Boswell's Life of Johnson

Edited by Jack Lynch

These selections from James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. are for use in my classes. The text comes from R. W. Chapman's 1904 Oxford edition; the page numbers correspond to those in the Oxford World's Classic edition. I have removed all footnotes, both those by Boswell and by other editors. Please send comments and corrections to Jack Lynch.
[Pages 590-96]

[1] 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.”

[2] 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.”

[3] Of this performance I avoided to talk with him; for I had now formed a clear and settled opinion, that the people of America were well warranted to resist a claim that their fellow-subjects in the mother-country should have the entire command of their fortunes, by taxing them without their own consent; and the extreme violence which it breathed, appeared to me so unsuitable to the mildness of a Christian philosopher, and so directly opposite to the principles of peace which he had so beautifully recommended in his pamphlet respecting Falkland's Islands, that I was sorry to see him appear in so unfavourable a light. Besides, I could not perceive in it that ability of argument, or that felicity of expression, for which he was, upon other occasions, so eminent. Positive assertion, sarcastical severity, and extravagant ridicule, which he himself reprobated as a test of truth, were united in this rhapsody.

[4] That this pamphlet was written at the desire of those who were then in power, I have no doubt; and, indeed, he owned to me, that it had been revised and curtailed by some of them. He told me, that they had struck out one passage, which was to this effect: “That the Colonists could with no solidity argue from their not having been taxed while in their infancy, that should not now be taxed. We do not put a calf into the plow; we wait till he is an ox.” He said, “They struck it out either critically as too ludicrous, or politically as too exasperating. I care not which. It was their business. If an architect says I will build five stories, and the man who employs him says, I will have only three, the employer is to decide.” “Yes, Sir, (said I,) in ordinary cases. But should it be so when the architect gives his skill and labour gratis?

[5] Unfavourable as I am constrained to say my opinion of this pamphlet was, yet, since it was congenial with the sentiments of numbers at that time, and as every thing relating to the writings of Dr. Johnson is of importance in literary history, I shall therefore insert some passages which were struck out, it does not appear why, either by himself or those who revised it. They appear printed in a few proof leaves of it in my possession, marked with corrections in his own hand-writing. I shall distinguish them by Italicks.

[6] In the paragraph where he says, the Americans were incited to resistance by European Intelligence from “men whom they thought their friends, but who were friends only to themselves,” there followed, — "and made by their selfishness, the enemies of their country.”

[7] And the next paragraph ran thus: “On the original contrivers of mischief, rather than on those whom they have deluded, let an insulted nation pour out its vengeance.”

[8] The paragraph which came next was in these words: Unhappy is that country in which men can hope for advancement by favouring its enemies. The tranquillity of stable government is not always easily preserved against the machinations of single innovators; but what can be the hope of quiet, when factions hostile to the legislature can be openly formed and openly avowed?

[9] After the paragraph which now concludes the pamphlet, there followed this, in which he certainly means the great Earl of Chatham, and glances at a certain popular Lord Chancellor.

[10] "If, by the fortune of war, they drive us utterly away, what they will do next can only be conjectured. If a new monarchy is erected, they will want a King. He who first takes into his hand the sceptre of America, should have a name of good omen, William has been known both a conqueror and deliverer; and perhaps England, however contemned, might yet supply them with another William. Whigs, indeed, are not willing to be governed; and it is possible that King William may be strongly inclined to guide their measures: but Whigs have been cheated like other mortals, and suffered their leader to become their tyrant, under the name of their Protector. What more they will receive from England, no man can tell. In their rudiments of empire they may want a Chancellor.”

[11] Then came this paragraph:

[12] "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.”

[13] How it ended I know not, as it is cut off abruptly at the foot of the last of these proof pages.

[14] His pamphlets in support of the measures of administration were published on his own account, and he afterwards collected them into a volume, with the title of “Political Tracts, by the Authour of the Rambler,” with this motto:

"Fallitur egregio quisquis sub Principe credit
Servitium; nunquam libertas gratior extat
Quam sub Rege pio.”


[15] These pamphlets drew upon him numerous attacks. Against the common weapons of literary warfare he was hardened; but there were two instances of animadversion which I communicated to him, and from what I could judge, both from his silence and his looks, appeared to me to impress him much.

[16] One was, “A Letter to Dr. Samuel Johnson, occasioned by his late political Publications.” It appeared previous to his “Taxation no Tyranny,” and was written by Dr. Joseph Towers. In that performance, Dr. Johnson was treated with the respect due to so eminent a man, while his conduct as a political writer was boldly and pointedly arraigned, as inconsistent with the character of one, who, if he did employ his pen upon politicks, “it might reasonably be expected should distinguish himself, not by party violence and rancour, but by moderation and by wisdom.”

[17] It concluded thus: “I would, however, wish you to remember, should you again address the publick under the character of a political writer, that luxuriance of imagination or energy of language, will ill compensate for the want of candour, of justice, and of truth. And I shall only add, that should I hereafter be disposed to read, as I heretofore have done, the most excellent of all your performances, ‘The Rambler,’ the pleasure which I have been accustomed to find in it will be much diminished by the reflection that the writer of so moral, so elegant, and so valuable a work, was capable of prostituting his talents in such productions as 'The False Alarm,' the 'Thoughts on the Transactions respecting Falkland's Islands,' and 'The Patriot.'”

[18] I am willing to do justice to the merit of Dr. Towers, of whom I will say, that although I abhor his Whiggish democratical notions and propensities, (for I will not call them principles,) I esteem him as an ingenious, knowing, and very convivial man.

[19] The other instance was a paragraph of a letter to me, from my old and most intimate friend the Reverend Mr. Temple, who wrote the character of Gray, which has had the honour to be adopted both by Mr. Mason and Dr. Johnson in their accounts of that poet. The words were, “How can your great, I will not say your pious, but your moral friend, support the barbarous measures of administration, which they have not the face to ask even their infidel pensioner Hume to defend?”

[20] However confident of the rectitude of his own mind, Johnson may have felt sincere uneasiness that his conduct should be erroneously imputed to unworthy motives, by good men; and that the influence of his valuable writings should on that account be in any degree obstructed or lessened.

[21] He complained to a Right Honourable friend of distinguished talents and very elegant manners, with whom he maintained a long intimacy, and whose generosity towards him will afterwards appear, that his pension having been given to him as a literary character, he had been applied to by administration to write political pamphlets; and he was even so much irritated, that he declared his resolution to resign his pension. His friend showed him the impropriety of such a measure, and he afterwards expressed his gratitude, and said he had received good advice. To that friend he once signified a wish to have his pension secured to him for his life; but he neither asked nor received from government any reward whatsoever for his political labours.

[22] On Friday, March 24, I met him at the LITERARY CLUB, where were Mr. Beauclerk, Mr. Langton, Mr. Colman, Dr. Percy, Mr. Vesey, Sir Charles Bunbury, Dr. George Fordyce, Mr. Steevens, and Mr. Charles Fox. Before he came in, we talked of his “Journey to the Western Islands,” and of his coming away, “willing to believe the second sight,” which seemed to excite some ridicule. I was then so impressed with the truth of many of the stories of which I had been told, that I avowed my conviction, saying, “He is only willing to believe: I do believe. The evidence is enough for me, though not for his great mind. What will not fill a quart bottle will fill a pint bottle. I am filled with belief.” “Are you? (said Colman,) then cork it up.”

[23] I found his “Journey” the common topick of conversation in London at this time, wherever I happened to be. At one of Lord Mansfield's formal Sunday evening conversations, strangely called Levees, his Lordship addressed me, “We have all been reading your travels, Mr. Boswell.” I answered, “I was but the humble attendant of Dr. Johnson.” The Chief Justice replied, with that air and manner which none, who ever saw and heard him, can forget, “He speaks ill of nobody but Ossian.”

[24] Johnson was in high spirits this evening at the club, and talked with great animation and success. He attacked Swift, as he used to do upon all occasions. “The ‘Tale of a Tub’ is so much superiour to his other writings, that one can hardly believe he was the authour of it: there is in it such a vigour of mind, such a swarm of thoughts, so much of nature, and art, and life.” I wondered to hear him say of “Gulliver's Travel,” “When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest.” I endeavoured to make a stand for Swift, and tried to rouse those who were much more able to defend him; but in vain. Johnson at last, of his own accord, allowed very great merit to the inventory of articles found in the pocket of “the Man Mountain,” particularly the description of his watch, which it was conjectured was his God, as he consulted it upon all occasions. He observed, that “Swift put his name to but two things, (after he had a name to put,) 'The Plan for the Improvement of the English language,' and the last, 'Drapier's Letter.'”

[25] From Swift, there was an easy transition to Mr. Thomas Sheridan. — Johnson. “Sheridan is a wonderful admirer of the tragedy of Douglas, and presented its authour with a gold medal. Some years ago, at a coffee-house in Oxford, I called to him, 'Mr. Sheridan, Mr. Sheridan, how came you to give a gold medal to Home, for writing that foolish play?' This, you see, was wanton and insolent; but I meant to be wanton and insolent. A medal has no value but as a stamp of merit. And was Sheridan to assume to himself the right of giving that stamp? If Sheridan was magnificent enough to bestow a gold medal as an honorary reward of dramatick excellence, he should have requested one of the Universities to choose the person on whom it should be conferred. Sheridan had no right to give a stamp of merit: it was counterfeiting Apollo's coin.”