Samuel Johnson detested the upstart and rebellious American colonists. He felt they were traitors. In doing so, he described what he felt false patriots were. His observations are timeless. From “The Works of Samuel Johnson,” published by Pafraets & Company, Troy, New York, 1913; volume 14, pages 81-93.
by Samuel Johnson
ADDRESSED TO THE ELECTORS OF GREAT BRITAIN. 1774
They bawl for freedom in their senseless mood,
Yet still revolt when truth would set them free
License they mean, when they cry liberty,
For who loves that must first be wise and good.
To improve the golden moment of opportunity, and catch the good that is within our reach, is the great art of life. Many wants are suffered, which might once have been supplied; and much time is lost in regretting the time which had been lost before.
At the end of every seven years comes the saturnalian season, when the freemen of Great Britain may please themselves with the choice of their representatives. This happy day has now arrived, somewhat sooner than it could be claimed.
To select and depute those, by whom laws are to be made, and taxes to be granted, is a high dignity, and an important trust; and it is the business of every elector to consider, how this dignity may be faithfully discharged.
It ought to be deeply impressed on the minds of all who have voices in this national deliberation, that no man can deserve a seat in parliament, who is not a patriot. No other man will protect our rights: no other man can merit our confidence.
A patriot is he whose publick conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers every thing to the common interest.
That of five hundred men, such as this degenerate age affords, a majority can be found thus virtuously abstracted, who will affirm? Yet there is no good in despondence: vigilance and activity often effect more than was expected. Let us take a patriot, where we can meet him; and, that we may not flatter ourselves by false appearances, distinguish those marks which are certain, from those which may deceive; for a man may have the external appearance of a patriot, without the constituent qualities; as false coins have often lustre, though they want weight.
Some claim a place in the list of patriots, by an acrimonious and unremitting opposition to the court.
This mark is by no means infallible. Patriotism is not necessarily included in rebellion. A man may hate his king, yet not love hius country. He that has been refused a reasonable, or unreasonable request, who thinks his merit underrated, and sees his influence declining, begins soon to talk of natural equality, the absurdity of “many made for one,” the original compact, the foundation of authority, and the majesty of the people. As his political melancholy increases, he tells, and, perhaps, dreams, of the advances of the prerogative, and the dangers of arbitrary power; yet his design, in all his declamation, is not to benefit his country, but to gratify his malice.
These, however, are the most honest of the opponents of government; their patriotism is a species of disease; and they feel some part of what they express. But the greater, far the greater number of those who rave and rail, and inquire and accuse, neither suspect nor fear, nor care for the publick; but hope to force their way to riches, by virulence and invective, and are vehement and clamorous, only that they may be sooner hired to be silent.
A man sometimes starts up a patriot, only by disseminating discontent, and propagating reports of secret influence, of dangerous counsels, of violated rights, and encroaching usurpation.
This practice is no certain note of patriotism. To instigate the populace with rage beyond the provocation, is to suspend publick happiness, if not to destroy it. He is no lover of his country, that unnecessarily disturbs its peace. Few errours and few faults of government, can justify an appeal to the rabble; who ought not to judge of what they cannot understand, and whose opinions are not propagated by reason, but caught by contagion.
The fallaciousness of this note of patriotism is particularly apparent, when the clamour continues after the evil is past. They who are still filling our ears with Mr. Wilkes, and the freeholders of Middlesex, lament a grievance that is now at an end. Mr. Wilkes may be chosen, if any will choose him, and the precedent of his exclusion makes not any honest, or any decent man, think himself in danger.
It may be doubted, whether the name of a patriot can be fairly given, as the reward of secret satire, or open outrage. To fill the newspapers with sly hints of corruption and intrigue, to circulate the Middlesex Journal, and London Pacquet, may, indeed be zeal; but it may, likewise, be interest and malice. To offer a petition, not expected to be granted; to insult a king with a rude remonstrance, only because there is no punishment for legal insolence, is not courage, for there is no danger; nor patriotism, for it tends to the subversion of order, and lets wickedness loose upon the land, by destroying the reverence due to sovereign authority.
It is the quality of patriotism to be jealous and watchful, to observe all secret machinations, and to see publick dangers at a distance. The true lover of his country is ready to communicate his fears, and to sound the alarm, whenever he perceives the approach of mischief. But he sounds no alarm, when there is no enemy; he never terrifies his countrymen till he is terrified himself. The patriotism, therefore, may be justly doubted of him, who professes to be disturbed by incredibilities; who tells, that the last peace was obtained by bribing the princess of Wales; that the king is grasping at arbitrary power; and, that because the French, in the new conquests, enjoy their own laws, there is a design at court of abolishing, in England, the trial by juries.
Still less does the true patriot circulate opinions which he knows to be false. No man, who loves his country, fills the nation with clamorous complaints, that the protestant religion is in danger, because “popery is established in the extensive province of Quebec,” a falsehood so open and shameless, that it can need no confutation among those who know that of which it is almost impossible for the most unenlightened to zealot to be ignorant:
That Quebec is on the other side of the Atlantick, at too great a distance to do much good or harm to the European world:
That the inhabitants, being French, were always papists, who are certainly more dangerous as enemies than as subjects:
That though the province be wide, the people are few, probably not so many as may be found in one of the larger English counties:
That persecution is not more virtuous in a protestant than a papist; and that, while we blame Lewis the fourteenth, for his dragoons and his galleys, we ought, when power comes into our hands, to use it with greater equity:
That when Canada, with its inhabitants, was yielded, the free enjoyment of their religion was stipulated; a condition, of which king William, who was no propagator of popery, gave an example nearer home, at the surrender of Limerick:
That in an age, where every mouth is open for liberty of conscience, it is equitable to show some regard to the conscience of a papist, who may be supposed, like other men, to think himself safest in his own religion; and that those, at least, who enjoy a toleration, ought not to deny it to our new subjects.
If liberty of conscience be a natural right, we have no power to withhold it; if it be an indulgence, it may be allowed to papists, while it is not denied to other sects.
A patriot is necessarily and invariably a lover of the people. But even this mark may sometimes deceive us.
The people is a very heterogeneous and confused mass of the wealthy and the poor, the wise and the foolish, the good and the bad. Before we confer on a man, who caresses the people, the title of patriot, we must examine to what part of the people he directs his notice. It is proverbially said, that he who dissembles his own character, may be known by that of his companions. If the candidate of patriotism endeavours to infuse right opinions into the higher ranks, and, by their influence, to regulate the lower; if he consorts chiefly with the wise, the temperate, the regular, and the virtuous, his love of the people may be rational and honest. But if his first or principal application be to the indigent, who are always inflammable; to the weak, who are naturally suspicious; to the ignorant, who are easily misled; and to the profligate, who have no hope but from mischief and confusion; let his love of the people be no longer boasted. No man can reasonably be thought a lover of his country, for roasting an ox, or burning a boot, or attending the meeting at Mile-end, or registering his name in the lumber troop. He may, among the drunkards, be a hearty fellow, and, among sober handicraftsmen, a freespoken gentleman; but he must have some better distinction, before he is a patriot.
A patriot is always ready to countenance the just claims, and animate the reasonable hopes of the people; he reminds them, frequently, of their rights, and stimulates them to resent encroachments, and to multiply securities.
But all this may be done in appearance, without real patriotism. He that raises false hopes to serve a present purpose, only makes a way for disappointment and discontent. He who promises to endeavour, what he knows his endeavours unable to effect, means only to delude his followers by an empty clamour of ineffectual zeal.
A true patriot is no lavish promiser: he undertakes not to shorten parliaments; to repeal laws; or to change the mode of representation, transmitted by our ancestors; he knows that futurity is not in his power, and that all times are not alike favourable to change.
Much less does he make a vague and indefinite promise of obeying the mandates of his constituents. He knows the prejudices of faction, and the inconstancy of the multitude. He would first inquire, how the opinion of his constituents shall be taken. Popular instructions are, commonly, the work, not of the wise and steady, but the violent and rash; meetings held for directing representatives are seldom attended but by the idle and the dissolute; and he is not without suspicion, that of his constituents, as of other numbers of men, the smaller part may often be the wiser.
He considers himself as deputed to promote the publick good, and to preserve his constituents, with the rest of his countrymen, not only from being hurt by others, but from hurting themselves.
The common marks of patriotism having been examined, and shown to be such as artifice may counterfeit, or wholly misapply, it cannot be improper to consider, whether there are not some characteristical modes of speaking or acting, which may prove a man to be not a patriot.
In this inquiry, perhaps, clearer evidence may be discovered, and firmer persuasion attained; for it is, commonly, easier to know what is wrong than what is right; to find what we should avoid, than what we should pursue.
As war is one of the heaviest of national evils, a calamity in which every species of misery is involved; as it sets the general safety to hazard, suspends commerce, and desolates the country; as it exposes great numbers to hardships, dangers, captivity, and death; no man, who desires the publick prosperity, will inflame general resentment by aggravating minute injuries, or enforcing disputable rights of little importance.
It may, therefore, be safely pronounced, that those men are no patriots, who, when the national honour was vindicated in the sight of Europe, and the Spaniards having invaded what they call their own, had shrunk to a disavowal of their attempt, and a relaxation of their claim, would still have instigated us to a war, for a bleak and barren spot in the Magellanick ocean, of which no use could be made, unless it were a place of exile for the hypocrites of patriotism.
Yet let it not be forgotten, that, by the howling violence of patriotick rage, the nation was, for a time, exasperated to such madness, that, for a barren rock under a stormy sky, we might have now been fighting and dying, had not our competitors been wiser than ourselves; and those who are now courting the favour of the people, by noisy professions of publick spirit, would, while they were counting the profits of their artifice, have enjoyed the patriotick pleasure of hearing, sometimes, that thousands have been slaughtered in a battle, and, sometimes, that a navy had been dispeopled by poisoned air and corrupted food.
He that wishes to see his country robbed of its rights cannot be a patriot.
That man, therefore, is no patriot, who justifies the ridiculous claims of American usurpation; who endeavours to deprive the nation of its natural and lawful authority over its own colonies; those colonies, which were settled under English protection; were constituted by an English charter; and have been defended by English arms.
To suppose, that by sending out a colony, the nation established an independent power; that when, by indulgence and favour, emigrants are become rich, they shall not contribute to their own defence, but at their own pleasure; and that they shall not be included, like millions of their fellow subjects, in the general system of representation; involves such an accumulation of absurdity, as nothing but the show of patriotism could palliate.
He that accepts protection, stipulates obedience. We have always protected the Americans; we may, therefore, subject them to government.
The less is included in the greater. That power which can take away life, may seize upon property. The parliament may enact, for America, a law of capital punishment; it may, therefore, establish a mode and proportion of taxation.
But there are some who lament the state of the poor Bostonians, because they cannot all be supposed to have committed acts of rebellion, yet all are involved in the penalty imposed. This, they say, is to violate the first rule of justice, by condemning the innocent to suffer with the guilty.
This deserves some notice, as it seems dictated by equity and humanity, however it may raise contempt by the ignorance which it betrays of the state of man, and the system of things. That the innocent should be confounded with the guilty, is, undoubtedly, an evil; but it is an evil which no care or caution can prevent. National crimes require national punishments, of which many must necessarily have their part, who have not incurred them by personal guilt. If rebels should fortify a town, the cannon of lawful authority will endanger, equally, the harmless burghers and the criminal garrison.
In some cases, those suffer most who are least intended to be hurt. If the French, in the late war, had taken an English city, and permitted the natives to keep their dwellings, how could it have been recovered, but by the slaughter of our friends? A bomb might as well destroy an Englishman as a Frenchman; and, by famine, we know that the inhabitants would be the first that would perish.
This infliction of promiscuous evil may, therefore, be lamented, but cannot be blamed. The power of lawful government must be maintained; and the miseries which rebellion produces, can be discharged only on the rebels.
That man, likewise, is not a patriot, who denies his governours their due praise, and who conceals from the people the benefits which they receive. Those, therefore, can lay no claim to this illustrious appellation, who impute want of publick spirit to the late parliament; an assembly of men, whom, notwithstanding some fluctuation of counsel, and some weakness of agency, the nation must always remember with gratitude, since it is indebted to them for a very simple concession, in the resignation of protections, and a wise and honest attempt to improve the constitution, in the new judicature instituted for the trial of elections.
The right of protection, which might be necessary, when it was first claimed, and was very consistent with that liberality of immunities, in which the feudal constitution delighted, was, by its nature, liable to abuse, and had, in reality, been sometimes misapplied to the evasion of the law, and the defeat of justice. The evil was, perhaps, not adequate to the clamour; nor is it very certain, that the possible good of this privilege was not more than equal to the possible evil. It is, however, plain, that, whether they gave any thing or not to the publick, they, at least, lost something from themselves. They divested their dignity of a very splendid distinction, and showed that they were more willing than their predecessors to stand on a level with their fellow-subjects.
The new mode of trying elections, if it be found effectual, will diffuse its consequences further than seems yet to be foreseen. It is, I believe, generally considered as advantageous only to those who claim seats in parliament; but, if to choose representatives be one of the most valuable rights of Englishmen, every voter must consider that law as adding to his happiness, which makes suffrage efficacious; since it was vain to choose, while the election could be controlled by any other power.
With what imperious contempt of ancient rights, and what audaciousness of arbitrary authority former parliaments have judged the disputes about elections, it is not necessary to relate. The claim of a candidate, and the right of electors, are said scarcely to have been, even in appearance, referred to conscience; but to have been decided by party, by passion, by prejudice, or by frolick. To have friends in the borough was of little use to him, who wanted friends in the house; a pretence was easily found to evade a majority, and the seat was, at last, his, that was chosen, not by his electors, but his fellow-senators.
Thus the nation was insulted with a mock election, and the parliament was filled with spurious representatives; one of the most important claims, that of right to sit in the supreme council of the kingdom, was debated in jest, and no man could be confident of success from the justice of his cause.
A disputed election is now tried with the same scrupulousness and solemnity, as any other title. The candidate that has deserved well of his neighbours, may now be certain of enjoying the effect of their approbation; and the elector, who has voted honestly for known merit, may be certain, that he has not voted in vain.
Such was the parliament, which some of those, who are now aspiring to sit in another, have taught the rabble to consider an unlawful convention of men, worthless, venal, and prostitute, slaves of the court, and tyrants of the people.
That the text of the house of commons may act upon the principles of the last, with more constancy and higher spirit, must be the wish of all who wish well to the publick; and, it is surely not too much to expect, that the nation will recover from its delusion, and unite in a general abhorrence of those, who, by deceiving the credulous with fictitious mischiefs, overbearing the weak by audacity of falsehood, by appealing to the judgment of ignorance, and flattering the vanity of meanness, by slandering honesty, and insulting dignity, have gathered round them whatever the kingdom can supply of base, and gross, and profligate; and “raised by merit to this bad eminence,” arrogate to themselves the name of patriots.