Thursday, September 24, 2009

Samuel Johnson in America

It's Samuel Johnson's 300th birthday this month, and there has been a slew of new biographies, profiles and conferences. Joshua Kendell in the Boston Globe ponders how the wise, the witty, the brilliant Samuel Johnson could have been such a critic of ... Americans. He demonstrates that "Americans are a race of convicts [who] ought to be grateful for anything we allow them short of hanging," is pretty much standard for Johnson on America.

Kendell concludes Johnson was just sort of mistaken. The piece suggests if he had understood himself better, or been luckier, he would have surely been an American-supporter, if not actually an American.

But Johnson's query, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from among the drivers of negroes?" remains the most devastating one-line challenge ever launched against the claims of the American revolution and the American nation. It goes to the heart of all Johnson's scepticism about American claims and pretensions. Kendall quotes it but avoids thinking about it.

Another Johnson line, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," doesn't seem particularly anti-American, and Kendell doesn't cite it. But in 18th century Britain and the Thirteen Colonies, the concept of "loyal opposition" was still only weakly developed. Criticism of the king's government seemed to be criticism of the Crown and hence was to flirt with treason. So 18th century critics of government insisted they were truly loyal to their country and to a King being misled by incompetent or unscrupulous courtiers. They were, they insisted, true patriots. In Britain and even more in the American colonies, a "patriot" was not simply a lover of his country but a critic of its government. The patriots, oddly enough, were always the opposition party.

Johnson, deeply suspicious of the motives of American critics of the British government, was saying the same thing in his "patriotism is..." aphorism as in his "How is it that we see...? query.
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