Samuel Johnson – “A Brief to Free a Slave”

In 1778 a black servant, Joseph Knight, brought by his owner to Scotland from Jamaica, sued his master for freedom. He was probably inspired by the earlier decision in the Somersett case in England, not realizing that Scotland had an independent judicial system. Boswell, despite being an apologist for slavery, became one of Knight’s counsels. (Boswell entertained some outlandish notions about how slavery is really a project in which nice white people take care of black savages, giving them food, lodging and work. AFAIK he did not have any property or investments in the West Indies, so at least it was disinterested stupidity.) He asked Dr Johnson to write a legal brief for him, and this is a short but powerful text.  Dr Johnson was a strong opponent of slavery and one of his arguments against American colonists was that those who are themselves slave owners have no right to demand freedom.

The text begins and ends with the argument that freedom is an unalienable human right. Some people may forfeit it when they commit a crime, or become prisoners of war, but that doesn’t mean their children are doomed to slavery as well. Even if we assume (and that’s a big “if”, probably written with Boswell in mind) that under certain circumstances slavery may be considered necessary, this is not the case, as  the plaintiff clearly doesn’t want to be and never wanted to be a slave, having been abducted as a boy from Africa.  The laws of Jamaica permit slavery, but that just means the laws of Jamaica are morally wrong.  They just persist because “the moral right” gives way to “political convenience”, but in this particular case Britain has nothing to gain or to lose, so it should be quite easy to do the thing which is morally right. To sum up, “no man is by nature the property of another. The defendant is therefore, by nature, free.”

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Frances Burney – “The Journal and Letters” (excerpts)

This excerpt is, I think, from a letter to Burney’s sister Susan. Frances is at this point a renowned author, having published her very successful début novel Evelina, and on the strength of it she was invited by Hester Thrale, a friend of Johnson, to her country house, where Dr Johnson was also staying. The excerpt begins when Burney is leafing through “Life of Cowley”, just printed but not in the bookshops yet, but Johnson asks her to put it down and he swears he will try to make her prattle, which Burney says would be the most difficult thing in the world. Mrs Thrale says that Elizabeth Montagu, a renowned writer and intellectual, is going to dine with them tomorrow, and Johnson then starts joshing Burney, claiming she should fight her, like he did in his youth, when he was unknown and took pride in taking down the people who were considered to be the greatest wits of his days. Burney mentions that Miss Gregory, daughter of the author of A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters, lives with Mrs Montagu. Mrs Montagu was great friends with Dr Gregory, so that explains why Miss Gregory ended up with her after her father’s death, but I wonder how he reconciled the friendship with Mrs Montagu with his advice that women should not appear to be too learned in order not to scare away the potential husbands. Anyway, the conversation is still about Mrs Montagu, whom everybody present considers to be the most learned of women, and Mrs Thrale says that among men she is second only to Burke and Johnson. Mrs Thrale says also that Mrs Montagu is criticized by a lot of people because she likes nice clothes, but Johnson, who loved well-dressed women, surely won’t criticize her for that. Johnson says he won’t and then takes the opportunity to compliment Burney on her cap, which he likes because it doesn’t have the then-fashionable bandeau, which he disliked. The conversation then turns around women’s fashion: Mrs Thrale that all the women wore these caps during the last birthday of the king, and all the men disliked the fashion. (Because of course it matters a lot what men think about a woman’s appearance.) She mentions one woman who said she considered it unbecoming, Lady Ladd, and Johnson says he hope to become friends with her, then. Mrs Thrale observes the only thing they have in common is their size, and Johnson says that Lady Ladd at least, being large, could carry off the bandeau bonnet style. After a few minutes of silence, he proposes he and Burney should rehearse their parts before tomorrow’s conversation with Mrs Montagu. All of this is rather light-hearted banter, but I also felt sorry about how all these accomplished women think that getting good marks from men (for their dress or intellect) is what really matters. Also I find it interesting that during these long visits guests are expected to stay together in the drawing room, but they do not have to talk all the time – they all may busy themselves individually with writing or reading, or if they talk, they don’t feel uncomfortable when they fall silent.

On a side note, I assume “Lady Ladd” is really Lady Lade, the wife of Mr Thrale’s nephew. Both she and her husband are like characters from a Regency novel. Read their bios on Wikipedia – that woman LIVED. To be a mistress both to a convicted highwayman and the Duke of York!

James Boswell – “The Life of Samuel Johnson” (the end)

Johnson, who was staying In Lichfield with his stepdaughter’s family (I have a problem calling her his stepdaughter, since she was only six years younger than him), was so fond of London that despite feeling very welcome at her home, he decided to return to London to die. It was partly, Boswell says, due to his love of company – Johnson once said “I look upon every day to be lost, in which I do not make a new acquaintance”, and maybe also the false hope that London doctors, who treated him for free, could still do something for him. He fell out with Mrs Thrale and Boswell had to leave for Scotland (I’m not sure why), but he still was attended by a number of good friends.  Boswell records a number of death-bed anecdotes, if they can be called this way: Johnson feeling despondent and quoting Macbeth “canst thou not minister to a mind diseased”, and his physician quoting back at him from the same play “therein the patient/must minister to himself”, which Johnson appreciated very much, or him saying to a friend who was placing a pillow under his head “that will do – all that a pillow can do”. Finally he asks one of his doctors to tell him honestly whether there is any hope for him, and on hearing the negative answer, awaits his death with composure, declining all drugs, to keep his mind clear, and eating only very little. Boswell cites the testimonies of various friends who confirmed that in his final days Johnson finally dropped the fear of death that had plagued him all his life, took the sacrament, wrote a touching prayer and died on December 13, 1784, “as virtuous men pass mildly away”, so gently that his attendants hardly noticed.

James Boswell – “The Life of Samuel Johnson” (excerpts)

We are nearing the end of the selection from Dr Johnson’s biography, which has to be, inevitably, his death. He described his first stroke in a letter to his friend Mrs Thrale: it happened to him when he woke up at night and felt dizzy. He prayed to God that however he chooses to punish his body, he would leave him at least his clarity of mind, and being Dr Johnson, he put this prayer in form of Latin verses, in order to check whether his faculties are intact. The verses were not very good, but at least he could himself tell that, so he thought his judgement unimpaired. He lost the ability to speak, but otherwise felt quite well. He drank two glasses of wine to bring his voice back (which I’m sure is not the medical procedure recommended now with stroke patients, so don’t try it, guys), but it didn’t help, so he went to sleep and slept quite well. When he woke up in the morning, he wrote a few letters, explaining what happened – the first one to his servant, others to his landlord and friend Mr Allen and to his doctors. In the afternoon he got his voice back and was able to recite the Lord’s Prayer passably well. Later during the year he recuperated enough to socialize with his friends, and Boswell treats us to two stories from his life. The first one is about the only time when he was disobedient as a son and refused to go with his father to Uttoxeter to help him with his book stall, feeling too ashamed to be seen working there. A few years ago he went to Uttoxeter and stood a long time bareheaded in the rain in the place where his father’s stall used to stand. The second anecdote is about Miss Seward, a friend and a poet, telling him that she saw a learned pig in Nottingham, performing all the tricks that dogs do. Johnson is very amused by this story and says that perhaps we don’t give pigs their due, because they mostly don’t have time to develop their faculties, being killed at one year old. A friend comments that the pig must have undergone a rather cruel training to be able to do all these tricks, and Johnson says, certainly, but at least the education allowed it to live to the age of three.

James Boswell – “The Life of Samuel Johnson” (excerpts)

Johnson and Wilkes continue to fraternize over shared jokes about the poverty of Scotland, but Boswell doesn’t mind, because he knows they are just joking. He says in defence of his country that in one respect the Scottish law is superior to the English: no debtor can be put in prison before he is found guilty in a court of law, or unless his creditor can prove that he is preparing to run away, or “in meditatione fugae”. This provides a set-up for Wilkes to say that every Scotchman is actually in this condition. Johnson tells Wilkes that he took Boswell to his home town of Lichfield, to show him the decent English life, because in Scotland he lives among savages and in London among rakes. Wilkes says “Except when he is with grave, sober, decent people like you and me”, to which Johnson answers with a smile “And we ashamed of him”. He also tells the anecdote about how Mrs Macaulay, for all her egalitarian beliefs, wouldn’t sit at one table with her footman and observes with satisfaction that Wilkes acquiesced. On the whole, Boswell is very happy that he managed to bring together the two people who, despite all their differences, shared the love of learning, books, and wit. It reminds me a bit of the friendship between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Antonin Scalia.

In a conversation about how misery is the common lot of man, Boswell observes that people do a lot of things in pursuit of happiness: they build houses, and gardens, and places of public amusement. Johnson says that they are just struggles for happiness. When he went to the pleasure garden in Ramelagh for the first time, he felt very happy, but soon he felt melancholy, like Xerxes, who wept to think that out of his vast army nobody would be alive in one hundred years. Johnson thought how every person in this gay crowd would eventually have to return home to their own unhappy thoughts.

In a company, Johnson once talked about a respected author who married a printer’s devil, which is less scary than it sounds, because printer’s devils were apprentices, probably called so because they were dirty because of the constant contact with the ink. This is mentioned by one of his listeners, but Johnson says that probably before they were married, the author had her wash herself and put on some new clothes. He says that she actually turned out to be a  very good wife, because she “had a bottom of good sense”. This unexpected expression causes some titters in the company, and Johnson, who hated to be laughed at when he was not telling a joke, looks sternly around and says with a loud voice “she was fundamentally sensible”, and this time nobody dares to laugh.

The next anecdote is about Bet Flint, a prostitute who wrote her memoirs in verse and tried to talk Johnson into writing a preface for them. She was once charged with stealing a counterpane, but got off, because the judge had a soft spot for her, and after she was discharged, she said that now the counterpane was hers, she was going to turn it into a petticoat.

In another conversation, Boswell says he would like to be in Parliament, but Johnson points out to him that he would either have to support every government, or impoverish himself because of the expense (MPs had no salaries in these days.) Boswell agrees and says that maybe it’s just as well, because he would get very vexed about politics. Johnson tells him that it’s cant, just something that people like to pay lip service too, because sure, even he got angry with this or another news report, but he neither lost his appetite nor a minute of sleep over it. He advises Boswell to clear his mind of cant: he may talk like it, because it’s the socially acceptable way of talking (“I’m awfully sorry that you got wet”, while in fact we don’t care, or “we live in terrible times”, while it doesn’t make us sleep any worse), but he shouldn’t think like it.

James Boswell – “The Life of Samuel Johnson” (excerpts)

Dinner is served and John Wilkes sits down next to Johnson. He is so attentive to Dr Johnson, helping him to the best morsels, that Johnson, who rather liked his food, can’t but warm to him a little bit. Then Boswell gives us, as was his wont, the detailed transcript of the conversation (did he take notes at the table, I wonder?) which, even though he seems to have thought so, is not that interesting to the modern reader. The conversation turns to the actor Samuel Foote (whom, as you recall, Johnson once threatened to beat up) and Johnson admits he’s a funny fellow. The first time he met him he was determined not to like him, having heard about him before, but he found him so amusing he was finally forced to drop down his fork and knife and laugh out loud. He also quotes an anecdote about how Foote tried to supplement his income by partnering with a brewer who specialised in small beer (a weak beer for servants). Foote was responsible for marketing, or for talking his numerous friends and fans into buying his beer. It was so bad that the servants of one of his friends finally rebelled and picked a little black boy, who was their master’s favourite, to serve as an envoy. But the boy, having served at dinner where Foote was invited, went back to the kitchen and said the man was so funny he would drink his bad beer.

The conversation then turns to Garrick, who was commonly accused of being stingy. Johnson, who never let anybody criticise his former pupil but himself, defends Garrick, saying that Garrick was very poor early in his life and it took him some time to learn to be generous, but overall he is very generous. Moreover, it’s better for him to be considered stingy, because at least this reputation doesn’t attract hate, only ridicule. Johnson then talks about the difficulty of gathering material for his biographies: when he wrote The Life of Dryden, there were only two people alive who remembered him, the poets MacSwinney and Cibber, and all they could tell him was meaningless (MacSwinney remembered that Dryden had his favourite chair in a tavern, which was moved according to the season of the year either closer to the fire or to the balcony, and Cibber just that he was a decent old man.) The conversation that turns to Cibber, whom Johnson considers to be a decent playwright, though a lousy poet. Wilkes than says that among all Shakespeare’s flight of fancy the most fanciful is the invention of Birnam Wood, because there are only shrubs in Scotland, and then talks about how slavishly Scottish highlanders are attached to their lords, belying the myth about how all mountain people always love freedom.

James Boswell – “The Life of Samuel Johnson” (excerpts)

The Dilly brothers, booksellers and friends of Boswell and Johnson, invited Boswell to have dinner with them. They mention that there will be other gentlemen present, including John Wilkes, and Boswell suggests they should invite Dr Johnson as well. Now, in order to understand the enormity of this guest pairing, we have to remember that John Wilkes as a radical Whig MP, a supporter of American independence and a renowned libertine was everything Johnson hated the most. So naturally Dilly balks at this suggestion, but Boswell promises to take upon himself convincing Johnson.

Boswell knows he can’t invite Johnson to dine with John Wilkes right away, so starts by saying that Mr Dilly would like to invite him to dinner. Johnson says sure, and Boswell then adds, provided you like the other guests. Johnson says, do you think I am such a rube that I should dictate to my hosts who other guests should be? Boswell says, well, perhaps there will be “his patriotic friends” (“patriotic” being there a Tory word for “disgusting Radicals”. Johnson says he doesn’t care. Boswell says, perhaps even Jack Wilkes could be there. Johnson, carried away by his need to prove he is a man of the world, repeats he doesn’t care. So Boswell carries the good news back to Mr Dilly.

On the day of the dinner, Boswell comes to pick Johnson up, and find him, much to his dismay, busy dusting his books and completely unprepared to go out. Johnson claims he has forgotten about the dinner and has already made an appointment to dine in with Mrs Williams, his blind roommate. To Boswell’s expostulations that Mr Dilly will be very disappointed, he tells him to talk about it with Mrs Williams first.  Boswell knows that Johnson is so careful about Mrs Williams’ tender feelings that he won’t do anything which could hurt her. So he goes to her and placates her with “you have his company all the time, Mr Dilly prepared a dinner and invited guests, I promised him Johnson would be there, you realize how it would make me look if he didn’t” etc. Mrs Williams finally relents and lets Johnson go.

Entering Mr Dilly’s house, Johnson, seeing so many unknown men, seems quite tense. He asks whispering who this or another gentleman is. Having learnt that they are Arthur Lee, “not only a patriot, but an American“, and the notorious John Wilkes, Johnson retreats into a window seat with a book he is reading, or at least pretends to read. But gradually he decides he has to live up to what he’s told Boswell about how he can dine with anybody  and composes himself.