Samuel Johnson was born into one England, an agricultural nation which was emerging from a long and complex period of enormously disruptive internal political and religious strife during which its very existence was often threatened by internecine rivalries and by rival European powers. After a long life he died in another England, one which was much more powerful, much more complex, and one in which the technological advances which would culminate in the "INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION" were increasingly important. What follows is a brief synopsis of important historical events which affected Johnson's life, and significant events in economic history which reflect the changing technological environment in the England of his day.
When Johnson was born, in 1709, Queen Anne, the High-Church Anglican who was the last member of the House of Stuart to rule England, (she differed from the illustrious, licentious, and notorious relatives who had preceded her on the throne in that she seems to have been a rather pious, prosaic, and boring person) was in the seventh year of her reign: she would die in 1714, but all his life Johnson remembered that at the age of two he had been taken to see her, in hopes that her touch would cure him of the numerous physical ailments which plagued him, and all his life, (understandably enough, given his Tory tendencies) he retained a certain sentimental fondness for the ill-fated Stuart dynasty.
The year of his birth was also the year Abraham Darby first produced coke and used it to smelt iron, an event with enormous economic implications. In 1710 the infamous English South Sea Company (see South Sea Bubble) was formed. 1711 saw the construction of the first ventilator, the first tuning fork, and (with Queen Anne presiding) the first races at Ascot; during the following year the Peace Congress at Utrecht, which would result in 1713 in the famous Peace between France and England, Holland, Savoy, and Portugal, and a few months later in a peace treaty between England and Spain, was opened.
In 1712, too, the Newspaper Stamp Act was put in place, and in this year the last English so-called witch was executed for her crimes. When Anne died, George Louis, the Elector of Hanover, became George I of Great Britain and Ireland under the Act of Settlement: that same year, in an unrelated event, Fahrenheit constructed his famous mercury thermometer. Although he could not speak English, George found enthusiastic adherents among the Whigs who feared a Jacobite attempt to put the Pretender, the Catholic son of James III, on the English throne. After the abortive Jacobite rebellion of 1715-16 in Scotland the Whig government purged itself of any remaining Tories and took various legislative steps to insure that it would remain in power, though it was itself frequently preoccupied with internal personal and factional rivalries. The first dock opened at Liverpool in 1715 — again, an important intimation of things to come, of economic forces waiting to be unleashed.
In 1717 James Stanhope as Secretary of State arranged a relatively durable peace by concluding the Triple Alliance with Holland and France. The following year, 1718, introduced the Quadruple Alliance, in which Britain, France, Austria, and Holland alligned themselves against Spain: that same year Lady Mary Wortley Montague introduced inoculation against smallpox (too late, alas, to be of any use to Johnson), Halley (of comet fame) discovered the independent movement of fixed stars, and Leopold of Dessau invented the iron ramrod, thereby making it possible for the Prussian infantry (much to the chagrin of their enemies) to fire with a great deal more speed and accuracy. In 1719 the French declared war on Spain, the Spanish attempted to invade Scotland, and Defoe published Robinson Crusoe, his great and enormously popular middle-class bourgeois fantasy and neo-imperialist fairy-tale.
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