Dr Johnson Hates My American Guts

Brunching Johnson by Henry Wallis
“Sir, I perceive that you are a vile Whig.” Dr Johnson seems to be saying this or thinking it of one person or another pretty much all the time. Re-reading Boswell’s hulking tome last month, I eventually came to understand that, in fact, I am among the vile.

Not that I really am a Whig; no one’s a Whig anymore (and I hope I’m not especially vile either). But for Johnson it seems that “vile Whig” and “American” are largely synonymous.

In his pamphlet titled Taxation No Tyranny (1775), quoted by Boswell, Johnson says of those bratty Americans that “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,” he continues, “let the Princes of the earth tremble in their palaces… [T]heir own hemisphere would not contain them. But let our boldest oppugners of authority look forward with delight to this futurity of Whiggism.” Said with a hearty sneer.

Elsewhere Johnson refers to the fractious colonists as “a race of convicts” who “ought to be thankful for any thing we allow them short of hanging.” Curbing an impulse of otherwise catholic philanthropy, he professes himself “willing to love all mankind, except an American.”

It’s hard sometimes to tell when Johnson is speaking in earnest and when he’s simply “talking for victory” (that is, taking a side and arguing it so as to win the question), but Boswell considered him sincere on this particular subject.

In Johnson’s mind, the divine right of kings was necessary to the smooth working of society (even if you did have to cut off their heads occasionally), and social subordination in the style of the British class system no less so. God may be no respecter of persons, but that’s divine prerogative and not a privilege accorded mortals.

Whiggism, on the contrary, suggests that class distinction, being a moral and historical fiction, may be jettisoned (or replaced, say, by an index of wealth or education) – and that the consent of the governed is the validating basis of any government.

As an American of colonial-era ancestry, this is mother’s milk to me. And so I perceive that I am indeed a vile Whig, a half-anarchist in the old Tory’s eyes. But it’s silly, at this distance, to take much offense, especially when you’re on the winning side.

“There is a reciprocal pleasure in governing and being governed,” the old sage says, and “subordination tends greatly to human happiness.” Boswell (child of privilege and heir to a semi-feudal estate) nods his purely disinterested agreement. “Were we all upon an equality,” Johnson suggests, “we should have no other enjoyment than mere animal pleasure.”

Cue the sounds of belching pigs and copulating monkeys. It’s a Whig’s world now, or something like it.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Dr Johnson Hates My American Guts

  1. But give it to the good Doctor – dead right about the multiplying and rivalling all Europe’s monarchies! 🙂

    • Ian Wolcott

      Yes, but I’m not sure how much he leans on our Dr. Franklin for his calculation… In any case, I will turn the cheek and continue to love Dr Johnson even if he doesn’t so much love me.

  2. Ian Wolcott

    Yes. He is ridiculous on women in general, and in particular too. I suppose it’s partly the era. But I had to give him several hard, disapproving looks for the sake of my seven-year-old daughter.

  3. Andy

    Love the blog, Ian. If you want to read a bit more on the subject, I urge you to read some of Boswell’s Journals – they are highly entertaining. Boswell’s London Journal is a real page turner – his personal life would make the perfect subject of a late-late night cable movie. As for the good doctor himself, I find myself oddly drawn to the man – perhaps the quintessential curmudgeon. And I hold his accomplishment of singlehandedly writing the first substantial dictionary of the English language one of the greatest individual achievements in history. If you want to check out the dictionary itself, by the way, it’s available online: http://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com/

    Andy

    • Ian Wolcott

      I have not read Boswell’s journals, but you’re not the first to recommend them to me. Someday perhaps, but I think I need some fresh air between me and Boswell for a while. Johnson’s Dictionary really is wonderful.

      Thank you for reading.

  4. when a man is tired of London he is tired of Dr Jonson – ken campbell

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