Political Writings

Johnson's political writings are many and varied, ranging from anti-Walpole satires early in his career (Marmor Norfolciense, A Compleat Vindication of the Licensers of the Stage) through pamphlets defending the North ministry in the 1770s (The False Alarm, The Patriot, Taxation No Tyranny). These explicitly political publications are usefully collected in one volume by Donald Greene.

Another major collection of political writings is the set of Debates in Parliament, which Johnson wrote from 1741 to 1744 for the Gentleman's Magazine. Parliament had forbidden the press from reporting the debates, but the magazines ignored the law and sent reporters to provide accounts of the debates to the public. They used a transparent disguise: the Gentleman's Magazine pretended to report on "Debates in the Senate of Lilliput," with the real names of political figures anagrammatically twisted: Walpole and Pitt became Walelop and Ptit, for instance. Johnson took over this reporting task in 1741, although he may never have actually attended a single debate: although the Debates are supposedly reported word for word, Johnson worked only from rough notes taken by those who were there, and developed them into lengthy speeches.


The standard edition of the major works on politics is Political Writings, ed. Donald J. Greene, vol. X of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1977).

The Debates in Parliament have not yet appeared in the Yale Edition; the most accessible edition is vols. 10 and 11 of the 1825 Oxford Works, although the pretense of the fictitious names was dropped.


There's been a big debate raging in the last few years over Johnson's political sympathies. The orthodox camp, of which Donald J. Greene, Howard Weinbrot, and Thomas Curley are the major spokesmen, holds not only that Johnson wasn't a Jacobite but that he wasn't the bigoted Tory legend has made him out to be (particularly Boswell and Macaulay). On the other side, Howard Erskine-Hill and Jonathan Clark argue for a Johnson who's not only very High-Church and Tory but a Jacobite sympathizer. The issues are hashed out at great length (not to say beaten to death — well, okay, let's say beaten to death) in The Age of Johnson: A Scholarly Annual, volumes 7 and 8. The Jacobite Nonjuror case is laid out most systematically in the collection of essays edited by Clark and Erskine-Hill.

This is part of a Guide to Samuel Johnson by Jack Lynch. Comments are welcome.