The Politics of Samuel Johnson

Greene, Donald.  The Politics of Samuel Johnson.  Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

Donald Greene resists using the categories of Whig and Tory to interpret Samuel Johnson. To an extent he certainly makes his case. He masterfully refutes articles, whether in support of or criticism of, that make Johnson out to be a strict Tory.  These articles, he notes, are drawn from conversations that Boswell had with Johnson and were written down decades from the actual event. So far, so good.  Notwithstanding, it still strains belief to see Johnson as a Whig.

His larger point stands, though.  Let’s take the term “Republican.” It can mean a Trump voter or a never-Trumper, a patriot or a Deep-State groupie.  Something similar was probably true of Whigs vs. Tories. And so he argues: “though Johnson may continue to have a claim to be a Tory, we are not justified in inferring from that label what nineteenth-century writers inferred from it: dogmatism, reaction, subservience to authority” (Greene 20).  Perhaps, though Johnson would have embraced larger nuances of the term: established church, hatred of revolution, and skepticism of the Whig view of history.

The Whig Interpretation

Greene argues that our understanding of Johnson as the “narrow-minded Tory” is the creation of several Whig thinkers. Tories were reactionaries, Whigs progressives.  Moreover, “parties were not parties in the modern British sense” (Greene 5). Rather, groups were held together more by shifting interests than party ideology.

Moreover, Tory and Whig overlap on perhaps the most crucial topic: property.  John Locke, the proto arch-Whig, was also the most vocal champion of private property.  Private property, obviously, is the touchstone of Tory identity.

The Tory Reemerges 

Notwithstanding Greene’s correct observations, Johnson can only but remain a Tory, as even some passages by Greene suggest (132).  Johnson reveals himself to be a true conservative in his comments on political change:

“Experience [and not metaphysical programmes] is the guide which a wise man will follow.”

“Customs, if they are not bad, are not to be changed.”

Such comments could be lifted word-for-word from books by Sir Roger Scruton.  Whigs and revolutionaries normally do not approve of such sentiments.


Greene helpfully reminds us that “eighteenth-century politics is confusing, and Johnson was not a simple person” (43). Quite so.  Moreover, he rightly points out that the term “Tory” at Johnson’s time meant little more than a country gentleman, perhaps a Lord.  If that’s the case, then Johnson really wasn’t a Tory.  If that’s all Greene’s argument claimed, then there wouldn’t be any confusion.  However, Greene soon adopts the methodology he attacks. He then subtly redefines Tory as a high-church partisan of the House of Stuart.

On one hand, so Greene remarks, we can’t take at face-value any of Johnson’s (of Boswell’s Johnson) claim to being a Tory.  On the other hand, if Johnson says anything remotely “Whiggish,” that might be an argument for some secret Whig inside him.

Greene does face the rhetoric in Johnson’s tracts during the 1770s.  He supports the British monarch against the colonies and elsewhere refers to the people as “rabble.”  Greene says to base one’s analysis of Johnson on these comments is special pleading.  He doesn’t tell us why it isn’t special-pleading to ignore other evidence to the contrary.

Greene’s analysis of “Taxation no Tyranny” is rather astute and supports his thesis.  While Johnson did attack the practical Whiggism of the American colonies, he wasn’t putting a Tory alternative in its place.  In fact, his comments on an omnicompetent Parliament sound a lot like Carl Schmitt’s “rule of the exception” (cf. Greene 244).  That’s probably an accurate enough interpretation.  Johnson was usually quite skeptical on the practical good of politics.  It wouldn’t be fair to call him a Hobbesian, but I do think Johnson would agree with Schmitt. Sometimes there is an exception to the law.  He who decides the exception is the actual sovereign (and that one sentence shows how constitutional theory, while useful from time to time, is actually built upon a foundation of sand.)

In the end, he does force us to think hard about the nature of Whig and Tory.  As the terms were used during Johnson’s time, we can all agree that Johnson probably wasn’t a Tory.  Given the outcomes of the French Revolution, however, which Johnson didn’t live to see, it’s not hard to see where Johnson would have landed.   

My criticisms of some of his analysis notwithstanding, Greene’s concluding chapter is a fine and learned exposition of what Johnson might have thought given later political developments.


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