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Doctor Johnson and the Business World

ISSUE:  Summer 1975

No economic historian should be arrogant enough to put pen to paper about the greatest literary figure in eighteenth-century England. Moreover, literary scholars, without much help from historians, have already found out virtually every fact which can possibly be known about one of the most explored persons in that century. Compared with what we know in detail about Dr. Johnson, such familiar figures of political and economic history as Chatham or James Watt fade into obscure silhouettes. Even the shadow of the great man spreads magic in its path. For example, when Johnson first went to London for a few months as a poor, unknown, unimportant scholar in 1737, his biographer writes: “One would like to know more about Johnson’s first London landlord” and “What of “w. the cat”? Each cryptic phrase [in the account] remains a separate mystery.” An economic historian offers no competition at such a level of detailed investigation. There can be no new primary sources for him which have not been exhaustively explored already. A long search through the eighteenth-century records of the excise authorities in the course of an investigation into the brewing industry failed to reveal his name in any negotiations concerning Thrale’s brewery at Southwark. Recorded facts alone may be sifted into a different pattern. This is, perhaps, what Johnson meant when he said that, in writing history, “all the greatest powers of the human mind are quiescent.” But he was never the one to condemn honest toil and he also commented, in another place, that “the writer is not wholly useless who merely diversifies the surface of knowledge and calls us back to a second view.” Attempting to do just this, by looking at Johnson through the eyes of an economic historian, is to see a side of him which has been very much ignored. Most historians have ignored him completely save as a source for the occasional convenient quotation. Until very recently English scholars also turned away from this aspect of his life. In particular, the attitudes of literary critics seem largely to have followed that of Boswell, who was not particularly curious about this side of the life of his idol and did not record it at all fully. Yet it can be argued that Johnson’s interest in the practical business of the world illuminates many of his attitudes as a writer and as a person. The devastating sanity of Johnson’s comments, his attacks on cant in any form, and his talents in being one of the most perceptive reporters of the details of life in eighteenth-century England all owe not a little to his involvement with and his passion for the business of the world.

The part of London society which he adorned and later dominated was itself an easy meeting ground for those of status in intellectual matters, art, and letters with men of wealth from land and trade (although not much from industry in Johnson’s time). Here was the most fluid social scene of any European capital (except possibly Amsterdam) ; that least hardened by formal caste categories setting boundaries to status and social intercourse. Every continental visitor reacted to the importance of the middling groups in that society. It was above all, as Johnson observed many times, a great commercial society where the wealth of a great commercial city and nation mingled freely with a county-based aristocracy living part of their year and spending most of their money in the world of affairs and fashion. In no other country did politics respond so sensitively to the material interests of such a diverse establishment, or did a “titled and untitled aristocracy” find itself so committed to fortunes other than agricultural rents. In Johnson’s immediate circle, apart from the world of learning, literature, and publishing, which were intrinsically his own as a writer and intellectual, there were a Muscovy merchant, John Rylands; Joseph Banks, explorer, President of the Royal Society, adviser to excise authorities, admiralty, and industry ; Topham Beauclerk, son of a duke; Richard Clark, one attorney among several and Lord Mayor of London. Boswell’s brother (“a very agreeable man and speaks no Scotch”) was a merchant based in Valencia; Garrick’s brother was a wine merchant; Adam Smith, sanest of economic philosophers, was a customs collector. There was Robert Adam, architect and entrepreneur in building. The vast circle of those whom Johnson felt he knew well enough to approach varied from Warren Hastings to General Oglethorpe. It was as true a microcosm of the larger London society in its own way as was that greater club, the House of Commons. Such a varied society bred sanity in those it did not corrupt by wealth and leisure.

To observe Johnson as himself the observer of the animated economic scene he saw around him in London and on his travels would involve a long journey through his writings, taking always his words rather than Boswell’s. Johnson’s own comments on travel set the tone for his eye and his brain: “The use of travelling,” he once said, “is to regulate imagination by reality and instead of thinking how things may be to see them as they are.” Wherever he went he visited manufacturers, whether it was the silk and porcelain factories at Derby or kelp collecting in the Hebrides. In such expeditions Boswell was the reluctant companion. Johnson reported assiduously to London the prices of malt and barley and the level of rents in the country he was passing through on his travels and he described in detail financial panics afflicting London for the benefit of his country friends.

When famous, Johnson refused to withdraw from this worldly and commercial scene himself, whether as professor at Oxford, as cleric, or as library keeper, even declining to use the title by which he has become known to the world. He belonged to the world at large, above all, to London. Here lie the roots of one aspect of the “vigorously inquiring mind,” the “mind which was always ready for use,” which Reynolds and his other friends admired so much.


This is not to say that Johnson ever formulated, or attempted, a systematic, articulate economic philosophy. He had no complete vision of an economic system as had Adam Smith or Hume or Quesnay, and it is exceedingly doubtful if the fragments of such a system could be dug out of his writings and pieced together without much interpolation and much omission of awkward opinions. Johnson was just not an economist. In writing he was concerned exclusively with the folly of Hume’s religion, or lack of it, rather than with the sanity of his economic judgments. Nor does he seem to have commented in writing on Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” beyond the general defense in conversations that a person who had never been engaged in trade might undoubtedly write well upon the subject, and that nothing required more to be illustrated by philosophy than trade. If Boswell is to be believed—and he was a little jealous of Smith—Johnson did not get on very well with the great economist, who criticized Oxford too much and was altogether too bookish in his conversation.

As a layman, however, Johnson shows the unmistakable drift of his economic opinions. He took for granted and viewed with favor, on the whole, the commercial society which made London the richest city in Europe, which is not at all as usual in his circle as enjoying it while condemning the degeneracy of times when wealth accumulated and men decayed. When he traveled through backward, poverty-stricken, subsistence-farming districts in Scotland and the islands he knew which type of society benefited its people most. Part of his condemnation of Scotland and things Scottish, even when jocular, was the condemnation of material poverty and a way of life at the margin of subsistence. The clan system there lay broken in pieces by the aftermath of the forty-five and a market economy was penetrating some regions hitherto innocent of cash crops. With it came the full implications of rigorous commercial attitudes in land-owners, tenants, and laborers for the first time. The passing of a way of life Johnson regretted, but not the material effects of the change upon the people: “The admission of money into the Highlands,” he wrote to Boswell in 1777, “will soon put an end to the feudal modes of life by making those men landlords who were not chiefs. I do not know that the people will suffer by the change, but there was in the patriarchal authority something venerable and pleasing.” The quality of his perceptions into the rapidly changing economy of the Highlands and Western Isles is remarkable. The following passage is typical of his insight :

The payment of rent in kind has been so long disused in England that it is totally forgotten. It was practised very lately in the Hebrides, and probably still continues, not only at St. Kilda, where money is not yet known, but in others of the smaller and remoter Islands. . . . It were perhaps to be desired that no change in this particular should have been made. When the Laird could only eat the produce of his lands he was under the necessity of residing upon them ; and when the tenant could convert his stock into no more portable riches, he could never be tempted away from his farm, from the only place where he could be wealthy. Money confounds subordination, by overpowering the distinctions of rank and birth, and weakens authority by supplying power of resistance and expedients for escape. The feudal system is formed for a nation employed in agriculture and has never long kept its hold where gold and silver have become common.

Apart from vivid curiosity about things economic, this passage also reveals the romanticized nostalgia of an observer from a sophisticated society towards the primitive. Johnson is typical of his age in such an attitude. More interesting— and more significant in relation to his economic opinions—was Johnson’s defense of the “tacksman,” condemned almost universally as a parasitic middleman between Laird and tenants. He complained to Mrs. Thrale on 6 September 1773: “The improvements of the Scotch are for immediate profit, they do not yet think it worth while to plant what will not produce something to be eaten or sold in a very little time.” Johnson maintained firmly that the specialized trading intermediary was a necessity and an asset to any society. Without it “all must obey the call of immediate necessity, nothing that requires extensive views or provides for distant consequences will be ever performed.” This at bottom is Adam Smith’s own defense of the division of labor, specialization of function, and an expanding market, which implies, too, as a social consequence of the process, a more differentiated society. In fact, we may claim that it is all of a piece with his love of London, of the city life. For his own society, Johnson similarly defended wealth, trade, and luxury (by which he meant conspicuous expenditure) : not the most natural opinions at first glance for the hammer of the Whigs, then commonly identified as the party of commercial wealth opposing a Tory squirearchy of land unsullied by commerce. This dichotomy of wealth in politics was always a myth, as research makes plainer each year, but yet the opinion was abroad in the eighteenth century and was itself a political weapon. One might well tax Johnson with his Whig economic doctrines. At all events, however, Johnson is far from the Physiocrats in these general sentiments although, when writing about agriculture, he saw trade as a subordinate activity.

Trade, he asserted, produced pleasure directly from the increased enjoyment of commodities, and intermediate good by giving employment, although it was possible for trade (particularly some branches of foreign trade) also to be associated with undesirable results. He sought to distinguish between “real” and “monetary” transactions when commenting about the advantages of trade, but compounded the difficulties of definition and distinction between the two. “As to mere wealth, that is to say, money, it is clear that one nation or one individual cannot increase its store but by making another poorer,” he wrote, “but trade procures what is more valuable, the reciprocation of the peculiar advantages of different countries.” However, he was not completely consistent, even though the remarks above give the general tenor of his opinions. In another context he wrote: “Trade is like gaming. If a whole company are gamesters, play must cease for there is nothing to be won. When all nations are traders, there is nothing to be gained by trade, and it will stop first where it is brought to the greatest perfection. Then the proprietors of land only will be the great men.” This is an odd compound of certain traditional Mercantilist ideas and a quasi-Ricardianism, which anticipates a long-run declining rate of profit and an increasing proportion of the economic surplus accruing to rent.

The extension of this argument to the defense of luxury (in the face of a widespread pious condemnation of it) was not alone the view, “Depend upon it, sir, every state of society is as luxurious as it can be. Men always take the best they can get,” but a reasoned challenge developed from Bernard Mandeville. Johnson once said the author of “The Fable of the Bees” opened his “views into real life very much.” Behind it lay the conviction that unwilling destitution—what we should now call chronic involuntary unemployment—was one of the worst social evils of a pre-industrial society. Here, perhaps, is the unconscious echo of the relative poverty of the agricultural economy about the Lichfield of his childhood—the economic aspect of which his love for London society and awareness of the poverty of provincial social life is the obverse. For Johnson, luxury continued the benefits which trade began: “as far as it reached the poor it would do good to the race of people ; it will strengthen and multiply them.” “You cannot spend in luxury,” he wrote, “without doing good to the poor. Nay, you do more good to them by spending it in luxury than by giving it: for by spending it in luxury you make them exert industry, whereas by giving it you keep them idle.”

This is the familiar argument against saving, which was growing in the eighteenth century, equivalent to that of Keynes in more recent times of depression, repeated upon the banners of the unemployed, “work not charity.” Johnson elaborated his meaning: the luxury of building produced elegance of accommodation and exertion in industry. “A man gives half a guinea for a dish of green peas. How much gardening does this occasion, how many labourers must the competition, to have such things early in the market, keep in employment. . . . As to the rant that is made about people who are ruined by extravagance, it is no matter to the nation that some individuals suffer.” But this is Johnson beginning to argue for victory, pushing a partial truth towards dogmatic completeness.

Such attitudes are more appropriate in a non-industrial setting. For the industrial entrepreneurs of this same generation saving (that is abstinence from extravagant personal expenditure) to allow profits to be reinvested in the business to sustain its expansion was a major economic virtue which had Johnson’s strong approval. His argument, like that of Keynes, was really an argument against hoarding, certainly not one against increasing investment. Increased spending for Johnson, just as increased investment, would generate increasing employment.

Johnson is not consistent in his views about the economic system, despite the drift of his opinions outlined above. He also argued strongly for a balanced economy at times, in favor of protecting agriculture to support farmers’ incomes and agricultural rents, while wanting the ports to be open in times of scarcity to protect the poor from famine prices. He claimed that agriculture produced the chief assets of a nation, “its only riches which we can call our own and of which we need not fear either deprivation or diminution.” This occasional piece, “Further thoughts on Agriculture,” certainly smacked of the Physiocrats. While not wishing to deter Englishmen from commerce, Johnson nevertheless argued vigorously that trade was subordinate to agriculture while industry arose from it. “Traffic . . . ,” he wrote, “must owe its success to agriculture; the materials of manufacture are the produce of the earth. . . . Agriculture, therefore, and agriculture alone can support us without the help of others in certain plenty and genuine dignity.” Government, therefore, clearly had an obligation to protect agriculture and Johnson argued equally forthrightly about the benefits of the policy of granting export bounties on corn. Far from being responsible for scarcity and higher prices, Johnson saw the bounty as encouraging the extension of cultivation by creating an export surplus (which could always be restrained by legislation in a year of scarcity). The bounty “certainly and necessarily increases our crops and can never lessen them but by our own permission.” He cut quickly to the real cause of high prices : “The true reason of the scarcity is the failure of the harvest; and the cause of exportation is the like failure in other countries where they grow less, and where they are, therefore, always nearer to the danger of want.”

He accepted, almost instinctively one feels, many of the basic postulates of mercantilism; that is to say, he did not oppose many of the current assumptions traditional before Adam Smith, and he recommended students to Thomas Mun, Josiah Child, Locke, Davenant, and Gee. But this is just the list of all the eminent commentators (except for the arch-Whig dissenter Defoe) and in his later years, when new winds began to blow, he spoke favorably of Dean Tucker, Bernard Mandeville, and Adam Smith. Part of Johnson’s support for a mercantile society can undoubtedly be traced to the broad acceptance of the assumptions of the mercantile state. He thought that dependence on imported food and raw materials from areas of the world not under British political control was casting hostages to fortune. Foreign trade, as opposed to imperial trade, was fickle: “one of the daughters of fortune, inconstant and deceitful as her mother . . .every trading nation flourishes, while it can be said to flourish, by the courtesy of others. We cannot compel any people to buy from us or to sell to us.” Colonies therefore should be strictly controlled and their economies brought into complementarity with that of the mother country. An economically independent colony was for Johnson a denial in terms. Hence his scorn for any view of British relations with the Americans which was not in favor of total independence or total control.

But there is another side to the matter. Johnson’s economic beliefs, as all his other beliefs, were shot through with moral judgments. Views which are contradictory in economic logic may sometimes be explained, if not reconciled in economic consistency, by the moral position they represent. Johnson was fundamentally opposed to slavery, to settlement by conquest of inferior peoples, to wealth made by cheating ignorant natives, or exploiting labor in conditions of serfdom or slavery. He opposed much foreign trade on these grounds, and was antipathetic to much colonialism for these reasons. These were the real foundations for his dislike of the Americans. Here are grounds for disliking some big business and lucrative foreign trade which he felt was based on exploitation. He argued against specious advertising. He approved of trade which was not dependent on one man’s getting the better of another, or of one people or society getting the better of another. He liked small business and individual enterprise, he approved of making money through inventions and discoveries and enterprise. Internal improvements, the extension of enterprise within Britain, industrial advance, in principle benefited everyone. But there were other kinds of enterprise where this was not so, and he maintained this interesting and significantly split attitude throughout his life. Johnson became involved himself most completely with business of the former kind.

Johnson’s objections to “The Fable of the Bees,” despite his acknowledgment that luxury might serve a purpose, also had a moral basis because of the deliberate confusion of virtue and vice which Mandeville’s paradoxes of “public vices and private benefits” implied, but he condemned it “not without adding that it was the work of a thinking man.” A characteristic transcendent moral imperative about the justification and use of wealth is contained in one of his many dedications: “. . .no motive can sanctify the accumulation of wealth, but an ardent desire to make the most honourable and virtuous use of it, by contributing to the support of good government, the increase of arts and industry, the rewards of genius and the relief of wretchedness and want.” There are many passages where he approved of the “bourgeois virtues”—the Puritan virtues—of honest work, thrift, sobriety, “redeeming the time,” and spoke against idleness and extravagance.

If Johnson always tried to relate economic activity to moral criteria, to its effect upon the nation, he was always aware that the “condition of the nation” implied concern for the well-being of the anonymous multitude of the humble. A further extract from the “Journey to the Western Islands” illustrates exactly Johnson’s keenness of observation, defended by a general attitude toward concern for these practical details of life:

The art of joining squares of glass with lead is little used in Scotland, and in some places is totally forgotten. The frames of their windows are all of wood. They are more frugal of their glass than the English, and will often, in houses not otherwise mean, compose a square of two pieces, not joining like cracked glass, but with one edge laid perhaps half an inch over the other. Their windows do not move upon hinges, but are pushed up and drawn down in grooves, yet they are seldom accommodated with weights and pulleys. He that would have his window open must hold it with his hand, unless what may be sometimes found among good contrivers, there be a nail which he may stick into a hole, to keep it from falling.

These diminutive observations seem to take away something from the dignity of writing, and therefore are never communicated but with hesitation, and a little fear of abasement and contempt. But it must be remembered, that life consists not of a series of illustrious actions, or elegant enjoyments; the greater part of our time passes in compliance with necessities, in the performance of daily duties, in the removal of small inconveniences, in the procurement of petty pleasures. . . . The true state of every nation is the state of common life. The manners of a people are not to be found in the schools of learning, or the palaces of greatness, where the national character is obscured or obliterated by travel or instruction, by philosophy or vanity ; nor is public happiness to be estimated by the assemblies of the gay, or the banquets of the rich. The great mass of nations is neither rich nor gay: they whose aggregate constitutes the people, are found in the streets, and the villages, in the shops and farms; and from them collectively considered, must the measure of general prosperity be taken. As they approach to delicacy a nation is defined, as their conveniences are multiplied, a nation, at least a commercial nation, must be denominated wealthy.

As Mrs. Thrale remarked, “Dr. Johnson’s knowledge and esteem for what we call low or coarse life was indeed prodigious.”


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