Johnson Meets the King; On the American Revolution by James Boswell

Johnson Meets the King, 1767

In February, 1767, there happened one of the most remarkable incidents of [Samuel] Johnson’s life, which gratified his monarchical enthusiasm, and which he loved to relate with all its circumstances, when requested by his friends. This was his being honoured by a private conversation with his Majesty [George III], in the library at the Queen [Charlotte]’s house. He had frequently visited those splendid rooms and noble collection of books, which he used to say was more numerous and curious than he supposed any person could have made in the time which the King had employed. Mr. Barnard, the librarian, took care that he should have every accommodation that could contribute to his ease and convenience, while indulging his literary taste in that place; so that he had here a very agreeable resource at leisure hours.

His Majesty having been informed of his occasional visits, was pleased to signify a desire that he should be told when Dr. Johnson came next to the library. Accordingly, the next time that Johnson did come, as soon as he was fairly engaged with a book, on which, while he sat by the fire, he seemed quite intent, Mr. Barnard stole round to the apartment where the King was, and, in obedience to his Majesty’s commands, mentioned that Dr. Johnson was then in the library. His Majesty said he was at leisure, and would go to him; upon which Mr. Barnard took one of the candles that stood on the King’s table, and lighted his Majesty through a suite of rooms, till they came to a private door into the library, of which his Majesty had the key. Being entered, Mr. Barnard stepped forward hastily to Dr. Johnson, who was still in a profound study, and whispered him, ‘Sir, here is the King.’ Johnson started up, and stood still. His Majesty approached him, and at once was courteously easy.

His Majesty began by observing, that he understood he came sometimes to the library; and then mentioning his having heard that the Doctor had been lately at Oxford, asked him if he was not fond of going thither. To which Johnson answered, that he was indeed fond of going to Oxford sometimes, but was likewise glad to come back again. The King then asked him what they were doing at Oxford. Johnson answered, he could not much commend their diligence, but that in some respects they were mended, for they had put their press under better regulations, and were at that time printing Polybius. He was then asked whether there were better libraries at Oxford or Cambridge. He answered, he believed the Bodleian was larger than any they had at Cambridge; at the same time adding, ‘I hope, whether we have more books or not than they have at Cambridge, we shall make as good use of them as they do.’ Being asked whether All-Souls or Christ-Church library was the largest, he answered, ‘All-Souls library is the largest we have, except the Bodleian.’ ‘Aye, (said the King,) that is the publick library.’

His Majesty enquired if he was then writing any thing. He answered, he was not, for he had pretty well told the world what he knew, and must now read to acquire more knowledge. The King, as it should seem with a view to urge him to rely on his own stores as an original writer, and to continue his labours, then said ‘I do not think you borrow much from any body.’ Johnson said, he thought he had already done his part as a writer. ‘I should have thought so too, (said the King,) if you had not written so well.’–Johnson observed to me, upon this, that ‘No man could have paid a handsomer compliment; and it was fit for a King to pay. It was decisive.’ When asked by another friend, at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s, whether he made any reply to this high compliment, he answered, ‘No, Sir. When the King had said it, it was to be so. It was not for me to bandy civilities with my Sovereign.’ Perhaps no man who had spent his whole life in courts could have shewn a more nice and dignified sense of true politeness, than Johnson did in this instance.

His Majesty having observed to him that he supposed he must have read a great deal; Johnson answered, that he thought more than he read; that he had read a great deal in the early part of his life, but having fallen into ill health, he had not been able to read much, compared with others: for instance, he said he had not read much, compared with Dr. Warburton. Upon which the King said, that he heard Dr. Warburton was a man of such general knowledge, that you could scarce talk with him on any subject on which he was not qualified to speak; and that his learning resembled [David] Garrick’s acting, in its universality. His Majesty then talked of the controversy between Warburton and Lowth, which he seemed to have read, and asked Johnson what he thought of it. Johnson answered, ‘Warburton has most general, most scholastick learning; Lowth is the more correct scholar. I do not know which of them calls names best.’ The King was pleased to say he was of the same opinion; adding, ‘You do not think, then, Dr. Johnson, that there was much argument in the case.’ Johnson said, he did not think there was. ‘Why truly, (said the King,) when once it comes to calling names, argument is pretty well at an end.’

His Majesty then asked him what he thought of Lord Lyttelton’s History, which was then just published. Johnson said, he thought his style pretty good, but that he had blamed Henry the Second rather too much. ‘Why, (said the King,) they seldom do these things by halves.’ ‘No, Sir, (answered Johnson,) not to Kings.’ But fearing to be misunderstood, he proceeded to explain himself; and immediately subjoined, ‘That for those who spoke worse of Kings than they deserved, he could find no excuse; but that he could more easily conceive how some might speak better of them than they deserved, without any ill intention; for, as Kings had much in their power to give, those who were favoured by them would frequently, from gratitude, exaggerate their praises; and as this proceeded from a good motive, it was certainly excusable, as far as errour could be excusable.’

His Majesty expressed a desire to have the literary biography of this country ably executed, and proposed to Dr. Johnson to undertake it. Johnson signified his readiness to comply with his Majesty’s wishes.

During the whole of this interview, Johnson talked to his Majesty with profound respect, but still in his firm manly manner, with a sonorous voice, and never in that subdued tone which is commonly used at the levee and in the drawing-room. After the King withdrew, Johnson shewed himself highly pleased with his Majesty’s conversation, and gracious behaviour. He said to Mr. Barnard, ‘Sir, they may talk of the King as they will; but he is the finest gentleman I have ever seen.’ And he afterwards observed to Mr. Langton, ‘Sir, his manners are those of as fine a gentleman as we may suppose Lewis the Fourteenth or Charles the Second.’

During all the time in which Dr. Johnson was employed in relating to the circle at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s the particulars of what passed between the King and him, Dr. [Oliver] Goldsmith [the playwright] remained unmoved upon a sopha at some distance, affecting not to join in the least in the eager curiosity of the company. He assigned as a reason for his gloom and seeming inattention, that he apprehended Johnson had relinquished his purpose of furnishing him with a Prologue to his play, with the hopes of which he had been flattered; but it was strongly suspected that he was fretting with chagrin and envy at the singular honour Dr. Johnson had lately enjoyed. At length, the frankness and simplicity of his natural character prevailed. He sprung from the sopha, advanced to Johnson, and in a kind of flutter, from imagining himself in the situation which he had just been hearing described, exclaimed, ‘Well, you acquitted yourself in this conversation better than I should have done; for I should have bowed and stammered through the whole of it.’

 

On the American Revolution, 1775

The doubts which, in my correspondence with him [Samuel Johnson], I [James Boswell] had ventured to state as to the justice and wisdom of the conduct of Great-Britain towards the American colonies, while I at the same time requested that he would enable me to inform myself upon that momentous subject, he had altogether disregarded; and had recently published a pamphlet, entitled, Taxation no Tyranny; an answer to the Resolutions and Address of the American Congress.

He had long before indulged most unfavourable sentiments of our fellow-subjects in America. For, as early as 1769, I was told by Dr. John Campbell, that he 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.’

Of this performance I avoided to talk with him; for I had now formed a clear and settled opinion, that the people of America were well warranted to resist a claim that their fellow-subjects in the mother-country should have the entire command of their fortunes, by taxing them without their own consent; and the extreme violence which it breathed, appeared to me so unsuitable to the mildness of a christian philosopher, and so directly opposite to the principles of peace which he had so beautifully recommended in his pamphlet respecting Falkland’s Islands, that I was sorry to see him appear in so unfavourable a light.

 

——

James Boswell published The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. in 1791. King George III in his later life went mad.