It was published 250 years ago next month, but no early edition so well reflects the practical as well as philosophical importance that early readers found in Johnson’s theme as the first American edition, published in 1768 by Robert Bell, a radical Irish [actually Glaswegian by birth] bookseller who had moved to Philadelphia following the bankruptcy of his business in Dublin.(Thanks to Philobiblos for the pointer to this article. I’ve adapted the British newspaper style to something approaching clarity.)
Bell’s Rasselas was a noisily transatlantic, democratizing affair (“AMERICA: PRINTED FOR EVERY PURCHASER”, screams the imprint), and his title page makes a further appeal to common readers with a tag from La Rochefoucauld: “The Labour or Exercise of the Body, freeth Men from Pains of the Mind; and ’tis this that constitutes the Happiness of the Poor”. . . .
Johnson was quick to grasp the implications of Bell’s edition when he was sent a copy five years later, and expressed pleasure “because the Printer seems to have expected that it would be scattered among the People”. He would have deplored any attempt to find common ground, however, between Rasselas and the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, with its well-known insistence “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness”.
Duties, not rights, were at the centre of Johnson’s ethics, and as a staunch conservative (though also a vocal abolitionist) he became the foremost British polemicist against the American Continental Congress in the 1770s. Pieties about equality for all enraged him especially, and in his most scathing denunciation of congressional proceedings, Taxation No Tyranny, he demands to know, with thunderous frankness, “how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”.
Yet Johnson and [Thomas] Jefferson may have been closer in their thinking about the pursuit of happiness, if not about equality or slavery, than either would have cared to admit.
In his History of Printing, Isaiah Thomas wrote of Bell:
Bell was the publisher of the celebrated pamphlet entitled Common Sense, written by Thomas Paine. He employed Paine some time afterwards as a clerk, etc. . . . He was a thorough bookseller, punctual and fair in his dealings; and, as a companion, he was sensible, social and witty.Bell died in Richmond, Virginia, on a bookselling trip in 1784, aged fifty-nine.