Where was Samuel Johnson in 1745?
This is what Boswell has to say about a strange gap in the record of Johnson’s life:
It is somewhat curious, that his literary career appears to have been almost totally suspended in the years 1745 and 1746, those years which were marked by a civil war in Great-Britain, when a rash attempt was made to restore the House of Stuart to the throne. That he had a tenderness for that unfortunate House, is well known; and some may fancifully imagine, that a sympathetick anxiety impeded the exertion of his intellectual powers: but I am inclined to think, that he was, during this time, sketching the outlines of his great philological work.
Talk about avoiding the subject. Respectable scholars like David Noakes and Leo Damrosch are similarly firm in their view that there is no evidence Johnson was in any way involved with the civil war of 1745-46, when Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in Scotland and raised a rebellion which was eventually put down at the battle of Culloden. This was the last huzzah of the House of Stuart, which had been replaced with the Hanoverian succession by act of Parliament. The question is how much Johnson, that irascible old Tory, was distracted by the attempted rebellion.
Supporting the Stuarts was a minority pursuit among civilised people. After the debacle of Charles I, and the invasion of William of Orange to displace James II, it was all but politically impossible to believe that the Catholic Stuarts, who believed in the divine right of kings, rather than the legislative right of Parliament, could be monarchs. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion was the last time the Jacobite cause was seriously pursued.
Johnson’s feelings on the matter remained intense. Over thirty years later, in 1777, Johnson was talking to Dr Taylor and they had a ‘violent argument’ about the feelings of the general population about the House of Stuart. Johnson argued vociferously:
If England were fairly polled, the present King would be sent away to-night, and his adherents hanged tomorrow.
Strong stuff. It hardly suggests that thirty years earlier, while a much less popular king than George III was on the throne, and while the Jacobite cause was in fact gaining ground in Scotland, that Johnson simply sat at home working on his dictionary and his Shakespeare, not leaving much of a paper trail.
If you think (quite reasonably) that I’m peddling conspiracy theories, look at some of the other comments Johnson made that day to Dr Taylor.
Sir, the state of the country is this: the people knowing it to be agreed on all hands that this King has not the hereditary right to the crown, and there being no hope that he who has it can be restored, have grown cold and indifferent upon the subject of loyalty, and have no warm attachment to any King.
There might not have been any hope of the Stuarts being restored in 1777, but that wasn’t the case in 1746 when Bonnie Prince Charlie marched towards Edinburgh. It’s common to make light of Johnson’s reported views on this topic. Boswell was a Jacobite and egged him on, or inflated his views, perhaps, or Johnson was goading people, or there’s no evidence of anything. So go the arguments. But when Boswell reports Johnson’s equally passionate views against slavery — such as his famous toast to ‘the next insurrection’ of slaves in the West Indies — no-one doubts the sincerity.
In 1775 Johnson was discussing morality and showing that a man could be genteel in appearance and manners but still a scoundrel. Tom Davies gave Charles II as an example. Big mistake. Johnson was roused.
‘Charles II knew his people, and rewarded merit. The church was at no time better filled than in his reign. He was the best king we have had from his time till the reign of present Majesty, except James the Second, who was a very good King… No; Charles the Second was not such a man as ——-, (naming another King). He did not destroy his father's will. He took money, indeed, from France: but he did not betray those over whom he ruled: he did not let the French fleet pass ours. George the First knew nothing, and desired to know nothing; did nothing, and desired to do nothing: and the only good thing that is told of him is, that he wished to restore the crown to its hereditary successor.' He roared with prodigious violence against George the Second.
Boswell might have been a Jacobite, but he was also an acolyte of Johnson, and suppressed plenty of material about the great man’s private life to preserve the image of his hero. It would presumably have been ridiculous to try and deny or leave out his political opinions. Even so, this is part of a clear and consistent image of a man who remained passionately biased towards a hopeless cause. Did the man who, thirty years later, ‘roared with prodigious violence against George the Second’, really sit at home for eighteen months planning a dictionary while the Jacobite rebellion gained ground in Scotland?
J.C.D. Clark wrote a revisionist, and controversial, history of Samuel Johnson, in which he discusses Johnson’s 1739 pamphlet Marmor Norfolciense, ‘a plain and open incitement to war against Spain… a conflict which Walpole had long sought to avert and which Jacobites had eagerly anticipated as a means of destabilising the Hanoverian regime.’ When Marmor Norfolciense was republished in 1775 by a satirist who was denouncing Johnson for taking a pension from the king, a reviewer called it, ‘a bloody Jacobitical pamphlet.’
The same year a play was published about a Danish usurper on the Swedish throne, who was challenged by a man with a better hereditary claim to the throne. Not exactly a subtle parallel. The play was banned, and Johnson took the author’s side. He then produced a second pamphlet. Rather than being merely an argument against the legislation that enabled plays to be banned it was, ‘a heightened denunciation… of a corrupt and illegitimate regime.’
There was more. In 1741 Johnson abridged a tract from 1660 to be published in The Gentleman’s Magazine. It was a tract calling for the restoration of Charles II. Johnson did not receive the patronage from James III (living under that slightly silly name abroad) that he might have expected, and was later disappointed when the Tories joined with the Whigs to vote Walpole out in 1742. It was a game of parties and pretend patriotism, he realised, rather than sincerity. He is not the first or last person whose idealism has been shattered by politics.
The invasion of 1745-46 was a reckless gamble. We don’t know what Johnson was doing at that time. There is a gap in his correspondence from January 1744 to to June 1746. It certainly makes sense that Johnson was lying low. It would have been very dangerous to be caught issuing seditious writing, let along mixing with Jacobites. And it is likely that during the battle of Culloden, Johnson was writing his proposal for a dictionary. He submitted it to the publishers not long afterwards.
Clark notes a few shady associations Johnson has, but the trail really does run cold. We have nothing to go on. Biographers will never know where Samuel Johnson was in 1745 or what he was doing. One thing we might want to dwell on, as we speculate about this period in Johnson’s life, is the friendship he had in the 1730s with Richard Savage. Savage was a poet, a liar, a cheat, and a criminal. His friendship with Johnson is bizarre, almost inexplicable.
As poor young authors, Johnson and Savage walked the streets of London at night, many times not returning home all night. They drank and talked in Westminster, St James Square, the heart of the Hanoverian establishment. As they walked, they sometimes talked about patriotism — which meant opposition to the King. It is interesting to note that Savage was arrested and questioned about a treasonable Jacobite publication and was the subject of Secret Service reports.
These walks often took place in the West End and they ‘inveighed against the minister’ and ‘resolved they would stand by their country.’ This means they were talking about their opposition to Walpole — and the Hanoverians — under the windows of the leading Whig politicians of the day. This is no more conclusive than anything else, but it does suggest that, like many prominent conservatives throughout history, Samuel Johnson started out as a romantic radical, and that he may well have got much closer to astonishing behaviour than we are able to prove or believe.
Samuel Johnson: Literature, Religion and English Cultural Politics from the Restoration to Romanticism by J.C.D Clark(US link) — academic but engaging
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