J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Virtual Exhibits on Dr. Johnson, Virginia, and Hair

Houghton Library at Harvard is exhibiting some of the items from its Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson through November. There’s also an online exhibit and a printed catalogue with its own blog.

This collection includes such treasures as the copy of James Boswell’s Life of Johnson with catty marginal comments by Hester Piozzi, who was a rival biographer and friend and, scholars now theorize, the doctor’s dominatrix lover.

Last weekend Joshua Kendall wrote in the Boston Globe about America’s love-hate relationship with Johnson—love on our side, hate on his:

As a look at Johnson’s writings reveals, he showed little interest in reciprocating our affection, instead showering Americans with a more or less ceaseless rain of scathing epithets. In 1769, he called Americans “a race of convicts [who] ought to be thankful for any thing we allow them short of hanging.”

Johnson never set foot on our shores and met few Americans, but had a clear idea how he felt about the colonists. In response to the First Continental Congress, an apoplectic Johnson was compelled to dash off - he tended to write in manic bursts - “Taxation no Tyranny,” a 40-page pamphlet, vilifying the rebellious colonists as “these lords of themselves,” “these kings of Me,” and “these demigods of independence.”

As a hardline Tory and firm believer in governmental authority, Johnson feared that “the madness of independence” would destabilize the cosmic order. He was infuriated not just by our adolescent protests against parliamentary rule, but by our hypocrisy over the issue of slavery. “How is it,” Johnson wondered, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
I do wonder, though, who was paying Dr. Johnson to write those words. After all, he told Boswell, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

In other exhibit news, Anderson House, the headquarters and museum of the Society of the Cincinnati in Virginia, has just opened a new exhibit on “Virginia in the American Revolution,” which will run through next March. But anyone can download a PDF file of the catalog from the exhibit home page.

Finally, on the least serious level BibliOdyssey highlights the high hair in eighteenth-century satirical images.

4 comments:

Peter said...

Here's my non-historian's take on Johnson's words, largely aided and abetted by Wikipedia's predigested information:

The “loudest yelps for liberty” came from various sources. Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, down in Virginia, were both slaveholders, but Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia was an active abolitionist (at least at that time—-earlier in his life he had owned slaves). So was Benjamin Rush. So was James Otis, the loudest yelper for liberty in Boston. The second-loudest yelper in Boston, Samuel Adams, owned a slave briefly, from what I understand-—a maidservant who was given to his wife by a friend—-but Adams insisted on manumitting her, saying that he would allow no slaves in his house. (She stayed on as a servant for years thereafter.) Neither Alexander Hamilton nor John Adams ever owned a slave, though both could probably have afforded one.

Slavery in most of New England was abolished in the decade after independence. Meanwhile, slavery was still legal in the parts of America that remained in British hands, including the maritime provinces (to which a lot of wealthy Tories had fled) and Quebec. Upper Canada (Ontario) finally outlawed slavery in 1793, after Vermont, Massachusetts (including Maine), and New Hampshire had already done so. Britain didn’t pass an act abolishing the international slave trade until March 1807—the same month that the US did, and it was a couple of decades more before Parliament got around to actually banning slavery throughout the empire.

Basically, I think Johnson was being unjust. The loudest support for independence came from New England, and most of the revolutionaries in New England (or at least the ones I know about)weren't slaveholders.

J. L. Bell said...

Johnson was looking at America from a distance, and aside from meeting Franklin he probably didn’t distinguish one American political figure from another. In 1775, when he wrote, slavery was well established in all thirteen colonies represented at the Continental Congress, and those colonies’ richest men—those best known in London—were slaveholders. No one could say what another decade or two would bring.

In addition to Jefferson and Henry, at one point John Dickinson owned more slaves than anyone else in Philadelphia. The Laurens family of South Carolina, the Lees of Virginia, and of course Washington depended on slave labor for their income.

Furthermore, even in New England the wealthiest families owned slaves. While James Otis, Jr., wrote about blacks having the same natural rights as whites, that didn’t stop him from owning people. Dr. Joseph Warren wrote songs on liberty and bought slaves.

I’ve discussed Surry, a household servant of Samuel and Elizabeth Adams, before. Our only sources on her come from the family, and it’s unclear when any manumission took place.

In many ways, the Adamses’ situation is similar to that of Dr. Johnson and his black servant, Francis Barber; in both cases, a gentleman who was ideologically opposed to slavery nonetheless accepted an enslaved servant as a gift.

It looks like John Hancock owned slaves in the 1770s. I haven’t looked into other Massachusetts Patriots leaders, including James Bowdoin, Dr. Thomas Young, William Molineux, and Dr. Benjamin Church.

It’s true that Franklin had moved to an abolitionist position, and that Rush, Hamilton, and John Adams personally opposed slavery. This early in the Revolutionary War, however, they all submerged those positions in order to maintain unity with the states that depended on slave labor.

Not that Dr. Johnson was an abolitionist activist, either. He did oppose slavery and first pointed out the paradox that “Slavery is now no where more patiently endured, than in countries once inhabited by the zealots of liberty,” in 1758. But he spent more time pointing out people’s hypocrisies, especially Americans’, than pushing for emancipation like his contemporary Granville Sharp.

HistoryBuff said...

Johnson's famous line in his government-sponsored pamphlet is always taken out of context, and thus many people think that he was railing against American hypocrisy when he asked "how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"

He was doing no such thing. Taken in context, his comment was actually, in a very real sense, a pro-slavery position. Johnson was arguing that suppressing liberty does not endanger the liberties of the oppressor. He was answering the charge that, by denying American rights, Parliament would endanger liberty in England. Johnson's response was that no, forcing someone to obey does not imperil your liberty, since after all, even "drivers of negroes" love liberty.

Taken out of context, Johnson's quip succinctly expresses one of the fundamental contradictions of the American Revolution: the notion of slave owners proclaiming their love of liberty. Many people made this point, but Johnson was not doing this here. He was an 18th century Tory, after all; only by misunderstanding his words can we turn him into Thomas Paine.

J. L. Bell said...

Here’s the text of Dr. Johnson’s 1775 pamphlet Taxation No Tyranny.

It’s true that in this pamphlet Johnson was trying to refute the American (and British Whigs’) argument that abridging traditional liberties in the colonies would inevitably lead to abridging liberties in Britain as well.

It’s also true that Johnson had expressed a philosophical opposition to slavery years before this. So even though he wasn’t taking an abolitionist position here, this mention of slavery wasn’t inconsistent with his other remarks.

In this battle for British public opinion (or, to be more accurate, British elite opinion), both the American Whigs and Dr. Johnson were appealing to that group’s self-interest and trying to downplay their more radical ideas. Americans: “We’re doing this for you!” Johnson: “No need to change anything!”