Politically, Johnson was a conservative and a Tory, though the eighteenth-century Tory was not necessarily the frequently caricatured and insistently conservative member of the political establishment (and alter ego of the liberal Whig) whom we would encounter in England in the nineteenth or even the twentieth century. Johnson's own political statements, made over the course of his life, are frequently mutually contradictory, in part because his views altered with time and events (he was always a rebel, always a supporter of the underdog), in part because he always sought to be truthful even if it meant being inconsistent, and in part (though this may seem paradoxical) because he loved to argue, and frequently argued both sides of a question (though on different occasions) with equal dexterity and with (apparently) equal sincerity.
W. Jackson Bate identifies a common principle in all of Johnson's political thought, and calls it "protective subordination," or "subordination for the sake of protection" — a principle which we can also detect in his religious thought. Johnson believed that mankind, though capable of good, is also inherently sinful, and that a state of nature — in which mankind would be deprived, that is, of a paternalistic government which could benevolently impose order and regulation, and in so doing protect the weak and the poor from the exploitation of the strong and the wealthy — would be a state of savagery. In what sense is this a Neoclassical sentiment? Johnson was therefore, on occasion, fiercely protective of the prerogatives of government — he violently condemned, for example, the American Revolution and its underlying principles. On the other hand, when he saw government as tyrannical rather than paternal, he could be equally fierce — as he was in his "London" — in his condemnation of its betrayal of its responsibilities.
During the 1730s and 1740s he wrote pamphlets denouncing what he saw as a tyrannical and corrupt government; in the 1750's he denounced the hidden imperialist and economic factors which lay behind Britain's entry into the Seven Year's War; in the 1770's his concern with political morality led him to denounce, in various works, political jingoism, false patriotism, American complaints about British "oppression." Always he sought the truth, and party labels always meant a great deal less to him than an individual's sense of charity, of responsibility for the spiritual and material well-being of his fellow man. To his mind wisdom, not political rhetoric, was the key: in important matters, Johnson said, "a wise Tory and a wise Whig, I believe, will agree." What they could or should agree upon, Johnson believed, were the sentiments he expressed in "The Vanity of Human Wishes" and in Rasselas.
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000