Friday Flotsam: Dr. Johnson versus Congress (Or, I’m Not Being So Nice This Time)

1. We’re done with the Fourth and heading toward the Fourteenth, so I feel like now’s the time to be a little harsher and more frank with regards the Revolution.

2. I did some reading of Dr. Johnson’s political tracts this past week, which I’d previously only given a rather cursory look over. I found them unusually clear-sighted; in fact they’re so honest and blunt that at first it comes across a little like he’s being dismissive, so used are we to political writers extolling the needs and rights of the people and the importance of justice and liberty and so on. Johnson, by contrast bluntly points out the difficulties and practical limitations of any political system you run into and the fact that, at the end of the day, you sometimes simply have to lump it if you’re going to have any government at all. Discussing the John Wilkes affair (short version: Wilkes was a radical politician and writer who got jailed for sedition and slander, but then re-elected to parliament after he got out. Parliament ruled that he was ineligible and there was a big to-do about the people being deprived the right to their representative), Johnson pointed out that, one, there were probably fifty men in Middlesex just as able as Wilkes and sharing his views who could serve his constituents just as well if they really wanted it, so that one guy being ruled ineligible for parliament, justly or not, really doesn’t amount to much, and two, the practical consequences for most of the voters who are currently feeling hard-done by the decision is basically nil, since most of them probably only voted for him because it was fashionable to do so anyway and his effect on their lives is pretty much non-existent, and three, like it or not, right or wrong, parliament has the power to do it, otherwise expulsion from the body wouldn’t mean anything.

We in liberal society, so proud of our supposedly-popular and rational form of government, love to tell ourselves stories about great statesmen making the world a better place through their courage and sagacity, of powerful debates shaking the halls of power and bringing injustice crumbling down, of a system where the people exercise a wise and just command over their own fates via self-appointed representatives.

In fact, it’s just a system of governing authority like any other, mostly run by stupid, venal men who happen to have the talent of persuading crowds of semi-interested voters and then being elected by a minority who actually pay attention and a majority that goes along with a straight party ticket or because it seems the thing to be done, and who then go back to their own lives without bothering about what the guy does once elected. The point isn’t reform or making the world a better place; the point is simply to keep the governing authority that holds in this vast, complex scheme of life in a tolerably functional state.

3. I also, as a follow-up, read some of the Continental Congress’s pre-war epistles, which Johnson was replying to. It was an…eye opening experience.

For instance, Congress sent a petition to the King declaring themselves his faithful subjects, “filled with sentiments of duty to your majesty” and so on, listing their grievances and asking his redress.

Less than a week earlier, they sent out their “Address to the British People,” warning their fellow subjects that after the King’s ministers (whom they describe as “your enemies”) reduce the Americans to slavery, they might use the money they’ve thus extracted to pay the Roman Catholics of Quebec to come over and enslave them as well.

(You think I’m exaggerating. I’m not).

I’m not sure what they thought they’d accomplish by sending these two letters at roughly the same time, but the one rather undermines the other. Did they really think the King wasn’t going to find out about the other letter accusing him of seeking to “purchase the remains of British liberty” with the money “the royal coffers” get from America? I mean, it’s no wonder he wasn’t inclined to listen to them.

Likewise, at the same time they were insisting that Parliament had not right to “establish a Religion fraught with sanguinary and impious tenets” in Quebec – that is, no right to allow the recently-conquered Quebecois to remain Catholics – they were inviting those same Quebecois to make common cause with them, assuring them that “the transcendant nature of freedom elevates those, who unite in her cause, above all such low-minded infirmities” of difference of religion.

Most unfortunately for the Americans, the Bishop of Quebec got hold of both letters (so did Johnson). Hence, when Benjamin Franklin and Fr. John Carrol (later Bishop Carrol) came to try to get Quebec to join the Revolution, they found him…unreceptive (as in, he excommunicated Carrol and any priests who hosted them).

4. One of the complaints of the Americans was that they were now being taxed when they had never been so before.

I am sure that went down wonderfully with the British taxpayers.

Especially as the said taxes were meant to help pay for a war fought mostly on American borders in defense of the American colonists and which the Americans had started!

And the funny thing is that the Continental Congress mentions this in its letter to the people Great Britain. They remind the British of how much the late war had cost and how they (the British) are still paying for it. This just after they spent paragraphs and paragraphs talking about how unjust it was for Parliament to try to tax them (the Americans).

Frankly, it’s a wonder to me that anyone in England was on the American side after reading that letter.

5. The sad truth is that, once you remove the pious assumption that the Americans were in the right, the justifications for the revolution kind of collapse into a farce. The central issue was that they didn’t want to have to pay taxes, while themselves leveraging taxes over their own people and while benefiting from the taxes raised by the rest of the Empire. John Adams himself later commented that the Americans were never so lightly taxed as under the king. In their petitions and grievances (including the Declaration of Independence), they don’t come across at all as injured men seeking redress for real injuries: they come across like men arguing a position they know they can’t defend and grabbing anything and everything to try to justify it. That is when they don’t come across as paranoid lunatics (“an attempt was made to drain this country of all its money, by the oppressive Stamp Act”).

Dr. Johnson, in contrast (whatever you think of his specific points), at least comes across as if he’s actually making a reasoned argument. He points out that, no, taxation is a completely legitimate act of government, the Americans owe their existence to royal charters and enjoy the benefits of English law (which they make a big deal about) and have only recently been defended by British arms, so it’s hardly unreasonable to expect them to pay taxes. To their repeated complaints about ‘trial by jury’, he points out that, yes, the law has them tried by a tribunal in cases of customs fraud…which is the same practice as in England. To the talk of representation, he points out that 1). Most people have so little share in government as to be practically unrepresented and that’s just the nature of the beast, and 2). Assuming they did receive representation in Parliament, they would then still have to pay taxes and would still be angry about it, because no one likes paying taxes (by the way, if representation were the main issue, why didn’t Congress specifically petition for it? They spend most of their time explaining why they should never be taxed and never once suggest that they should have members in Parliament, but if that were their real grievance it would have made up the main thrust of their argument). To their complaints of bad judges and bad ministers, he agrees that that’s terrible and ought not to happen. But it is going to happen no matter what form of government you come up with. “Whoever is governed will sometimes be governed ill, even when he is most concerned in his own government.” And “No government could subsist for a day, if single errors could justify defection.”

(Johnson, a staunch abolitionist who had a Black adopted son, also gives this rather cutting remark toward the end:
“We are told, that the subjection of Americans may tend to the diminution of our own liberties: an event, which none but very perspicacious politicians are able to foresee. If slavery be thus fatally contagious, how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”)

6. By the way, the disingenuousness of the Declaration of Independence is shown by the fact that they ascribe all their grievances to the King. Of course, most if not all of these acts were done by Parliament, as the drafters well knew (they blame Parliament in their address to the King, and Lord North, Parliament, and the King together in their address to the British people, and finally the King alone in the Declaration), and the King would have had little power to undo them even if he had wanted to. But I suppose the King made a better target than Parliament, and it would be rather awkward to declare an urgent need to set up a republic when your main complaints were against the republican element of the current government.

In particular (as Dr. Johnson again pointed out), the King had no power of levying taxes: taxation was the sole province of Parliament (they barely squeak by on this by saying that the King “has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution.” Said jurisdiction being their lawful legislative body as British subjects!)

7. I recommend you read all these documents yourself. Like I say, it’s eye opening, especially if you’re willing to not take the American claims at face value. Personally, I can only see people lying so much before I start to doubt their honesty.

I mean, I don’t doubt they had legitimate grievances, both before and after things started escalating. But as often happens, it’s not at all surprising or exceptional that these would go unanswered when they’re lumped together with complaints of being mildly taxed expressed through criminal acts of violence against men and property and couched in insane-sounding hyperboles.

5 thoughts on “Friday Flotsam: Dr. Johnson versus Congress (Or, I’m Not Being So Nice This Time)

  1. Actually, the Colonial arguments may be sounder than you or Dr. Johnson think. What people tend to forget – what I certainly didn’t know, until I read F. P. Barbieri’s Livejournal essay on the topic (to which I wish I could embed a link here) – is that the British Parliament was not, in fact, the Colonies’ lawful legislative body, because the Colonials were not British subjects. They were subjects of the British monarch, yes, even as Canadians and Australians are to this day, but Lord North’s Government had no more legal authority in Boston or Richmond than Boris Johnson’s (or whoever’s it’s going to be now) has in Sydney or Toronto. But, because the British monarch in the 1770s was a foreign puppet for a gaggle of law- and custom-despising opportunists (thank you, “Glorious Revolution”), I guess it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Westminster thought it could get away with usurping the Colonies’ own rightful legislatures, or that George III, so far from behaving as the defender of the Colonies’ sovereign liberties that he was supposed to be, blithely went ahead and gave the Stamp and Townshend Acts his ceremonial Assent. Whereupon the Founders, with a propriety one could wish to see more of among their modern-day successors, said, “Well, looks like it’s time to provide new guards for our future security, then.”

    Whether Dr. Johnson knew any of this, of course, I’ve no idea. My impression is that expecting an ordinary 18th-Century Englishman, even a thoughtful and polymathic one like the good Doctor, to be able to parse the legal imperatives proceeding from the charter of a country on the other side of the planet, issued under a conception of royal authority that had been violently abolished in England before he was born, is not ultimately reasonable. It’s depressing, to be sure – the more so as one can’t help thinking that Whiggery would have had a tougher time of it if old-school Tories like Johnson and American patriots like Jefferson had recognized it as their common enemy – but there you are.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hm, that turns on greater specificity and historical knowledge than I’m able to address at the moment, but it sounds dubious to me. The idea that the colonies were simultaneously under British law, subject to protection by British arms, and so on, but *not* under the British parliament or subject to its rulings seems absurd. Particularly since those same taxes had lately been used in their defense. Again, simply taking the issue at face value, why should the entire rest of the Empire pay taxes on its behalf, but America be exempt?

      Also (as Johnson mentions), Pennsylvania’s charter explicitly allows for its taxation by parliament, so that colony at least certainly had no right to complain. For the others, at best it seems a disputable question to me.

      Canada and Australia and the rest of the commonwealth were granted their separate, self-governing status by acts of Parliament, meaning that prior to this they were under Parliament. No such act (as far as I know) was ever made regarding the American colonies. So, that example tells in the other direction.

      And I mean; the Whigs were on the Americans’ side in the dispute, and George III was hardly a puppet. In fact, his whole effort was trying to regain some of the old rights of Monarchy that had been whittled away during his predecessors’ times.

      In any case, this strikes me as a ‘filioque’ style question at best: a point of reasonable dispute that most people are not in a position to decide on, but which the clear authority has ruled on one side of. The important point is less the legal or logical niceties of the question itself than the fact that you *definitely* owe allegiance to this particular authority. If the colonies are under the king (and however we may deplore the revolution of the 1680s, the colonists had accepted its result for nearly a century…though there was apparently some question of bringing Bonnie Prince Charlie over to be King of America, which would have altered the question significantly), and the king signs off on the right of parliament to tax the colonies, then that seems to settle the question.


  2. The essay you mentioned is this: . But I have to say that I am not pleased to be quoted in support of a thesis I find meretricious and unacceptable. The main thrust of the essay is that Congress was legally entirely in the right. And some of your remark, such as their manner of addressing the King (what were they supposed to do, call him a piece of pond scum?) simply show an inability to understand how political communications proceed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the link and the interesting essay. Though it’s actually being quoted *against* the argument you find ‘meretricious and unacceptable’ (I assume that would be mine, all things considered).

      I’m planning on doing a more complete essay on my views of the Revolution and the American ideology in general, so I won’t try a full answer here. I hope you’ll read it when it comes out and give your opinion.

      Though, as for the method of addressing the King, the issue isn’t so much how they address him as it is that they were addressing him thus while simultaneously telling their fellow subjects he intended to “buy the remains of English liberty” with the money taxed from the colonies. It’s a matter of acting in bad faith.


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