a great deal about Johnson. We know, for instance (to quote a highly regarded modern literary history), that he was “blindly conservative”; that when he “could not stem the rising tide of democracy,” he “turned shuddering from such corruptions to fly … to the impartial protective authority of the throne.” Given that Johnson was a Tory, we can immediately deduce the essential facts not only about his political opinions, but about his critical principles, which must have been authoritarian, his religion, which must have been “High,” his morality, which must have been prescriptive, and many other things. It is very useful to know all this a priori, for it saves us the trouble of having to read what Johnson actually wrote on these matters.

The foregoing is perhaps not too exaggerated a parody of the reasoning behind much Johnsonian commentary in the past. Recently, it is true, some parts of the amazing structure of myth that the nineteenth century (chiefly) erected around the figure of Johnson have begun to show signs of crumbling. It is growing harder for even the laziest undergraduate to continue to believe what the older histories of literature tell him, that Johnson was a pompous dogmatist in morality, an incompetent blunderer in criticism, and a maker of mechanical and pedantic verse. This change has come about because modern critics (including such formidable and diverse ones as Eliot, Leavis, and Edmund Wilson) have actually read Johnson and discovered the reality to be very different from the legend. But the old version of Johnson’s political position still persists; and since it constitutes (I believe) the framework of the whole structure, fragments of the rest of the myth cling tenaciously to it and continue to give trouble.

In fact, the myth of Johnson the blind and frightened political reactionary can easily be shown to be as unsubstantial as the myths of Johnson the dogmatic critic and Johnson the academic versemaker. Even a casual reading of Johnson’s writings reveals much that simply cannot be reconciled with the theory of his bigoted and unbending Toryism. According to that theory, for example, we are supposed to believe that Johnson wrote his pamphlets of the 1770’s—The False Alarm, Taxation No Tyranny, and the rest—as a partisan Tory in support of the repressive Tory government of George III. Holders of this doctrine must be surprised to find Johnson saying, in the next-to-last paragraph of The False Alarm, “Every honest man must lament” that the question under discussion in the pamphlet “has been regarded with frigid neutrality by the tories.” Again, one of our firmest assumptions is that Johnson and the Tories were the implacable enemies of the Whig Sir Robert Walpole. It is therefore strange to find, in a division of the House of Commons in 1741 on a motion calling for the dismissal of Walpole, the Tory members deliberately rescuing Walpole from defeat, and Johnson, in a note appended to his report of the debate, vig­orously defending their action. Of Lord North, generally regarded as the chief instrument of George Ill’s “Tory” policies, Johnson said that he was “a fellow with a mind as narrow as a vinegar cruet,” and when North’s ministry left office, Johnson’s epitaph was “Such a bunch of imbecility never disgraced a country.” It is taken for granted that Johnson’s Toryism must have included a fervent devotion to monarchy. Yet when one collates the various references to monarchs in his writings, one gets the impression that his opinion of the institution was, to say the least, unenthusiastic. “Kings,” says Johnson, after commenting that Frederick the Great was fortunate in encountering a variety of “forms of life” during his youth, “without this help … see the world in a mist, which magnifies everything near them, and bounds their view to a narrow compass …. I have always thought that what Cromwell had more than our lawful kings, he owed to the private condition in which he first entered the world.”  “Liberty,” said Johnson, “is, to the lowest rank of every na­tion, little more than the choice of working or starving” 6-the perfect anticipation of a favorite Socialist slogan of the 1930’s.

Donald Greene, The Politics of Samuel Johnson


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2023