Was Johnson a Conservative, or a Liberal?
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  • Who Would DO This?

    People frequently try to understand Johnson in terms of being a conservative or a liberal — because it's often easier to understand the world if you can chunk it and classify it. It's perfectly natural.

    Difficulties sometimes arise, though, on the basis of how much they do or don't know about Johnson. To anyone whose knowledge is largely grounded in Boswell's Life of Johnson, it would seem as if Johnson would obviously be a 21st century conservative. Knowing what Johnson actually wrote, however, leads to a more complex picture. As a result, Johnson is loved by both Conservatives and Liberals.

    Box to click if you want to read
more about Johnson's political opinionsKeep in mind, the entire question is hypothetical, and perhaps invalid. Why? Well, to transpose Johnson's opinions directly into the 21st century denies him awareness of all the dialog that's happened in the last 200 years. And then, to extrapolate from them, into new areas of discourse, is even more tenuous. Johnson was a dynamic man, and to deny him the benefit of all that's happened since his death is unfair to his memory.


    Reasons for seeing him as a conservative include:

    • Government can only do so much. Johnson supplied Goldsmith with four lines for The Traveller, two of which went "How small, of all that human hearts endure,/ That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!" He also once said to Boswell, "Why, Sir, most schemes of political improvement are very laughable things."
    • Traditional religious views. Johnson was a devout Anglican, and believed in the Bible and the miracles it told of; he was known to have deeply-felt fears of death due to not being confident that he would be saved.
    • View of an ordered society, with ranks. Johnson was an adherent of the principle of subordination and the authority which it implied. "Sir, I am a friend to subordination, as most conducive to the happiness of society. There is a reciprocal pleasure in governing and being governed," he told Boswell.
    • He was a Tory, and put down Whigs. Tory means conservative, doesn't it? Well, it should be noted that Tory and Whig didn't take on their conservative-liberal connotations until the 19th century. Also, if "Tory" were to equal conservative, then "Whig" would equal liberal, which would make Edmund Burke a liberal. It's true that Burke worked on some progressive campaigns (liberalizing the anti-Catholic laws in Ireland; impeaching Warren Hastings for abuses in India; and that dust up with the American Colonies), but since many Conservatives think of Burke as conservative, translating Whig to liberal presents problems.
    • Patriotism. If you're the sort that believes patriotism is the sole property of conservatives, then Johnson's patriotism is another argument. In The Patriot he writes eloquently about patriotism's value, and how protest is no sign of true patriotism.
    • Anti-feminist views. Johnson made a couple memorable comments to Boswell regarding adultery, which on the surface allow greater extra-curricular freedom for husbands than for wives (see the Adultery page). He also is famous for that quip about Boswell's dissatisfaction with a woman preaching: "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

      (Neither of these is an indisputable point: regarding adultery, Johnson was stressing legal aspects to Boswell, and distinguished between the legal and religious; as for the latter, Johnson was making a joke, and while we take all jokes seriously in the 21st century, that wasn't the case in the 18th century — the comment also says nothing about his perceptions of female potential, merely their ability at the time.)

      Another point here... Johnson once wrote to a friend who was going through a divorce, "Nature has given women so much power that the law has very wisely given them little."

    Reasons for seeing him as a liberal include:

    • Feminist views. Rambler 39 examines the role of women in society, and the miseries they sometimes face in marriage. Ramblers 128, 130, and 133 tell the tale of a daughter who has been trained to focus on her beauty, and never develops herself through education. (Idler 13 also deals with daughters who miss out on education.) In Rasselas, the Princess Nekayeh argues with her brother Rasselas as an equal. Ramblers 170 and 171 focus on the plight of Misella, and how she ultimately became a prostitute.
    • Slavery. Unlike many around him, Johnson was anti-slavery, and closed his pamphlet Taxation No Tyranny with the ringing "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" Much earlier, In Idler 87, he wrote "Of black men the numbers are too great who are now repining under English cruelty." And, Boswell tells us that while Johnson was dining in Oxford with "some very grave men," he proposed a toast: "Here's to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies."
    • Arguments against blind nationalism. In Idler 20, he questions the veracity of the accounts of the British triumph at Louisbourg, and whether it really merits as much pride as the British feel over it. In "An Introduction To The Political State of Great Britain," he examines the treatment which the American Indian received from French and British colonists, and finds the British treatment sorely lacking. "No people can be great who have ceased to be virtuous."
    • Colonies: In an age of global expansion, Johnson referred to colonists in North America as "European usurpers" (Introduction to the Political State of Great Britain).
    • Anti-war feelings. If you're the sort that believes conservatives are hawks and liberals are doves, then this is more grist for your mill. Johnson's "original" Idler 22 (later pulled when he bound them in a published volume) deals with the slaughter of war, as told by a mother vulture to her brood; she concludes war is conducted solely for vultures. When questions over the ownership of the Falkland Islands provoked a crisis, Johnson wrote a pamphlet on it which included a long argument against war.
    • Views on the penal code. Johnson argues for its liberalization in Rambler 114, where he deals with the inequity of capital punishment for robbery. The unfairness of debtor's prison is dealt with in Adventurers 41 and 53 and Idler 22. Idler 38 also addresses the horrors of prison in general.
    • Views of the family. Rambler 148 calls parental tyranny into question.
    • Sensitivity to the poor. Johnson frequently gave to beggars in the street, and once told Boswell, "A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization." Rambler 166 focuses on biases against the poor, and in his poem London, Johnson wrote "Slow rises worth / By poverty deprest." Rambler 202 rails against the romanticism poets sometimes attach to being poor.
    • Cruelty to animals. In Idler 17, Johnson discusses the frequent pointlessness of animal vivisection.


    For a much more in-depth discussion of Johnson's politics, in the context of his time, I suggest Donald Greene's The Politics of Samuel Johnson. If you can't find it at Amazon, you might try your library. Another valuable book is J. C. D. Clark's Samuel Johnson: Literature, Religion, and English Cultural Politics from the Restoration to Romanticism.

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