About the time the Quakers were migrating to North America, many other people were doing the same, in the case of Hebridean Islanders, it was poverty in the aftermath of the 1745 civil war that drove them away. Dr Johnson and James Boswell visited the Isle of Skye in 1773, soon after the process started; they were made welcome, but part of the entertainment was a sobering reminder of this. Here is Boswell (with his sometimes antique spellings):
In the evening the company danced as usual. We performed, with much activity, a dance which, I suppose, the emigration from Sky has occasioned. They call it America. Each of the couples, after the common involutions and evolutions, successively whirls round in a circle, till all are in motion; and the dance seems intended to shew how emigration catches, till a whole neighbourhood is set afloat.
Mrs. M’Kinnon told me, that last year when a ship sailed from Portree for America, the people on shore were almost distracted when they saw their relations go off, they lay down on the ground, tumbled, and tore the grass with their teeth. This year there was not a tear shed. The people on shore seemed to think that they would soon follow. This indifference is a mortal sign for the country.
From “Life of Johnson, Volume 5, by James Boswell, via Kindle.
And a mortal sign for any country today whose more enterprising citizens feel the need to leave all they have known for a perilous journey to a land where they may not be as welcome as they might hope. War still drives people from their homes.
Let’s pray for peace in our time and for the casualties of war.
Johnson observed, ‘There is a wicked inclination in most people to suppose an old man decayed in his intellects. If a young or middle-aged man, when leaving a company, does not recollect where he laid his hat, it is nothing; but if the same inattention is discovered in an old man, people will shrug up their shoulders, and say, “His memory is going”.’
Life of Johnson, Volume 4 1780-1784, by James Boswell
It must have been 30 years ago that I had a parcel through the letterbox: my hat that I’d taken off on getting into the bishop’s car. So what was my excuse then? And now?
Let’s remind ourselves of Ecclesiasticus 3:12-14.
“My son, help thy father in his age, and grieve him not as long as he liveth. And if his understanding fail, have patience with him; and despise him not when thou art in thy full strength. For the relieving of thy father shall not be forgotten: and instead of sins it shall be added to build thee up.”
Boswell had arranged for Johnson to go with him to dine with Mr Dilly the bookseller, but the date had slipped Johnson’s mind. He had been expecting to dine in with Mrs Williams, the blind poet who lived with him and Frank – Francis Barber, his servant, a former slave. Boswell persuaded Mrs Williams to allow Johnson to break his date to dine with her. Boswell had been plotting for Johnson and Wilkes to meet, since they were often at odds in print. ‘How to manage it, was a nice and difficult matter’, but on May 15, 1776, Johnson and Bozzie went to Dilly’s.
As soon as I had announced to him Mrs. Williams’ consent, he roared, ‘Frank, a clean shirt,’ and was very soon drest.
When I had him fairly seated in a hackney-coach with me, I exulted as much as a fortune-hunter who has got an heiress into a post-chaise with him to set out for Gretna-Green.
When we entered Mr. Dilly’s drawing room, he found himself in the midst of a company he did not know. I kept myself snug and silent, watching how he would conduct himself. I observed him whispering to Mr. Dilly, ‘Who is that gentleman, Sir?’—’Mr. Arthur Lee.’—
JOHNSON. ‘Too, too, too,’ (under his breath,) which was one of his habitual mutterings. Mr. Arthur Lee could not but be very obnoxious to Johnson, for he was not only a patriot but an American. He was afterwards minister from the United States at the court of Madrid. ‘
And who is the gentleman in lace?’—’Mr. Wilkes, Sir.’ This information confounded him still more; he had some difficulty to restrain himself, and taking up a book, sat down upon a window-seat and read, or at least kept his eye upon it intently for some time, till he composed himself. His feelings, I dare say, were aukward enough. But he no doubt recollected his having rated me for supposing that he could be at all disconcerted by any company, and he, therefore, resolutely set himself to behave quite as an easy man of the world, who could adapt himself at once to the disposition and manners of those whom he might chance to meet.
from “Life of Johnson by James Boswell, via Kindle.
Johnson and Wilkes sat together and were unfailingly attentive to each other and enjoyed an evening of conversation and wit.
The day after tomorrow we find Jesus sitting down to eat with his enemies; no clean shirt, not even clean hands – and that’s where the trouble began.
It is the end of summer 1780, and Dr Johnson and James Boswell have not met together this year. In this time of lockdown and self-isolation, we can appreciate Boswell’s feelings when he writes:
I hope that you will agree to meet me at York, about the end of this month; or if you will come to Carlisle, that would be better still, in case the Dean be there. Please to consider, that to keep each other’s kindness, we should every year have that free and intimate communication of mind which can be had only when we are together. We should have both our solemn and our pleasant talk.
From Boswell’s Life of Johnson
But Johnson had to make his excuses. He was with his sick friend, Mr Thrale, who wanted his company during a stay in Brighthelmston (Brighton). It was then rather more than an hour from London, 60 years before the railway opened. Johnson’s words are worth taking to heart in 2021.
Mr. Thrale … is now going to Brighthelmston, and expects me to go with him; and how long I shall stay, I cannot tell. I do not much like the place, but yet I shall go, and stay while my stay is desired.
We must, therefore, content ourselves with knowing what we know as well as man can know the mind of man, that we love one another, and that we wish each other’s happiness, and that the lapse of a year cannot lessen our mutual kindness.
I was pleased to be told that I accused Mrs. Boswell unjustly, in supposing that she bears me ill-will. I love you so much, that I would be glad to love all that love you, and that you love; and I have love very ready for Mrs. Boswell, if she thinks it worthy of acceptance. I hope all the young ladies and gentlemen are well. I take a great liking to your brother. He tells me that his father received him kindly, but not fondly. Make your father as happy as you can.
You lately told me of your health: I can tell you in return, that my health has been for more than a year past, better than it has been for many years before. Perhaps it may please GOD to give us some time together before we are parted.
I am, dear Sir, ‘Yours most affectionately, ‘SAM. JOHNSON.’ ‘October 17, 1780
Who would like to hear from you today to keep the mutual kindness going till you can meet again?
Wilberforce spent some forty years working for the Abolition of Slavery, which was achieved in the United Kingdom in 1833. In the previous century, Samuel Johnson was a prominent figure against the trade and the institution of slavery, as recorded here by James Boswell.
In 1756 he described Jamaica as ‘a place of great wealth and dreadful wickedness, a den of tyrants and a dungeon of slaves.’ In 1759 he wrote:—’Of black men the numbers are too great who are now repining under English cruelty.’ In the same year, in describing the cruelty of the Portuguese discoverers, he said:—’We are openly told that they had the less scruple concerning their treatment of the savage people, because they scarcely considered them as distinct from beasts; and indeed, the practice of all the European nations, and among others of the English barbarians that cultivate the southern islands of America, proves that this opinion, however absurd and foolish, however wicked and injurious, still continues to prevail. Interest and pride harden the heart, and it is in vain to dispute against avarice and power.’
No miserable sophistry could convince him, with his clear mind and his ardour for liberty, that slavery can be right. ‘An individual,’ he wrote, ‘may, indeed, forfeit his liberty by a crime; but he cannot by that crime forfeit the liberty of his children.’ How deeply he felt for the wrongs done to helpless races is shown in his dread of discoverers. No man had a more eager curiosity, or more longed that the bounds of knowledge should be enlarged. Yet he wrote:—’I do not much wish well to discoveries, for I am always afraid they will end in conquest and robbery.’
Life of Johnson, Volume 2 1765-1776″ by James Boswell, via Kindle
James Boswell published this letter from Samuel Johnson after the Doctor died. Both men had melancholy times; Johnson more severely than most.
“I never was so much pleased as now with your account of yourself; and sincerely hope, that between publick business, improving studies, and domestick pleasures, neither melancholy nor caprice will find any place for entrance. Whatever philosophy may determine of material nature, it is certainly true of intellectual nature, that it abhors a vacuum: our minds cannot be empty; and evil will break in upon them, if they are not pre-occupied by good.
My dear Sir, mind your studies, mind your business, make your lady happy, and be a good Christian. After this, ‘tristitiam et metus Trades protervis in mare Creticum Portare ventis.’*
‘If we perform our duty, we shall be safe and steady.
Life of Johnson by James Boswell.
Jesus put it this way:
And when an unclean spirit is gone out of a man he walketh through dry places seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith: I will return into my house from whence I came out. And coming he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then he goeth, and taketh with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is made worse than the first. So shall it be also to this wicked generation.
Luke 12: 43-45.
‘Be preoccupied by good’ sounds like a good Advent motto to me! Spelt out for Boswell quite clearly: mind your studies, mind your business, make your lady happy, and be a good Christian.
*While in the Muse’s friendship blest, Nor fear, nor grief, shall break my rest; Bear them, ye vagrant winds, away, And drown them in the Cretan Sea.’ Horace, Odes, i. 26. I.
John Wesley spent some time in Georgia, where he was ministering at the time he received the letter mentioned here, in a note to Boswell’s Life of Johnson.He would have been able to see slavery in action for himself.
A gentleman, writing from Virginia to John Wesley, in 1735, about the need of educating the negro slaves in religion, says:—’Their masters generally neglect them, as though immortality was not the privilege of their souls in common with their own.’ Wesley’s Journal, II. 288.
Of course immortality is the privilege of any human being who chooses to accept it, but to enslave others by kidnapping them, or buying them from their abductors, is to deny their essential humanity. Teaching them the Good News would undermine the whole edifice of slavery.
We will be looking at some of Wesley’s thoughts on slavery in the coming days; we also have the feast of Saint Gregory on Thursday 3rd September, with some reflections on slavery by John Buchan.
The following posts will be based on Wesley’s Thoughts upon Slavery of 1774; these were based on a pamphlet Some Historical Accounts of Guinea, published in Philadelphia in 1771 by Anthony Benezet, an American Quaker.
Doctor Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell, is commenting on Johnson’s thoughts on friendship.
I have often thought, that as longevity is generally desired, and I believe, generally expected, it would be wise to be continually adding to the number of our friends, that the loss of some may be supplied by others. Friendship, ‘the wine of life,’ should like a well-stocked cellar, be thus continually renewed; and it is consolatory to think, that although we can seldom add what will equal the generous first-growths of our youth, yet friendship becomes insensibly old in much less time than is commonly imagined, and not many years are required to make it very mellow and pleasant. Warmth will, no doubt, make a considerable difference. Men of affectionate temper and bright fancy will coalesce a great deal sooner than those who are cold and dull.
From “Life of Johnson by James Boswell
This seems to be Boswell himself, not reporting Johnson’s words; Johnson was famously melancholy but had many friends whom he helped in different ways.Johnson was a great tea drinker, though also had a notable capacity for drinking wine.
Doctor Johnson said to Sir Joshua Reynolds, ‘If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone. A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair.’
from “Life of Johnson, James Boswell.
It must be my guilty conscience that makes me choose letter boxes to illustrate this post. Not all my friends are on-line, so where is my pen?