A River Fed By Many Streams - Liberty Fund

A River Fed By Many Streams

We must work to understand the Declaration better and to grasp the various sources of its strength and enduring appeal.

A River Fed By Many Streams


Wilfred M. McClay

June 26, 2024

Thomas Jefferson was not a particularly modest man. Few great and world-changing public figures are. But in a famous letter of 1825 to Henry Lee, he insisted upon taking a modest approach to his role as the principal draftsman of the document that has come to characterize the heart and soul of the American Revolution: the Declaration of Independence. He could have claimed brilliant originality for himself. He could have complained, as he had on other occasions, about the fact that the drafting committee altered his brilliant original draft in ways of which he disapproved. But he chose not to do so in this instance. The passage in question deserves to be quoted at length, as the best account we have of his considered view of the matter:

…with respect to our rights and the acts of the British government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water. all American whigs thought alike on these subjects. when forced therefore to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. this was the object of the Declaration of Independance. not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject; [. . .] terms so plain and firm, as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independant stand we [. . .] compelled to take. neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the american mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. all it’s authority rests then on the harmonising sentiments of the day, whether expressed, in conversns in letters, printed essays or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney Etc. the historical documents which you mention as in your possession, ought all to be found, and I am persuaded you will find, to be corroborative of the facts and principles advanced in that Declaration. (my emphasis added)

There are various ways that we can construe Jefferson’s words here. Perhaps we might be tempted to regard them as the gauzy recollections of an elderly statesman, offered nearly a half-century after the events in question had occurred, reflecting on a distant revolutionary dawn when American unity was remembered as strong and growing. On the contrary, a fair reading of the letter as a whole bespeaks a sharp and precise mind, not a gauzy or dreamy one. But there is nothing in what he says that suggests the sources that influenced the composition of the Declaration were few in number and easily enumerated. Everything points the other way. Even John Locke, whose Second Treatise of Government has long been taken as a likely source for some of the most famous language in the Declaration’s preamble (although a strong case can also be made for the influence of George Mason’s Virginia Bill of Rights), is only mentioned in passing, as one of several influential but diverse writers, half of them ancient and half of them modern. Of equal weight too, in Jefferson’s estimation, were a multitude of various unspecified documents that, taken together, expressed the “harmonizing sentiments of the day.” In short, Jefferson’s account tells us something important about the diffuse and mingled elements coursing around and through the words of this great document. To understand the Declaration better and to understand the various sources of its strength and enduring appeal, we will benefit from a little disentangling.

First, we should recognize that Jefferson was very much a man of the Enlightenment, and the Declaration is in many ways a document of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis upon the natural rights of all human beings, and the consensual basis for a free and legitimate civil society, and in light of its service as an important inspiration to the French Revolution thirteen years later. However, it is not only an Enlightenment document. There were and are many pre-Enlightenment background assumptions that must be taken into account, both in reading it and in assessing how it was received and understood by Americans, if it is to be fully understood today. At the same time, it was also the case, as Jefferson says to Lee, that the Declaration was a document of its times, of its historical moment, serving as a kind of press release to the world, disclosing the “Facts” of creeping British tyranny that had been usurping the habits of self-rule that had formerly been the lifeblood of the colonists’ customary way of life. It should not be read only as an abstract statement of republican principles—although it is that—but also as an explanation of the revolutionary response by the American people to particular circumstances.

This apologia included a highly traditional element: the century and a half of self-government, which were in turn indebted to a long tradition of English legal and constitutional practices, dating back at least to Magna Carta. This element is what figures most prominently in the list of grievances that form the bulk of the Declaration, nearly all of which had to do with the deprivation of customary self-rule, and the violation of inherited rights due to colonists as Englishmen. Such appeals differ fundamentally from an appeal to unalienable natural rights, because these former rights are established by precedent, and claimed as an inheritance from forebears. They also are claimed as fundamental to the exercise of liberty. And so, we have the king accused of having “refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.” The Declaration also notes the weakening or dissolving representative bodies, inhibiting the exercise of judiciary powers, obstructing immigration, imposing unelected and unaccountable imperial officials, quartering standing armies and rendering troops unaccountable to law, and so on.

Behind such language is less a notion of abstract natural rights than one of specific inherited rights, grounded ultimately in an “ancient constitution”—traceable back through the legal thought of Coke and Fortescue to Magna Carta itself, and even further back to a shadowy “Anglo-Saxon constitution,” and forward through the political struggles of the 17th century, all the way to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which finally established the supremacy of Parliament over the monarchy. The distinction between the two understandings of rights is clearer in definition than in actual practice; Jefferson himself believed that the Anglo-Saxon constitution was the “rightful root” of the English constitution, even as he believed that Americans had enjoyed the unique advantage of being able to appeal to nature directly and find its instructions “engraved in our hearts.”

But the larger point here is that an idea of the ancient constitution, and of a historical and traditional transmission and elaboration of its liberties through many centuries of British history, forms a vivid and powerful reference point in the background of eighteenth-century Anglo-American thought. The legal scholar John Phillip Reid offers a telling illustration of this fact in an essay on the subject. In spring of 1779, as the Revolutionary War raged, a British general established an outpost in what is now Maine, attempting in that act to restore the jurisdiction of the Crown in a rebellious American area. He invited the support of those loyal citizens who “are well affected to his Majesty’s person, and [to] the ancient constitution under which they can alone expect relief from the distressed situation they are now in.” But later that same year, an American general intent upon destroying the British outpost fired back with this challenge: “I have thought proper to issue this Proclamation, hereby declaring that the allegiance due to the ancient constitution obliges [us] to resist to the last extremity the present system of tyranny in the British Government.” A rhetorical skirmish, yes, but also a highly illustrative one. Each side sought to claim tradition, and the ancient constitution, for its own cause.

Finally, we should stress the important influence of Biblical religion as a background element in American revolutionary sentiment. To be sure, Jefferson does not mention it in his letter to Lee, in keeping with his well-established reputation as a skeptic and critic of religious orthodoxy. But it is also the case that, when asked to submit a proposal for the design of the Great Seal of the United States, both Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin recommended a depiction of the Exodus, described as follows:

…Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharoah who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity.

Motto, Rebellion to Tyrants Is Obedience to God.

Nor was this offered as a form of pandering to the great unwashed; Jefferson liked the motto so much that he used it on his own personal seal. The story of the Exodus, one of the defining moments in the story of the Jewish people, and a crucial figuration for Christians of God’s promise of redemption and salvation, was to be incorporated into the American story, as the symbolic expression of America’s quest for liberty against the tyranny of monarchy. It would later serve as a leitmotif in the lyrics of many African-American slave songs, such as “Go Down, Moses,” expressing a yearning for liberation from their bondage.

But the influence of religion on the revolutionary cause went much, much deeper than the ideas of elite leaders such as Jefferson and Franklin. Indeed, it is only recently that historians have begun to appreciate the breadth and depth of the religious sentiments of the time, and how they affected popular politics—and many still deny it. As Barry Alan Shain argued in The Myth of American Individualism, eighteenth-century British North American religious life was dominated by reformed Protestant religious beliefs expressed vividly in Revolutionary-era sermons, public documents, newspaper editorials, and political pamphlets. In such communities, a robust conception of original sin and a commitment to communitarian values helped to undergird a suspicious view of concentrated power, driving opposition to imperial intrusions into American life, particularly when coming from a mother country whose culture was seen as arrogant and corrupt, making it fodder for countless sermons. Alan Heimert argued that powerful evangelistic sermons were a major contributor not only to the rising sense of American national self-consciousness, but especially to the rising revolutionary sentiment of the 1770s, when it is estimated that as many as 80 percent of political pamphlets were reprinted sermons. Clearly the connection between religious duties and political activity was strong.

John Adams was no stranger to questions of political theory. But he understood this rising popular undercurrent of disaffection as a far more potent cause of the Revolution. As he wrote in his own retrospective view, offered to influential editor Hezekiah Niles in 1818:

The Revolution was effected before the War commenced. The Revolution was in the Minds and Hearts of the People. A Change in their Religious Sentiments of their Duties and Obligations. While the King, and all in Authority under him, were believed to govern, in Justice and Mercy according to the Laws and Constitutions derived to them from the God of Nature, and transmitted to them by their Ancestors— they thought themselves bound to pray for the King and Queen and all the Royal Family, and all the Authority under them, as Ministers ordained of God for their good. But when they Saw those Powers renouncing all the Principles of Authority, and bent up on the destruction of all the Securities of their Lives, Liberties and Properties, they thought it their Duty to pray for the Continental Congress and all the thirteen State Congresses, &c.

The Declaration, then, needs to be understood as a great river of oratory that is fed by various streams, a document that held together a variety of perspectives by the forcefulness and skill of its rhetoric, and by the demands of the moment in which it appeared. Its enduring appeal, as it approaches its 250th anniversary, is nothing short of remarkable. A lingering question, though, one that the coming years will have to answer, is whether the elements that have increasingly faded into its background, namely its reliance on traditional and religious factors, including a belief in the authority of nature, that have previously place a limit upon the reach of its sprawling abstractions, will need to be restored in a culture that is rapidly losing touch with them.

The Declaration should not be read only, or even primarily, as a freestanding document. It needs the nourishing soil of those concrete, limiting factors drawn from its history if it is to retain its potency. The language of the Declaration is ultimately incompatible with a world in which those sprawling abstractions are given unlimited sway, unmoored to anything other than the promptings of the individual will, cut loose from any conception of a natural order to things, or from obligations to the past, including the inherited presuppositions and duties that had formerly given concrete definition to the Declaration’s grand assertions. To appreciate rightly the Declaration’s grandeur, we must recover those things as well.

But by the same token, we need to recover the passionate immediacy of the document, which Jefferson’s words to Lee can help us do. This was not a seminar paper. This was a work of political rhetoric, composed at a time of immense urgency, and addressing itself to fires of controversy, drawing upon the multiple streams of thought and sentiment that made up the American mind. Jefferson set out to draft a message that could command the full range of ideas and sentiments that were extant in a revolutionary America. But it did so in a way that fortified the patriot cause, in such a way that even wealthy and well-placed men found themselves willing to pledge their “lives, fortunes, and sacred Honor” to the cause of liberty. If Jefferson was right about the “course of Human events,” the opportunity to do this may yet come around again.


Wilfred M. McClay

Wilfred M. McClay is Professor of History at Hillsdale College. He was formerly the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. His most recent book is Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story (Encounter, 2019).

The Pamphlet Debate on the American Question in Great Britain, 1764-1776 selected by Jack Greene, makes available in modern digitized form a trove of eighteenth-century books and pamphlets that directly addressed what became known in metropolitan Britain as the American Question.

Featured this Month

William Anthony Hay

Zealots of Anarchy?

Johnson’s pamphlet inspired fiery responses that set the course for the Revolution.

Susan Brynne Long

A Crisis of Faith in Empire

The American Question should be seen in the context of fears about an insecure British empire.

Bradley J. Birzer

Samuel Johnson’s American War

The American Revolution was, first and foremost, a war of ideas.

Martine W. Brownley

A Failure in Rhetoric

Johnson hated satire and political polemic. It’s no surprise his pamphlet failed to impress.

Zealots of Anarchy?

“I am going to write about the Americans,” Samuel Johnson wrote to his friend James Boswell on January 21, 1775. “If you have picked up any hints among your lawyers, who are great masters of the law of nations, or if your own mind suggests anything, let me know. But mum,—it is a secret.” The resulting pamphlet, Taxation no Tyranny; An Answer to the Resolutions and Address of the American Congress, sparked reactions on its March 8 publication—some of which are represented by the other pamphlets this symposium discusses. Writing at the request of ministers who revised the draft, Johnson makes a forceful case for Parliament’s right to tax America as part of sovereign authority over it. Taxation no Tyranny highlights the constitutional issues which impeded compromise along with Johnson’s knack for turning a phrase. Only a few weeks later shots fired at Lexington and Concord opened what became a protracted struggle for American Independence.

The pamphlet controversy brings important dynamics on both sides of the Atlantic into focus. Responding to the destruction of tea in Boston Harbor on the night of December 16, 1773 with a series of Coercive Acts set Massachusetts on the verge of open revolt by the following autumn. Local bodies acting outside royal authority had displaced the Crown. A committee of correspondence in Suffolk County, Massachusetts passed resolves on September 9, 1774 condemning recent parliamentary legislation as contrary to natural right, common law, and the provincial charter. Besides rejecting them as efforts to enslave America by a wicked administration, it denied obedience to those laws and declared George III king by the compact on which the colonists’ allegiance rested. When news reached London in late October, the Colonial Secretary, Lord Dartmouth, told Thomas Hutchinson, the Loyalist former Massachusetts governor, “they have declared war against us, they will not suffer any sort of treaty.”

The First Continental Congress in Philadelphia endorsed the Suffolk Resolves on September 17. A dispute over taxing the colonies had become the question of whether parliament could legislate for America at all. Congress stated its position in October 14 the Declaration and Resolves that rejected such claims since the 1760s along with empowering commissioners and extending the authority of admiralty courts beyond smuggling. Ten specific resolves itemized claims of right and denounced garrisoning standing troops in the colonies during peacetime. They also rejected the Coercive Acts and the recent Quebec Act extending toleration to Roman Catholics and expanding it to the Ohio River. Refusing to submit, Congress hoped fellow subjects in Great Britain would “restore us to that state, in which both countries found happiness and prosperity” and declared the intent to renew non-importation of British goods in protest. News reached London by mid-December.

Johnson’s Case

The fact that common axioms “being generally received are little doubted, and being little doubted have been rarely proved” means that principles derived from experience rather than investigation must be explained which Johnson describes as “trying to make that seen which can only be felt.” Among those principles is the claim that “the supreme power of every community has the right of requiring from all its subjects such as are necessary to the public safety or public prosperity.” Mankind generally, Johnson insists, accepted that position as condition of political society, until lately when “zealots of anarchy” denied Britain’s parliament the right to tax the American colonies.

Johnson first insists that those who flourish under a government should contribute to its expense. Neither taxes nor commercial regulations can be burdensome when colonies prosper so readily. While colonists can pay and Britain had the means to make them, the fact that “power is no sufficient evidence of truth,” leads Johnson to argue a case whose result “must convict one part of robbery, or the other of rebellion.” Sovereignty—a power “from which there is no appeal, which admits no restrictions”—can only be resisted by rebellion, which he describes as testing “henceforth what shall be thenceforward the supreme power.” Because legal rights emanate from that power, they can be recalled whether equitably or not. Accepting justice or receiving any law, Johnson argues, draws “after it by a chain which cannot be broken, the unwelcome necessity of submitting to taxation.”

Johnson presents colonies as provinces of a British Atlantic world under parliament’s authority. Founded under royal charter which granted civil government and personal security along with laws, they are bound by parliamentary statute with the rest of the empire. Their legislatures resemble “the vestry of a larger parish” or other corporate bodies with limited jurisdiction, an obligation to match local or particular rules to the regular law, and liability to general taxation. They have no more claim to legislate independently than an English county like Cornwall. Charters granting their privileges may be revoked or changed for general benefit. Without them colonies and other subordinate localities dissolve from recognized bodies into “a tumult of individuals, without authority to command, or obligation to obey.” As constituent parts of the British Empire, colonists hold all the rights of Englishmen, but also duties and the laws accompanying those rights. Breaking the chain of allegiance by refusing taxation means rebellion that tests where supreme power lies.

Taxation no Tyranny effectively summarizes the position of Lord North’s administration. Their main concern was the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, not taxation which might be conceded in practice. Lord Hillsborough, an earlier colonial secretary, had described allowing colonies a power of absolute legislation in 1768 as “polytheism in politics” by introducing an imperium in imperio. Allen Ramsay insisted the same year that “Sovereignty admits of no degrees, it always supreme, and to level it, is, in effect to destroy it.” George III’s later remark that he was fighting the battle of the legislature with America captured the underlying position shared by parliament and the wider public.

Johnson makes the case felt as well as seen in sharp language. He describes Americans as “Whigs fierce of liberty, and disdainful of dominion” who “multiply with the fecundity of their own rattlesnakes.” When they leave the state of nature to claim the rights of Englishmen “these lords of themselves, these kings of Me, these demigods of independence, sink down to colonists governed by a Charter.” Most famously, Johnson, noting the alarms of slavery imposed on America, asks “how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” That subsequently oft quoted phrase marked his consistent abhorrence for slavery.

Ministers cut many sharper passages, including digs at William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, and Lord Camden, who both accepted limits to parliament’s authority, and Benjamin Franklin, in a step Johnson thought timid. He permitted the alterations telling the printer William Strachan “for why should I in defense of the ministry provoke those, whom in their own defense they dare not provoke.” With Boswell, who took the American’s side, he likened it to an architect proposing five stories for a building and his customer wanting three where “the employer is to decide.” Johnson’s employer commissioned other pamphlets to put their case before the public, including one by the Scots lawyer and historian Sir John Dalrymple. John Wesley drew the arguments in his Calm Address to our American Colonies from Taxation no Tyranny.

Critical Replies

“Attack,” Johnson told Boswell, “is the re-action. I never think it has hit hard, unless it rebounds.” Boswell’s clergyman friend William Johnson Temple asked him how can, “I will not say your pious, but your moral friend, support the barbarous measures of administration, which they have not the face to ask even their infidel pensioner Hume to defend.” Joseph Towers, a writer turned Dissenting minister, had earlier lamented how Johnson distinguished himself as a political writer by “party violence and rancor” rather than the moderation and wisdom his other work reflected. Taxation no Tyranny drew hostile replies, including other pamphlets the symposium here covers. The authors target Johnson himself along with his argument on the ministry’s behalf.

“There cannot be a more convincing proof of a bad cause” Candidly Considered insists “than when men of acknowledged ability are driven to ridicule instead of argument.” While Taxation, Tyranny adopts a tone more in sorrow than anger, the pamphlets label Johnson a Jacobite opposed to constitutional liberty from sympathy with “the overbearing spirit of the Stuart line.” (Jacobite denotes supporters of the exiled Stuart dynasty replaced on the British throne by George I in 1714.) Marmor Norfolciense cites his earlier writings against pensions, ministerial corruption, and Hanoverian to call Johnson present loyalty inconsistent. (Or perhaps a sign of some larger conspiracy against liberty.) Several pamphlets quote passages from the poem London. How could ministers “ever have pensioned such a Jacobite libeler” of George I and II? Only “a virulent Republican, or Bloody Jacobite” could even hint at an allusion that a horse symbolizing Hanover might suck the blood of a British lion without resistance. Candidly Considered thinks ministers “have as much cause to be ashamed of being defended by a Jacobite—as a Right Reverend Father in God would feel in being reduced to cull his ablest friend from among the waiters of a Brothel.”

Taxation, Tyranny charges Johnson with mistaking a case in equity for one in law by arguing parliament could tax America when a requisition voted by a representative assembly offered the only lawful way for a colony to furnish a share of the general expense. Other claims Congress asserted likewise stand under established precedents that Johnson summarily dismisses. A supreme authority proceeding to lengths where justice utterly forsakes it makes resistance legal, as he argues Charles I showed in the 1640s. Subjection ceases when authority exceeds the bounds of law and equity, and coercing America in the present case sets a dangerous precedent for Britain itself. Candidly Considered insists that “our colonies request only, that they be governed in former reigns.” Until the 1760s, “Great Britain and America were thought by each country to have interests inseparable.” The proposal that parliament tax colonies introduced the present discord making those promoting it the anti-patriots subverting the nation’s interest. Candidly Considered calls it “a plan to deprive the Americans of freedom” with Jacobites like Johnson applauding the helmsmen whose steering threatens shipwreck.

British Tensions and the American Question

The pamphlet exchange Johnson sparked with Taxation no Tyranny highlights the febrile atmosphere of British politics during the 1760s when the issue arose. George III indeed remarked in 1763 on the licentiousness of the times. A generational turnover among leading public figures accompanied other changes. The new king would not allow Whig grandees to monopolize office and ended the decades long exclusion of Tories. Longstanding insiders found themselves on the outs while outsiders had a path into public life. What the diarist Horace Walpole called an “era of faction” saw a succession of short administrations with little policy continuity until Lord North became prime minister in 1770.

Popular unrest in Britain compounded the difficulty of forming a ministry that could hold the confidence of king and parliament. Agitation fueled by John Wilkes, the libertine publicist excluded by the House of Commons as MP for Middlesex, mobilized protests that spilled over into riots. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin found it surprising “a Country so frequent in mischievous Mobs and murderous Riots” would so resent the Boston Tea Party. He had quipped earlier in 1770 that “one would [almost] think riots part of the Mode of Governance.” Polarization on principle complemented the fragmentation and reworking of political allegiances over the decade. Johnson responded in The False Alarm and The Patriot by condemning opposition “raised only by interest and supported only by clamor” and warning against counterfeit patriotism he likened to false coins which “have often lustre, tho’ they want weight.” What protesters claimed as liberty struck others, including both Johnson as political insiders like North’s advisor Charles Jenkinson, as political licentiousness that challenged social and political order. Upholding authority became a guiding concern by the 1770s.

Opposition Whigs in Britain, along with their counterparts in America and Ireland, viewed suspiciously what they considered an authoritarian turn. Not only populists like Wilkes, but heirs to the Old Corps Whigs that had dominated politics under the first two Georges and Independent Whigs like Chatham attacked North and the king’s other ministers. “Tory” returned to use as an epithet for those who backed ministers and deferred to royal prerogative. Since this usage involved principles more than pedigree, Tory often became a label for apostate Whigs. Americans soon applied it to Loyalists siding with the British crown. Both sides read earlier history from Civil Wars of the 1640s into recent disputes in language seen in responses to Taxation no Tyranny. British critics saw New England unrest as a “Presbyterian War” evoking Oliver Cromwell, while Americans and sympathizers across the Atlantic linked royalist with Jacobite and Tory as enemies to liberty.

Whig thought, however, had diverged in Britain and America from the 1690s. Old Corps Whigs from Sir Robert Walpole through Henry Pelham and the Duke of Newcastle who defended the Hanoverian political order rejected doctrines used to resist power. Downplaying a right of resistance along with popular sovereignty and contract theory, they founded British liberties on a theory of the ancient constitution that elevated parliamentary supremacy in ways that made colonial arguments untenable. What the historian Caroline Robbins called the Commonwealthman tradition looking back to the 17th century interregnum which was epitomized in the 1720s by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon’s Cato’s Letters eventually became marginalized in Britain even as it retained a constituency in the colonies. Efforts by Thomas Hollis, an English philanthropist and political outsider, to promote its literature by sending books to America highlight a divergence that impeded both sides in the dispute over colonial taxation from appreciating the other’s perspective.

A Question of Sovereignty

George III’s essentially conservative description in 1769 of altering colonial charters as “an odious measure” to be avoided captured the fundamental point at issue. Colonists, as Johnson recognized, stood firmly by charters whose standing in practice had been long accepted. Professor Jack Greene has shown how a program of imperial reform that used taxation to tighten metropolitan control over colonies opened a debate over sovereignty. Nobody had anticipated that turn. Britain’s Empire had rested on consent, not force, until governments in London tested its limits. Resistance from the Stamp Act onward pushed colonies and Britain into irreconcilable positions over parliamentary authority. The debate, as the pamphlet exchange shows, reached back into historical precedents and legal rights that left both sides at an impasse with neither willing to yield. Honor and interest alike came to be at stake.

Franklin shrewdly observed that when “a Quarrel is once on foot, even those who are at first least in the wrong, are often provok’d to do something that makes them most so; and that mutual Injuries are apt to increase Animosity till the worst of Remedies becomes the only one, the Sword.” Besides misperceptions, political constraints on both sides of the Atlantic made retreating from principle hard. British authorities had pulled back in 1776 and 1770, but threatening another boycott in 1774 amidst widespread anger at defiance in Massachusetts hardened their resolve. North and his colleagues called the Continental Congress’ bluff, leading to open rebellion in New England that quickly escalated into an imperial civil war. As George III observed in November 1775, “blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent.” And eventually, years later at Yorktown, they finally did.

A Crisis of Faith in Empire

Susan Brynne Long

July 6, 2024

This spring I spent a week grading AP U.S. History exams for high school students. In six days, the team I was on read over 21,000 responses. It was an eye-opening (and eye-straining) experience but with an encouraging outcome: our young people know more than I expected, thanks to teachers who work diligently to impart less well-known currents of U.S. history.

Students responded to this prompt: Describe a policy passed by the British government in North America between 1763-1776 and the reactions to it. The usual suspects appeared, including the Stamp Act, the Boston Massacre, and the Boston Tea Party. Besides these answers, however, gratifying evidence also indicated that America’s rising generation appreciates the imperial context in which the American founding occurred. Students commonly cited, for instance, how the French and Indian War spurred the end of Salutary Neglect, why the Quebec Act variously infuriated New England Protestants and Southern planters, and how the Navigation Acts served to bolster Britain’s importance on the world stage. The students’ choices reveal a welcome and perhaps surprising familiarity with the ideas addressed in the pamphlet wars of the 1760s and 1770s; in particular, the vital observation that the American Revolution, while singular in numerous ways, was also but one piece of the puzzle that was the fight for empires.

* * *

In 1774, dissatisfied American delegates presented to the British government The Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress in response to the Coercive, or Intolerable, Acts. This action in turn inspired a rebuke by Dr. Samuel Johnson, a Tory writer and essayist who supported the North Ministry and its punitive measures against American agitators. Modern literary critic Walter Jackson Bate characterized this rebuke, titled Taxation No Tyranny as “a combination of heady impatience and legalistic ingenuity.” Johnson’s jeremiad drew impassioned responses from American sympathizers. Some respondents defended the Americans with careful refutations of Johnson’s arguments. Others could not resist personal attacks against Johnson, whose government pension and admitted sympathies to the Jacobite cause exposed him to charges of clinging to convenience and arguing from personal interest.

Between political attacks and legal arguments, however, glimpses emerge of a vigilant empire constantly wary of competing powers. Johnson and the North Ministry perceived the greatest threat to Great Britain in the eighteenth century to be the Americans. His opponents charged him with undue harshness against North America as well as ignoring present threats based on past engagements with Britain’s historic imperial enemies.

While the Ottoman empire did not represent an immediate threat to the British empire, their periodic appearance in the essays of the pamphlet wars reflect attempts to assure an insecure British Empire of its enduring supremacy on the world stage. Should the Americans not retreat from their position against taxation without representation in Parliament, Johnson proposed a solution: “the Americans have made it necessary to subdue them” (Johnson, 87). The Tory’s opponents argued that further punitive actions against the Americans would constitute stooping to the level of “oriental” despotism, what they perceived as the authoritarian ways of the Ottoman leadership. In his response to Taxation No Tyranny, J. Almon characterized the Turkish government as among “the most arbitrary Governments.” He argued that if Parliament followed Johnson’s recommendation to continue taxing the Americans, Britain would be no better than the Ottoman Empire. He predicted a bloody future: “so strong is nature, and so weak is sophistry in extreme cases…, that more Turkish emperors have been slain by their subjects than kings in all the free monarchies that have ever existed” (Almon, 12). In their own response to Johnson, authors identified as W. Davis and T. Evans cited various tyrannies of the British Ministry under the premiership of Lord Frederick North, a Tory and ally of Johnson, including the Administration of Justice Act of 1774, an irreverence for jury trials, and censorship of the press. These offenses, the authors claimed, “would have disgraced the Divan of Turkey. They forcibly choaked up the stream of justice” (Davis and Evans, 126).

Johnson’s opponents also frequently referenced what they saw as the overall competitive threat posed by neighboring western empires. In 1770, Spain precipitated a British crisis by attempting to seize the Falkland Islands, prompting Johnson to publish an essay arguing against war with Spain. Yet when Americans resisted the Coercive Acts in 1774, Johnson argued for war. Johnson’s opponents framed this as more evidence that Johnson’s opinion was not only for sale, it also prioritized the misaligned priorities of the North Ministry over those of the nation as a whole. Davis and Evans expressed with consternation, “an English ministry were gratified by an attempt to prove the insignificance of a territory, which they had not spirit to preserve and knew they were on the brink of relinquishing– a Jacobite was pensioned by England, for pleading the cause of Spain” (Davis and Evans, 6-7). The authors considered Spain to be a greater threat to the British Empire than America. No surprise, they argued, that an essayist with Jacobite sympathies supported an equally self-interested North Ministry.

Johnson’s opponents additionally charged him and the Tories with unjustly attempting to subdue Americans bearing legitimate political grievances while ignoring the true threat of France. In 1763, Britain had won a crucial victory against the French in the Seven Years’ War. Political dissenters argued that the North Ministry had failed to follow up the victory and instead made concessions to the French. The 1774 Quebec Act allowed for the free practice of Catholicism and restoration of elements of French law and the Church’s power in the newly acquired province. Johnson defended the act in his pamphlet The Patriot (1774) as essential for preserving liberty of conscience. A fellow supporter of the North Ministry and ally to Johnson, John Shebbeare, suggested that the Quebec Act’s protections might increase French submission to British administration, and thereby promote it in both Quebec and in the thirteen North American colonies to its south. Opponents of the North Ministry saw the Quebec Act as reckless, even treasonous. In A Letter to Dr. Samuel Johnson: Occasioned by his late Political Publications, English dissenter and pamphleteer Joseph Towers charged that Johnson and Shebbeare bore French sympathies at the expense of British colonists in America. “What thanks are not due to these refined politicians, who have formed a scheme of employing an army of French Papists, to keep the New England heretics in order, or to exterminate them if they should prove refractory” (Towers, 35).

In between dialogues detailing the legal precedents for American resistance to British tyranny, Johnson’s respondents charged that punitive measures in North America would be advantageous to rival empires. In An Answer to a Late Pamphlet, Entitled Taxation no Tyranny, an anonymous author pointed out that the Americans had already resorted to loopholes by way of avoiding restrictive British trade policies: “we know that France, Spain, and Holland have traded with them, and seek ardently to trade more.” (An Answer to a Late Pamphlet, Entitled Taxation no Tyranny, 28). The anonymous respondent was not the only essayist who feared that Britain’s enemies would exploit her American weakness. What did the North Ministry expect, asked Davis and Evans, of its rival empires, should a rebellion manifest? “That the French and Spaniards will be so very complaisant to them (their good friends) as to remain patient spectators of a Civil War– from which they may derive such infinite Advantage” (Davis and Evans, 106)? Though sometimes lapsing into hyperbole and mere rhetoric, these passionate discussions of competing imperial powers speak to the vigilant outlook of both Johnson and his opponents as defenders of the British Empire. At odds were their perceptions of what constituted her greatest threat, the Americans or Britain’s historic imperial enemies.

The clearest articulation of the imperial imperatives with which Great Britain contended in the eighteenth century comes from an earlier Johnson pamphlet, reprinted during the Taxation No Tyranny debates. Respondent J. Williams offered a short rebuttal to Johnson, a personal attack on the Tory for his Jacobite past. The remainder of the pamphlet is a reprinting of a 1737 satirical essay by Johnson. At the time of its writing, Johnson was a Tory opponent of the government under the first British Prime Minister and Whig, Sir Richard Walpole. Marmor Norfolciense describes the discovery of a stone bearing an inscribed poem predicting that the stone’s discovery would coincide with the destruction of England by France: “the Lilies o’er the Vales triumphant spread” (Johnson, 6). The poem also makes veiled references to the Russian and Ottoman empires. Reprinting the essay with his own commentary, Williams charged Johnson with instigating the very destruction of the British Empire that he so feared during the earlier Walpole administration. Williams heavily implied that by focusing on the wrong enemy, namely the Americans, Johnson would increase the empire’s vulnerability to her traditional enemies.

The various responses to Johnson’s Taxation No Tyranny suggest the British Empire was a nervous one. Johnson and other supporters of the North Ministry advocated for a continuation of the punitive course against North America to prevent American agitation from developing into a formidable enemy to Britain. Advocates for the Americans argued that harshness would only inflame existing imperial rivalries. The wariest of Johnson’s respondents, a J. Bew, asked of the literary giant, “do you really think that the affection which these unhappy Children still desire to retain for an unnatural Parent, will feed, and thrive upon severity?” Or, “is it improbable that, to avoid the tyranny of one power, an oppressed people may cast themselves upon the mercy of another power” (Bew, 22-23)? Bew and his fellow pamphleteers anxiously anticipated an American alliance with France or Spain against the British Empire.

This fear proved prophetic. Alliance with France and financial support from the Netherlands and Spain, as I was recently informed by many high school students in thousands of AP U.S. History exams, clinched the American victory in their revolution. By highlighting the imperial outlook that informed many essayists at the time of the Revolution, I do not mean to suggest that these and other writers did not also align ideologically and legally with American agitators. To be sure, many of the pamphlets in this collection and the other essays of the 1760s- 1770s literary contest spend several tens more pages elucidating the legality of American resistance, the contours of the English constitution, and the rights and privileges granted by colonial charters. But the international asides that this essay has only begun to detail are telling. They refute stubborn, myopic histories of the American Revolution, bringing it into the contested world of empires. This insight renders the American Revolution far larger in scale than could ever be contained to Boston Harbor.


Samuel Johnson’s American War

Though copious amounts of blood would be spilt on the battlefields, the American Revolution was, first and foremost, a war of ideas. As such, one can effectively date the American Revolution from James Otis’s famous almost five-hour oration against the Writs of Assistance in February 1761 through the passage of the Bill of Rights in December 1791. Along the way, debates honed questions of revolution, natural rights, natural law, common law, individual dignity, and political sovereignty. John Adams, John Dickinson, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Federalists, and Anti-Federalists, and others contributed mightily to the American patriot cause.

“The Revolutionary leaders were men of substance—propertied, educated. They read. And what they read made it easier for them to become rebels because they did not see rebels when they looked in the mirror,” writes historian Trevor Colbourn. “They saw transplanted Englishmen with the rights of expatriated men. They were determined to fight for inherited historic rights and liberties.”

In 1774, John Adams attempted to sum up the arguments presented from Otis forward. “These are what are called revolution principles. They are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, of Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason.”

In 1825, nearly thirteen months prior to his death, Jefferson had said something similar. When asked about the inspiration for the Declaration of Independence, he replied:

This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.

There are numerous reasons why Americans found their way toward a harmonizing sentiment. First, there were only a few libraries in America in the Revolution as well as only several thousand separate titles of books. Second, there were only a few colleges, and all education—at whatever level—was based on a classical understanding of the liberal arts.

When a student entered college (usually at age 14 or 15), he would need to prove fluency in Latin and Greek. He would need to “read and translate from the original Latin into English ‘the first three of [Cicero’s] Select Orations and the first three books of Virgil’s Aeneid’ and to translate the first ten chapters of the Gospel of John from Greek into Latin, as well as to be ‘expert in arithmetic’ and to have a ‘blameless moral character.’ [McDonald and McDonald, REQUIEM, pp. 1-2]


Americans who had had any schooling at all had been exposed to eight- and ten-hour days of drilling, at the hands of stern taskmasters, in Latin and Greek. This was designed to build character, discipline the mind, and instill moral principles, in addition to teaching language skills. (Educated French military officers who served in the United States during the Revolution found that even when they knew no English and Americans knew no French, they could converse with ordinary Americans in Latin). [McDonald and McDonald, REQUIEM, pp. 5]

Indeed, the education of the founding generation followed a pattern. Not only did they study the classics, but they also connected the classical tradition through the Christian tradition, Catholic and Protestant, to a mythologized view of the liberties and common law of the Anglo-Saxons. “The minds of the youth are perpetually led to the history of Greece and Rome or to Great Britain,” Noah Webster wrote, as “boys are constantly repeating the declamations of Demosthenes and Cicero or debates upon some political question in the British Parliament.”

None of this should suggest, however, that everyone agreed on American revolutionary ideals. In America, there was certainly strong loyalist opposition—the most well known was led by Reverend Jonathan Boucher and Joseph Galloway—and in Great Britain, there was Samuel Johnson, the renowned critic, poet, playwright, and lexicographer.


Samuel Johnson

A devout Anglican and Tory, as well as classically educated, Johnson acidly penned his opposition to American whiggery in “Taxation No Tyranny,” a longish pamphlet or smallish book, in the aftermath of the First Continental Congress (September-October 1774). It was not his first foray into politics or political theory, and, it must be noted, he was also in the pay of King George III who annually subsidized him 300 pounds for his many contributions to English culture.

Employing cutting terms, words, and phrases such as “zealots of anarchy,” “abortions of folly,” “the fanciful Montesquieu,” “the delirious dreams of republican fanaticism,” “congress of anarchy,” “the madness of independence,” “airy bursts of malevolence,” “dictators of sedition,” Johnson believed that the First Continental Congress’s “deliberations were indecent, and their intentions, seditious.” They were decidedly un-English: “What is strange, though their tendency is to lessen English honour and English power, have been heard by Englishmen, with a wish to find the true. Passion has, in its first violence, controlled interest, as the eddy for awhile runs against the stream.” The members of the First Continental Congress hate their country, he believed, but falsely seeing this as a virtue when it was a complete denial of patriotism. Additionally, Johnson claimed it was not just Philadelphia in rebellion, but other cities even more so. “We know that the town of Boston and all the associated provinces, are now in rebellion to defend or justify criminals.”

To his way of thinking, Johnson believed that the Americans should be content with what they have—immense tracts of property—even if only virtually represented in Parliament. After all, he claimed, many Englishmen were virtually represented, and they were not in a state of rebellion.

The Americans should, properly, recognize their role within the empire.

To secure a conquest, it was always necessary to plant a colony, and territories, thus occupied and settled, were rightly considered, as mere extensions, or processes of empire; as ramifications which, by the circulation of one publick interest, communicated with the original source of dominion, and which were kept flourishing and spreading by the radical vigour of the mother-country. The colonies of England differ no otherwise from those of other nations, than as the English constitution differs from theirs. All government is ultimately and essentially absolute, but subordinate societies may have more immunities, or individuals greater liberty, as the operations of government are differently conducted. An Englishman in the common course of life and action feels no restraint.

After all, each of the thirteen colonies had originated in a charter, the charter defining each province as a constituent part of the whole.

A tax is a payment, exacted by authority, from part of the community, for the benefit of the whole. From whom, and in what proportion such payment shall be required, and to what uses it shall be applied, those only are to judge to whom government is intrusted. In the British dominions taxes are apportioned, levied, and appropriated by the states assembled in parliament. Of every empire all the subordinate communities are liable to taxation, because they all share the benefits of government, and, therefore, ought all to furnish their proportion of the expense.

For Johnson, taxation was a sign of unity and of civilization, a payment for the common and public good: “But when, by the gradual admission of wiser laws and gentler manners, society became more compacted and better regulated, it was found, that the power of every people consisted in union, produced by one common interest, and operating in joint efforts and consistent counsels.”

It was not just the right of Parliament to tax, but a duty.

Our colonies, therefore, however distant, have been, hitherto, treated as constituent parts of the British empire. The inhabitants incorporated by English charters are entitled to all the rights of Englishmen. They are governed by English laws, entitled to English dignities, regulated by English counsels, and protected by English arms; and it seems to follow, by consequence not easily avoided, that they are subject to English government, and chargeable by English taxation. To him that considers the nature, the original, the progress, and the constitution of the colonies, who remembers that the first discoverers had commissions from the crown, that the first settlers owe to a charter their civil forms and regular magistracy, and that all personal immunities and legal securities, by which the condition of the subject has been, from time to time, improved, have been extended to the colonists, it will not be doubted, but the parliament of England has a right to bind them by statutes, and to bind them in all cases whatsoever; and has, therefore, a natural and constitutional power of laying upon them any tax or impost, whether external or internal, upon the product of land, or the manufactures of industry, in the exigencies of war, or in the time of profound peace, for the defence of America, for the purpose of raising a revenue, or for any other end beneficial to the empire.

If anything, Johnson continued, America should be taxed because it never had been taxed. “One of their complaints is not such as can claim much commiseration from the softest bosom,” Johnson wrote. “They tell us, that we have changed our conduct, and that a tax is now laid, by parliament, on those who were never taxed by parliament before. To this, we think, it may be easily answered, that the longer they have been spared, the better they can pay.”

Further, the Americans should be grateful that the English had defended them from the French during the Great War for Empire.

If, however, as it seemed, the colonies were preparing for war, English should respond with fervor and intensity. Johnson believed that conquered territory should be given back to the French, the Indians should be armed, and Black slaves liberated. In what was arguably the most cutting remark of all, Johnson wrote: “We are told, that the subjection of Americans may tend to the diminution of our own liberties; an event, which none but very perspicacious politicians are able to foresee. If slavery be thus fatally contagious, how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”


In the end, of course, the war of ideas became a very real, intense, and bloody conflict. Beginning in April 1775, the war would rage in the northern and southern colonies until the Franco-American victory over the British at Yorktown in late 1781. Hostilities continued into the following year, but France, Great Britain, and the United States came to an agreement at the Peace of Paris in 1783. Johnson would die the following year, December 1784.

It’s fascinating to see just how prescient Johnson was. Though France came in on the side of the colonies against Great Britain, many, many Indians were armed, fighting on both sides, and many Black slaves were liberated. Clever, witty, and brilliant, the man offered some serious opposition to the American cause.

Not that his ideas in America shaped much, but, in England, he certainly helped coalesce the opposition to American independence. His greatest challenger in Britain, of course, was the equally clever, witty, and brilliant Anglo-Irish Edmund Burke, whom Johnson deeply admired (even in disagreement). Never monolithic, Britain remained torn throughout the American Revolution as to how to deal exactly with the moment. On one side was Johnson, on the other was Burke.

Still, it’s worth remembering, again, that the Revolution was always, first and foremost, a war of ideas. Even in its opening moments at Lexington in April 1775, the citizens of Lexington—led by their pastor, Jonas Clarke—debated long into the night exactly what to do when British troops marched through their village.

As Clarke had argued as early as 1765,

And it is a truth, which the history of the ages and the common experiences of mankind have fully confirmed, that a people can never be divested of those invaluable rights and liberties which are necessary to the happiness of individuals, to the well-being of communities or to a well regulated state, but by their own negligence, imprudence, timidity or rashness.  They are seldom lost, but when foolishly or tamely resigned.

When Lexington militia engaged the British, they not only had Clarke’s words in mind, by they also, by 4:30 in the morning, had became Americans rather than mere Lexingtonians.


A Failure in Rhetoric

Although Samuel Johnson’s Taxation No Tyranny excited considerable interest when it appeared—four editions were published within a month [1]—the pamphlet garnered few admirers, then or now. Before publication, the ministry of Lord North, which had commissioned him to write it, wanted alterations to make the piece more moderate. Johnson accepted their changes, grousing about governmental timidity, but he also admitted deleting parts of the final paragraph himself, because it was “rather too contemptuous.” Contemporaries viciously attacked both the pamphlet and Johnson personally; the modern editor of Johnson’s political writings sums up its reception as “explosively hostile.” [2] Subsequent scholarship on Johnson has usually tried to explain away the problems in the piece, with minimal success, or else avoided it entirely.

Taxation failed for many reasons, ranging from faulty arguments to inaccurate information and strategic omissions. But the pre-publication editing by both Johnson and the ministry suggests that at least some of the problems were literary ones. Johnson is one of the great masters of English prose, but polemic as a genre does not employ the kind of prose in which Johnson excelled. Moreover, polemic relies heavily on satire, a genre that Johnson loathed and one that he usually evaded in his best writings. Finally, in addition to these generic issues, Johnson failed to produce an effective conclusion for Taxation, a literary reflection of his moral difficulties with the political solution that his arguments in the pamphlet required.

In literary terms, polemic is a fairly straightforward genre. Monofocal, its structure develops in terms of a simple binary: the polemicists’ sides are completely right, and their opponents entirely wrong. Not only is complex prose unnecessary, but polemic usually avoids it for the sake of maximum clarity.

In contrast, the strength of Johnson’s characteristic prose derives from his ability to create extended periodic sentences, using structures parallel in grammatical form, in meaning, and sometimes even in sound, to evolve carefully detailed distinctions. In his journalism, moral essays, and criticism, his prose is constructed to explore all salient aspects of his subjects, developing arguments by analyzing his points individually and also in relation to each other. Throughout this process, the prose style itself through its parallelisms—balances (similarities) and antitheses (opposites)—becomes a vehicle for producing value judgments.

Emphasizing only one side, polemical writing does not require either the detail or the precision of Johnson’s style. To meet generic expectations in Taxation, Johnson regularly shortens and simplifies his characteristic parallelisms. When he uses balance or antithesis, most of his abbreviated parallels tend to be at the simplest level, that of grammar:



Even when he expands his parallelisms, often they merely repeat each other rather than further developing his points:



These kinds of abbreviated parallelism limit the scope of Johnson’s arguments throughout Taxation. Moreover, when he writes lengthier sentences, they tend to sprawl awkwardly, giving the impression of rambling (or worse, ranting) because they lack grammatical structures sufficient to organize his points.

Johnson’s prose and that of polemic do share one characteristic, the use of short sentences. In his other writings, Johnson occasionally inserts them among his powerful periods, where they ground his rhetoric in blunt common sense or alternatively, move toward aphorism; they function to vary his prose rhythms and emphasize key points. Polemic, too, frequently uses short sentences for emphasis. In Taxation Johnson occasionally deploys them effectively with the abbreviated parallelism characteristic of the piece: “The contest is not now for money, but for power” (82). More frequently, however, he uses brief sentences with points emphasizing governmental power as absolute—“In sovereignty there are no gradations” (24). In context this terseness too often seems to suggest the authoritarianism it represents, in a sense functioning almost as an implied threat. Finally, Johnson’s short sentences sometimes spotlight unfortunate overstatements: “Every act of Government aims at publick good” (27). Thus in Taxation, even where the characteristics of polemical style and Johnson’s converge, he fails to take literary advantage of the technique.

A second difficulty with the genre of polemic for Johnson is its reliance on satire as a mode. Hester Thrale Piozzi emphasized that “nobody had a more just aversion to general satire” than Johnson. [4] W.J. Bate’s perceptive analysis of Johnson and satire goes further, describing his “hatred and fear of it.” Bate writes that “It is hard to think of a single qualification for satire that Johnson did not possess,” noting his quick wit, piercing ridicule, defensive aggressiveness, impatience, and particularly his tendency to be reductive, to diminish complexity by minimizing it. [5] These characteristics could make him ferocious in conversation. Over two centuries later, readers of Boswell still wince at the brutality of some of Johnson’s retorts. Bate emphasizes that Johnson disliked these traits in himself and spent his adult life trying to control them, concluding that “he did not dare to release the satiric impulse partly because it was so strong.” [6]

Johnson had published a few satirical pieces in the late 1730s, when he was striving to establish himself in the London publishing world. Eager to attract attention, he drew on conventional rhetoric of the opposition to Walpole, sometimes in inflammatory ways. (These works provided rich fodder for the attacks on Taxation almost forty years later.)  Aside from his poem London, which is praised for its literary and scholarly qualities rather than its politics, these early polemics were not particularly successful satires. John Dryden, the brilliant late l7th-century satirist who laid the groundwork for l8th-century England’s stellar achievements in the genre, wrote of the “vast difference betwixt the slovenly butchering of a man, and the fineness of a stroke that separates the head from the Body, and leaves it standing in its place.”[7] In Johnson’s case, fine strokes were what he so memorably achieved in conversations; “slovenly butchering” more often marked his early satires.

In Taxation, Johnson regresses to employing satire as a blunt instrument, although, just as with his prose, he generally uses it in abbreviated forms. He relies on sarcasm, the briefest form of irony and also the weakest. Short outbursts of invective function similarly. Satire is a genre of excess, characterized by overstatement and exaggeration, but Johnson’s stylistic excesses in Taxation also include frequent repetitions. For this reason, even his abuse regularly dwindles into insults that lose their force because they are repeated so often. All of these elements contribute to the violence that many of his attackers condemned in Taxation.

More seriously, Johnson relies on satire to avoid developing substantive arguments. Criticizing the Americans for “airy bursts of malevolence,” he urges the British to “rather repel them with scorn, than refute them by disputation” (66). This is actually a good description of his typical satiric approach in Taxation. To answer American complaints at being transported to England for trials, he advises them “not to offend”: “While they are innocent they are safe” (59). Similarly, he writes that Parliamentary representation for Americans is unnecessary because planters who “grow rich, may buy estates in England, and . . . effectually represent their native colonies” (54). One pamphlet attack summed up the problem: “There cannot be a more convincing proof of a bad cause—than when men of acknowledged ability are driven to have recourse to ridicule instead of argument.”[8]

Finally, Johnson’s largely unsuccessful deployment of satire in Taxation significantly diminishes the text’s overall literary impact because of its prominence. Nicholas Hudson points out that “Johnson increasingly turned to satire over the last half of the pamphlet.” [9] Johnson himself justifies this turn with typically insouciant overstatement: “One ridiculous proposal is best answered by another” (84). He seems to have recognized the comment as a misstep, because in a later edition he changed “ridiculous” to “wild,” [10] a word that he had already overused in the piece.

Johnson’s final literary difficulty in Taxation was his failure to construct a persuasive conclusion for it—or, more accurately, any conclusion at all. Analyses of the ending of course have to be tentative, since we know that many of the ministry’s and Johnson’s own revisions were in the last parts of the pamphlet. But as published, Taxation simply stops after a rambling sequence sketching possible outcomes for the current American situation. This sequence also functions as a final evasion of substantive argument on his part.

Johnson’s arguments throughout Taxation were organized to support war as the only viable British response to the Americans. But after writing that Parliament seemed to have decided on force, he pulls back, with a self-denigratory remark suggesting authorial uneasiness: “Men of the pen have seldom any great skill in conquering kingdoms, but they have strong inclination to give advice.”  Having argued throughout for force, he then turns to mitigate the very argument that he has been prostituting his prose to make: “I cannot forbear to wish, that this commotion may end without bloodshed, and that the rebels may be subdued by terrour rather than by violence.” He recommends dispatching “such a force as may take away, not only the power, but the hope of resistance, and by conquering without a battle, save many from the sword” (85-86). Ultimately, Johnson was unwilling to face the moral consequences that the political conclusion of his arguments would entail.

Throughout his life Johnson strongly opposed slavery, European imperial colonization, and war. Taxation involved all three issues. Johnson incorporates his anti-slavery convictions into his arguments attacking colonial rhetoric about American “enslavement” by Britain. On that subject he produced the only famous line in the pamphlet, about hearing “the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes” (89). He managed to limit his objections to colonization to two sharply negative interjections about Columbus and Vasco de Gama (22). But his polemic in Taxation required an ending in war, a political conclusion with moral dimensions that Johnson finally would not endorse. Thus, the pamphlet closes not with what he has previously evoked in this peculiar final section, a British “dream of conquest, settlement, and supremacy” (89), but with an American victory. The final paragraph expresses his hopes for specific terms in “the treaty of Boston” (454).

In Taxation Johnson was willing to work to streamline his prose to serve the conventions of the polemic genre. He was also willing to return to satire, albeit satire diluted into simplified forms, to meet generic polemic demands. But Johnson was always at his best when addressing moral concerns, and even while writing under ministerial direction, when politics and moral issues collided in a way that he could not tolerate, the politics gave way. For those who admire Samuel Johnson, the mangled literary ending of Taxation offers the most satisfactory reflection in that pamphlet of what they esteem in his character, his life, and his writings.


[1] Donald J. Greene, ed., Taxation No Tyranny, in Political Writings, Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, 23 vols. (New Haven: Yale UP, 1977): X, 408.

[2] Greene, X, 408, with facts on revision and Johnson’s remark on pp. 401-402 and 411.

[3] Samuel Johnson, Taxation No Tyranny (London: Cadell, 1775), p. 55. Subsequent references appear in the text.

[4] Hester Lynch Piozzi, Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson, in Johnsonian Miscellanies, ed. G. B. Hill. 2 vols., 1897 (rpt. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1966): I, 223, see also 327.

[5] W. Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson (New York: Harcourt, 1975), 493, 489.

[6] Bate, 493

[7] John Dryden, “Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire,” in Of Dramatic Poesy and Other Critical Essays, ed. George Watson. 2 vols., 1693 (rpt. London: Dent, 1962-68): II, 137.

[8] “The Pamphlet, Entitled ‘Taxation No Tyranny,’ Candidly Considered.” (London: Davis, Evans,  n.d. [1775]), p. 20.

[9] Nicholas Hudson, A Political Biography of Samuel Johnson. 2013 (rpt. London: Routledge, 2015), p. 173.

[10] Textual apparatus in Greene, X, 451.


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