Samuel Johnson's Patriotism

By Severn Dwyer, 25 September 2015 16:23

People | Samuel Johnson

I was recently sifting through the comment section of an article in the online version of the Guardian. The article was entitled, "The Russian patriotic groups teaching children how to defend their country". I fully expected the comment section to be saturated with anti-patriotic rhetoric, after all, this was the Guardian and to loathe one's own country is a popular trait among the more left-leaning, liberal, hand-wringing types. The one comment that really annoyed me though was maybe the most boringly obvious: the famous Samuel Johnson quote, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel".

I write this blog in the hope that people, ignorant of the facts, will stop using this quote to attack patriots when the quote is actually pro-patriotic.

The quote is devoid of context as is, therefore, we cannot determine exactly what was on Johnson's mind at that exact point in time. We can, however, examine his thoughts before and after the famous aphorism, in order to draw an obvious and logical conclusion. In "The Life of Samuel Johnson", James Boswell, his renown biographer, writes:

Patriotism having become one of our topicks, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone, an apophthegm, at which many will start: 'Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.' But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest.

In "The Table Talk of Dr. Johnson" Boswell elaborates:

I maintained that certainly all patriots were not scoundrels. Being urged (not by Johnson) to name one exception, I mentioned an eminent person, whom we all greatly admired.

The reply from Johnson:

Sir, I do not say that he is not honest, but we have no reason to conclude, from his political conduct, that he is honest.

It is obvious, due to the order of conversational topics that night (April 7, 1775), that Johnson was alluding to Edmund Burke. Burke, an eminent Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist, and philosopher was a supporter of the Revolutionaries, believing that the War of Independence was more of an English civil war, as Americans were of the same blood:

... the people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen. ... They are therefore not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas and on English principles.
(From a House of Commons speech, 22 March 1775)

Johnson saw people whom were loyal to the cause of the Revolutionaries as false patriots or antipatriots and this must surely have included Burke himself. In the pamphlet entitiled "Taxation No Tyranny" (1775) he writes:

These antipatriotick prejudices are the abortions of folly impregnated by faction, which, being produced against the standing order of nature, have not strength sufficient for long life. They are born only to scream and perish, and leave those to contempt or detestation, whose kindness was employed to nurse them into mischief.

He continues sarcastically:

But, while we are melting in silent sorrow, and, in the transports of delirious pity, dropping both the sword and balance from our hands, another friend of the Americans thinks it better to awaken another passion, and tries to alarm our interest, or excite our veneration, by accounts of their greatness and their opulence, of the fertility of their land, and the splendour of their towns. We then begin to consider the question with more evenness of mind, are ready to conclude that those restrictions are not very oppressive, which have been found consistent with this speedy growth of prosperity; and begin to think it reasonable, that they who thus flourish under the protection of our government, should contribute something toward its expense.

Johnson's loyalty to his country is again summed up in another pamphlet, "The Patriot" (1774):

A patriot is he whose publick conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers every thing to the common interest.

And a little further into the text:

He that wishes to see his country robbed of its rights cannot be a patriot.

Johnson was so enraged by the thankless "antipatriots" that even Boswell shied away from conversation on the subject:

For, as early as 1769, I was told by Dr. John Campbell, that he (Johnson) had said of them, "Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for any thing we allow them short of hanging."

It can be inferred from the many quotes above that Johnson was indeed a patriot. So loyal and protective was he of British interests that he couldn't stand any chipping away of sovereignty, especially by people claiming to be patriots when they were anything but. The people who intended to do harm to the country, by inciting the rabble, for instance, could only gain the support of the public by feigning patriotism. Without the mask of patriotism they would be shown up to be who they were: scoundrels.

London: A Poem in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal (1738) by Samuel Johnson
A Despicable Faction - poem by Severn Dwyer
Patriots - song by Severn Dwyer

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