Reasons for seeing him as a conservative include:
- Government can only do so much. Johnson supplied
Goldsmith with four lines for The Traveller, two of which
went "How small, of all that human hearts endure,/ That part
which laws or kings can cause or cure!" He also once said to
Boswell, "Why, Sir, most schemes of political improvement are
very laughable things."
- Traditional religious views. Johnson was a devout
Anglican, and believed in the Bible and the miracles it told
of; he was known to have deeply-felt fears of death due to not
being confident that he would be saved.
- View of an ordered society, with ranks. Johnson was an
adherent of the principle of subordination and the authority
which it implied. "Sir, I am a friend to subordination, as most
conducive to the happiness of society. There is a reciprocal
pleasure in governing and being governed," he told Boswell.
- He was a Tory, and put down Whigs. Tory means
conservative, doesn't it? Well, it should be noted that Tory and
Whig didn't take on their conservative-liberal connotations until
the 19th century. Also, if "Tory" were to equal
conservative, then "Whig" would equal liberal, which would make
Edmund Burke a liberal. It's true that Burke worked on
some progressive campaigns (liberalizing the anti-Catholic laws
in Ireland; impeaching Warren Hastings for abuses in India; and
that dust up with the American Colonies), but since many
Conservatives think of Burke as conservative, translating Whig to
liberal presents problems.
- Patriotism. If you're the sort that believes
patriotism is the sole property of conservatives, then Johnson's
patriotism is another argument. In The Patriot he writes eloquently about
patriotism's value, and how protest is no sign of true
- Anti-feminist views. Johnson made a couple memorable
comments to Boswell regarding adultery, which on the surface
allow greater extra-curricular freedom for husbands than for
wives (see the Adultery page). He also is famous for that
quip about Boswell's dissatisfaction with a woman preaching:
"Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind
legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done
(Neither of these is an indisputable point: regarding
adultery, Johnson was stressing legal aspects to Boswell, and
distinguished between the legal and religious; as for the latter,
Johnson was making a joke, and while we take all jokes seriously
in the 21st century, that wasn't the case in the 18th century
— the comment also says nothing about his perceptions of
female potential, merely their ability at the time.)
Another point here... Johnson once wrote to a friend who was
going through a divorce, "Nature has given women so much power
that the law has very wisely given them little."
Reasons for seeing him as a liberal include:
- Feminist views. Rambler 39 examines the role of women
in society, and the miseries they sometimes face in marriage.
Ramblers 128, 130, and 133 tell the tale of a daughter who has
been trained to focus on her beauty, and never develops herself
through education. (Idler 13 also deals with daughters who miss
out on education.) In Rasselas, the Princess Nekayeh
argues with her brother Rasselas as an equal. Ramblers 170 and
171 focus on the plight of Misella, and how she ultimately became
- Slavery. Unlike many around him, Johnson was
anti-slavery, and closed his pamphlet Taxation
No Tyranny with the ringing "How is it that we hear the
loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"
Much earlier, In Idler 87, he wrote "Of black men the numbers are
too great who are now repining under English cruelty." And,
Boswell tells us that while Johnson was dining in Oxford with
"some very grave men," he proposed a toast: "Here's to the next
insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies."
- Arguments against blind nationalism. In Idler 20, he
questions the veracity of the accounts of the British triumph at
Louisbourg, and whether it really merits as much pride as the
British feel over it. In "An Introduction To The Political State
of Great Britain," he examines the treatment which the American
Indian received from French and British colonists, and finds the
British treatment sorely lacking. "No people can be great who
have ceased to be virtuous."
- Colonies: In an age of global expansion, Johnson
referred to colonists in North America as "European usurpers" (Introduction to the Political State of Great
- Anti-war feelings. If you're the sort that believes
conservatives are hawks and liberals are doves, then this is more
grist for your mill. Johnson's "original" Idler 22 (later pulled
when he bound them in a published volume) deals with the
slaughter of war, as told by a mother
vulture to her brood; she concludes war is conducted solely
for vultures. When questions over the ownership of the Falkland
Islands provoked a crisis, Johnson wrote a pamphlet on it which
included a long argument
- Views on the penal code. Johnson argues for its
liberalization in Rambler 114, where he deals with the inequity
of capital punishment for robbery. The unfairness of debtor's
prison is dealt with in Adventurers 41 and 53 and Idler 22. Idler
38 also addresses the horrors of prison in general.
- Views of the family. Rambler 148 calls parental
tyranny into question.
- Sensitivity to the poor. Johnson frequently gave to
beggars in the street, and once told Boswell, "A decent provision
for the poor is the true test of civilization." Rambler 166
focuses on biases against the poor, and in his poem
London, Johnson wrote "Slow rises worth / By poverty
deprest." Rambler 202 rails against the romanticism poets
sometimes attach to being poor.
- Cruelty to animals. In Idler 17, Johnson discusses the
frequent pointlessness of animal vivisection.