Project Canterbury

Life and Correspondence of Samuel Johnson, D.D.
Missionary of the Church of England in Connecticut and First President of King's College, New York.

By E. Edwards Beardsley, D.D.

New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1874.

Chapter XIV.


A. D. 1768-1770.

THE opponents of the Church of England in this country were restless under the continued efforts to secure American Bishops. As often as the clergy applied for this boon, they repeated their representations to the Government and Dissenters at home, that it was uncalled for, and, if granted, would be followed by outbursts of popular indignation. It has already been mentioned that the Southern Provinces were opposed, or rather not inclined to the scheme, and attempts were made to bring them over to its support. Johnson, writing to the Rev. Mr. Camm of Virginia, before the death of Seeker, said: "We have been informed from home that our adversaries, who seem to have much influence with the ministry, endeavor, and with too much success, to make it believed, that nineteen twentieths of America are utterly against receiving Bishops, and that sending them, though only with spiritual powers, would cause more dangerous disturbances than the Stamp-act itself; insomuch that our most excellent Archbishop, who has been much engaged in this great affair, and has greatly condescended to exchange many letters with me upon it for several years, has lately informed me that he has not been able to gain the attention of the ministry to it; though his Majesty is very kindly disposed to favor and promote it. I am therefore very apprehensive that our solicitations will fail of gaining the point unless we could bring it to a general cry, and prevail with the Southern Provinces to join us in a zealous application to the Government at home in the same important cause."

The attacks upon Chandler's "Appeal" led the author to prepare an elaborate defense, and particularly with a view of replying to Dr. Chauncy, who was his most formidable antagonist. The outlook for the Church at this time was anything but encouraging. Passion took the place of argument, and hostile pens ran beyond the limits of reason, so that what Johnson wrote to his son was true: "These violent asserters of civil liberty for themselves, as violently plead the cause of tyranny against ecclesiastical liberty to others." The "Appeal Defended" was followed, at a later day, by another publication, entitled "The Appeal Farther Defended," and this was the last of the pamphlets in favor of the American Episcopate, though the idea could not be dislodged from the minds of the true friends of the Church. Chandler, in congratulating his venerable adviser at Stratford on recovering from a severe illness, expressed the hope that his health might hold out, by the blessing of Heaven, till he should "have the pleasure of seeing a Bishop in America."

The effect of the controversy was not felt to any good purpose in England. Other things absorbed the public attention, and the ministry was so much engaged with political measures, that no time was taken for deliberate consultation upon the interests of religion in the Colonial dependencies. Johnson, the agent, wrote to his father in midsummer, 1769, when it was almost over: "I cannot but say, I am rather pleased that your controversy about American Bishops seems to be near its close, since I am afraid it can have no very good effects there, and it certainly produces none at all here. It is surprising how little attention is paid to it." The struggles of party were violent, and the uneasiness and discontents of the people at home needed watching and allaying not less than the troubles and disquietudes of the Colonies; and in this way the great and important design of an American Episcopate was kept in the distance. "While the state of affairs, both with us and with you, continues just as it now is, I am afraid," said Dr. Lowth, then Bishop of Oxford, "we may not expect much to be done in it." One is reminded in this connection of the sarcastic observation of Sir Robert Walpole, the prime minister, when Dean Berkeley solicited in Parliament an act in favor of his scheme for the Bermuda College. He had gained the good will of the King, and he requested Walpole, in presenting the measure, only to be silent; he was so. After it was passed, a courtier remonstrated with him against the proposition of the Crown, and he replied, "Who would have thought anything' for promoting religion or learning could have passed a British Parliament?" [MS. of Wm. S. Johnson, 1767.]

Dr. Johnson did not cease, under all the discouragements of the times, to cherish some good hopes for the future. He was now the oldest of the clergy in America, and felt at liberty, as he had always done, to write very plain things to his English correspondents. He began, however, to foresee the storm gathering in the political horizon. He could not be blind to the determination of all parties to give up neither the parliamentary authority nor even the right of taxation in the Colonies. "I thank you," he said to his son in the spring of 1769," for sending the Resolves, etc. What dreadful things they are! They are like so many thunderbolts upon poor Boston, and it is well if they do not actually turn into great guns and bombs before they have done; for these Oliverians begin to think themselves Corsicans, and I suspect will resist unto blood. But if it should come to this, I doubt Old England and New will fall together, and both become a prey to the House of Bourbon. Deus avertat omen!"

His foreign correspondence grew more irksome with the increase of his infirmities, and he relied upon his son to do for him in England what he could not so well plead for by letter. Several of his friends in turn were pleased to communicate with him through the same medium. A domestic rather than a literary or theological interest is attached to the following letters:--

MY DEAR SIR,--I write these lines with your good son sitting by me. He has been so obliging as to give me his company (when at this place in last December) as often as he could conveniently. It was matter of great concern to me that he called on me at Bray last summer during my residence at my other parish, twenty-five miles distant, and my mother, who, to her no small joy, received him, totally forgot to ask his address; so that I had it not in my power to return his visit.

I have, on the strength of an hereditary friendship, opened my mind to your worthy son on every subject without reserve. His Grace of Canterbury receives him always with the regard due to him on his own account, and on that of his excellent father, to whom I beg leave to return my best thanks for a valuable token of regard which had not thus long escaped my notice. I have the happiness of telling you that my good mother (who remembers you with the truest respect) is very well, and likely to bless her family for many years. I am also, I thank God, very happy in my wife and two sons. My choice in matrimony gave the highest satisfaction to my mother, and therefore you will believe that it was not an unwise one.

I earnestly pray for the continuance of your valuable life, and that a long stay on earth may lead you to a longer happiness. These lines are written, as you perceive, in a hurry, as Dr. Johnson must carry them away with him.

I remain, my dear Sir,

Your most faithful and affectionate friend and servant,


LAMBETH PALACE, Thursday, March 10, 1768.


June 10, 1768.

MY VERY DEAR AND WORTHY SR,--It gave me the greatest satisfaction to receive your affectionate letter, and to be informed of your welfare, and of the health of that most excellent lady, your mother; and moreover of your great happiness in so excellent a consort as she must undoubtedly be to have the approbation and esteem of so good a judge. I also rejoice with you in your two sons, and am glad that the great and good Bishop whom I am proud to call my friend is like to live in so hopeful a posterity, and I heartily pray God that all those joys and many more may long, very long be continued to you. I beg you will make my most affectionate compliments acceptable to your honored mother (and your lady, though unknown), together with my hearty thanks for the very kind manner in which she received and treated my dear and only son, who has the highest sense of her amiableness and benevolence. I bless God that the friendship I had the honor of with your renowned father still subsists between our children, and am very glad that on the score of it you have so particularly opened your mind to my son on the most important subjects.

I am greatly grieved at the dark account he gives me from you of the ill-health of the most worthy and excellent Mr. Jones, and let him know, with my compliments when you have opportunity, how great satisfaction I have in his excellent performance in Philosophy as well as the Trinity, and how earnestly I pray for his life and health, that he may bless the world with other labors! [Wm. Samuel Johnson, writing to his father May 14, 1768, and speaking of Archbishop Seeker, said:--"I dined with him about ten days ago, when he was able to sit at table, but had no use of his left hand and arm. I had the pleasure to meet there Dr. Berkeley, and the very worthy and learned Mr. Jones, who is much better in health than he used to be, and told me he was still pursuing his Principles of Natural Philosophy, and hoped he should ere long be able to publish something upon that subject. He remembered my brother with much affection, and desired his compliments to you, as did Dr. Berkeley. His account of the state of Hutchinsonianism is much the same with what I have before mentioned to you."] I bless God that such excellent men as Drs. Horne and Wetherell are preferred to be heads of those important houses in the University, and when you have opportunity give them my compliments and joy. I am inexpressibly obliged to his Grace of Canterbury for the great honor he does my son, and thank you for the candor with which you accept such a trifle as my little Grammar, in which I had no other view than to be useful to young lads in America, where I am extremely desirous, if possible, to promote the study of Hebrew, as it is very little known here. I thank you, my dear Sir, for your affectionate prayers in my behalf, and remain with great esteem and regard,

Your most affectionate friend and brother,


It alleviated the grief of his son's long absence that he received from him frequent and agreeable accounts of interviews with his old correspondents and with men of distinction in literature as well as in the affairs of the government. "For the sake of the name," he wrote in November 1769, "and because I think him one of the best of the modern writers, I made an acquaintance, some time ago, with Dr. Samuel Johnson, author of the Dictionary, etc. He was very well pleased with the attention I paid him; had heard of you, and presents his compliments. He has shining abilities, great erudition, and extensive knowledge; is ranked in the first class of the literati, and highly esteemed for his strong sense and virtue; but is as odd a mortal as you ever saw. You would not, at first sight, suspect he had ever read, or thought in his life, or was much above the degree of an idiot. But nulla fronti fides, when he opens himself, after a little acquaintance, you are abundantly repaid for these first unfavorable appearances." [It has been told that when he introduced himself as an American, the great sage and moralist treated him, at first, somewhat rudely, and spoke harshly of his countrymen, saying, among other things: "The Americans! what do they know and what do they read?" "They read, Sir, the Rambler," was the quick and polite reply; which so pleased him that he took the statesman into his confidence, paid him many civilities in London, and, after his return to this country honored him with kind and courteous letters. See Appendix A.]

The Rev. Dr. Johnson had intimated to his son that seeing so much grandeur, and being conversant with the luxuries and refinement of the Old World, he might be tempted to look down upon America, or that his home, when he returned to it, would appear mean and despicable. But great minds are never thus affected. "I will not have the vanity," he replied, "to impute it to my philosophy; but it is my good fortune, that though I am pleased enough with seeing these things, yet they take little hold of my affections. I like to look behind the gay curtain, but when I do, I find little to admire and less to be attached to." And he added still more: "My wishes, were they indulged me to the utmost, would be very limited, and all centre in a little ease and independence in the tranquil vales of America. The worst of it is, that I am not likely to be very soon gratified even in such humble hopes, and the best way (to which I hope to bring myself by and by) is to have no wishes for anything in this world but what we actually possess, or have certainly within our reach. This however cannot be till I return to Stratford."

Ever since the publication of his "Hebrew Grammar," he had been desirous of issuing a second edition corrected and improved. It was his last contribution to Christian education in America, and he would leave it, as far as he had the means of making it so, in a perfect state. For this purpose he consulted several Hebrew scholars and solicited their opinion of the merit of his performance. To Bishop Lowth he suggested the idea of laying a broad foundation for the study of the language in this country, and giving to it a prominent place in collegiate instruction. "I wish," said the Bishop, "it were as much in my power, as were there an opportunity it would certainly be in my inclination, to promote your useful proposal of establishing a Hebrew Professorship in North America. We must leave to God's good providence this and many other improvements in that country, and I doubt not of their being in due time accomplished." The Bishop had given him to understand that the learned were beginning to think in earnest of a new translation of the Scriptures, "as a thing not a great way off;" and writing November 1, 1771, to Mr. Parkhurst, the scholar who carried his "Hebrew Grammar" through the press in London, Johnson expressed the wish that all helps might be made available in such a work, even the discoveries of Hutchinson, for whose learning, with some exceptions, he still retained a high respect.

Among others whom he consulted was Mr. Sewall, Professor of Oriental Literature in Harvard University; and through him he desired the opinion of a colleague, Mr. John Winthrop, about Hutchinson's "Scripture Philosophy." The answer returned is too good to be excluded from these pages:

CAMBRIDGE, 24th July, 1769.

REV. SIR,--An answer to your obliging favor of March 1, 1768, I acknowledge hath been long due. The only reason of delay was the want of a private conveyance. For I could not persuade myself an epistle of this nature was worth the postage for such a length of way.

My thanks are due, Sir, for those favorable sentiments you are pleased to express of the Oriental Professor at Cambridge. He wishes his poor, but honest endeavors may be followed with those happy consequences you mention.

The union of the whole Christian Church, in the bonds of peace and love, is an object much to be desired. In the mean time, however we may differ in certain external modes and forms, I trust we shall each bear an undissembled affection to all, of whatever denomination, who love our common Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity.

Mr. Professor Winthrop, Sir, is a firm believer in the Newtonian system. It cannot, therefore, be supposed he should entertain a very high opinion of a scheme so opposite to that as the Hutchinsonian is.

The Hebrew language is certainly the most simple of any; and the grammars of it (setting aside the incumbrance of points), may be reduced to a smaller compass than that of any other language upon earth: it may, consequently, be learned with greater facility and expedition; Upon these accounts, and others that possibly might be added, I cannot but think it claims priority in a learned education. The progression ought always to be from the easier to the more difficult.

Your Grammar, Sir, in my humble opinion, is upon a very good plan, and may answer very valuable purposes. You are the best judge whether it may be improved. It hardly becomes the modesty of one who is comparatively but a youth to point out to a gentleman of Dr. Johnson's learning and experience what improvement, if any, may be made in his own composition.

I am, Rev. Sir, with great respect,

Your very humble servant,


Something more than a lay-reader was now needed to aid Dr. Johnson in his parochial duties. Mr. Tyler, who had been with him above a year, pursuing the study of Hebrew and Divinity, was desirous of proceeding to England for ordination, and of being appointed to a mission within the colony. Guilford and Norwich were both vacant, and as the former was the birthplace of Johnson, he procured him an invitation to read there for several months before embarking, and then gave him commendatory letters to the Archbishop and the Society.

The Rev. Ebenezer Kneeland, a graduate of Yale College in 1761, three years in holy orders, and a chaplain in the British army, appeared in Stratford and rendered acceptable service to the parish.

He wrote to his son, January 15, 1768: "My health, D. G., is perfectly good, but my legs much as they were. Mr. Kneeland, whom I much like, is here till March, and nearly adored: the people have subscribed £30 per annum, and he has agreed to quit his regiment and come next summer. Mr. Tyler is invited and gone to Guilford, and the Church is very happy and increasing." He described Mr. Kneeland at the same time as a good scholar and an excellent speaker; but letters and other memorials will hardly sustain the description. They indicate neither depth of learning nor polished culture, and subsequent and more intimate relations must have led him to qualify his opinion. He was chosen associate minister, however, and took the more laborious duties which had become so burdensome to the aged Rector. It was a welcome and timely relief, and the people were glad to provide it.

Eighteen months elapsed, and his son in England was surprised to learn that Mr. Kneeland had formed an acquaintance with his eldest daughter (Charity), and desired to be united to her in marriage. The approbation of her mother and grandfather was obtained before his consent was asked, which appears to have been reluctantly given, with some good advice about the happiness and responsibility of the married state. This connection brought the assistant minister and his superior more closely together, and made their interests in working the parish one. It left no room for jealousies, and Dr. Johnson was now gratified with the prospect of being succeeded by one of his own affinity in a charge especially dear to him, and which he had held for nearly forty years.

What gave him the greatest anxiety at this period was the prolonged absence of his son in England. From year to year he had looked for his return, and lived upon the hope of seeing him again restored to his family, but his expectations were continually disappointed. He often begged him, for the sake of his domestic affairs, to relinquish his agency, if the business intrusted to him could not be speedily accomplished; and in December, 1769, he wrote to Governor Trumbull of Connecticut, congratulating him on his advancement to the head of the government; and at the same time expostulating with him on the subject of his son's being so long detained in England. "I am told," said he, "the Lower House voted to direct him to come home in the spring at all events; but that the Upper House, led by, I know not what expressions in his letters, prevailed on the Assembly to conclude to instruct him by all means to continue longer, leaving, however, a discretionary power with your Honor to direct otherwise, if you should see reason for it, or something to this effect."

The Governor, in acknowledging his "pathetic expostulation," did not admit that any such discretionary power was lodged with him, but rather that the General Assembly fully relied on the purity of the agent's intentions to serve the interests of the colony, and to return whenever it should be consistent with his sense of duty. He lamented the, public confusions, and the "paltry injurious Indian cause," which had led to the long separation from his "dearest and tenderest connections;" and then added, what was quite true, "his observations and intelligence will be of lasting advantage to the colony, and his services there at this critical juncture peculiarly great."

The agent, writing to his wife on New Year's Day, 1770, said:--

The present situation of our affairs is this. On the 22d ult. the Lords of the Council were moved to assign a day for hearing a motion we intend to make for dismission of the Mohegan cause, when their Lordships were pleased to appoint the first day of their next sittings for that purpose, and to assure us it should be before the expiration of this month. Should this motion on our part succeed, the cause is at an end. I shall then be disengaged from this tedious affair, and shall have only to see what Parliament will do with the colonies in the course of this session, and may certainly leave England as soon as it is over, which will probably be sometime in May. Should we fail in this motion, we shall then indeed have to try the merits of the cause at large, but still have good reason to expect that it may be got through with in the course of the winter or spring; so that either way I have the strongest hopes of seeing you some time next summer, at farthest, and you may rely upon it, it shall be as soon as possible.

His strong hopes were not realized, and a vexatious delay again filled his friends with disappointment. He wrote his father late in the summer of this year that he had not only been unable to get his business dispatched, but had for a month past been extremely ill with a serious fit of the gout in both his feet; and he intimated that if no probability existed of the Mohegan cause being tried in five or six months, he should not hesitate to come away as soon as his health would permit, though to return again, should it be thought necessary, to attend the trial. Once the case was nearly finished, June, 1770, when the sickness of the attorney general intervened and led to a postponement. Every way this was a sad misfortune to him, and speaking of his detention on this account in the same letter, he said: "One mitigating circumstance, however, attends it; that one can bear with more patience those ills which are the immediate inflictions of Providence than those which are occasioned by the faults of men. Had this delay been occasioned by anything less than sickness or unavoidable necessity I should have had no patience left. But nobody is to blame; it was the act of Providence."

It has already been mentioned, as some compensation for this protracted absence, that the father was favored with such graphic and admirable letters from his son. Nothing but talking over experiences at the fireside in Stratford could exceed the interest with which he read the descriptions of what he saw and heard in England, and his brief account of interviews with men high in Church and State. The son was present at some of the most important and exciting debates in Parliament, and at a period too when great minds were occupied with great national subjects. He listened to the most eloquent defenders of the British Constitution, and gathered up every word that was spoken in vindication of measures which bore upon the welfare of America. The caution with which he communicated his observations to his father showed how critical the times were, and how solicitous he was that his countrymen should not be unprepared for the perils and hardships that lay in their path.

In a letter to him on the 4th of January, 1769, he spoke of what seemed to be the fixed resolution of the Administration not to repeal immediately those acts which the Colonies complained of, but to maintain the right of Parliament to impose duties and taxes in America, and to enforce obedience to its laws in the most effectual manner. "The tide, in fact, at present," he added, "sets strongly enough against us, and I fancy will continue to do so while Lord Hillsborough administers our affairs, who is extremely inflexible." Four months later he wrote again to his father with scarcely happier forebodings:--

I am very much obliged to you that you accept so well my apology for this long, tedious absence, which, as I have said, I greatly hope will not be prolonged through another winter, though I cannot determine its period. Your obliging compliment upon my defense of the charter against Lord Hillsborough's objections is very flattering. I am sensible of the danger we are in with respect to all our rights, and particularly the evil eye they have upon this charter especially; yet I should be particularly sorry to have that event take place while I am here, and shall therefore, as it is my duty, continue to defend both that and all our other just rights, in the best manner I can while I continue in the service of the colony. It is extremely unhappy that we cannot on both sides come to a better temper in the unfortunate dispute now subsisting between this country and that. If we once get into blood, your conjecture will undoubtedly be but too soon fatally verified: we shall destroy each other, and become an easy prey to our enemies. Prudent men, on both sides, are aware of this danger, and will, I hope, by degrees gain so much influence as to prevent it. Administration have, since the rising of Parliament, given out that the duty-act shall be repealed next year, if the Colonies remain quiet, but one can hardly depend much upon the declarations of ministers.

When the year came round and the address from the Throne had been issued, he inclosed a copy to his father, and wrote, among other things:--

Lord Chatham appeared again (after three years' absence) in the House of Lords, and declared himself the friend of America. He said he had not altered his ideas of. the proper mode of governing the Colonies, wished for moderation and lenity, but would not go fully into the subject. "I have," says he, "a strong propensity towards that country, and love liberty wherever it appears. That country was settled upon ideas of liberty. It is a vine, to use the allusion of Scripture, which has taken deep root and filled the land. May it long flourish! But I am the friend not the flatterer of America; they have done wrong in some things, but let us inquire coolly and candidly before we, censure as the address does."

On the 7th of February, 1770, he wrote him a long letter, reciting his hindrances, and gravely repelling an insinuation which seems to have been mischievously made, that he was becoming alienated from his family; and then he proceeded to things less personal, and described a debate in Parliament, the memory of which must have lingered with him to the end of his days.

I hardly know how to write upon any other subject, but I must just tell you that we have had many changes of men; both by deaths and dismissions (which the papers, I presume, will have acquainted you with), without any changes of measures. Lord North, for the present, succeeds the Duke of Grafton as prime minister, and seems to intend to pursue the same system of politics. Parliament have been much retarded in their proceedings by these changes, and the: rest of their time has been taken up with the Middlesex election, which has been repeatedly debated with great vehemence and acrimony, both by the Lords and Commons; but the ministry have still carried their point in favor of the decision of last year, on several divisions, by a majority of about forty in the Commons, and in the Lords of about fifty. The Lords in the minority have signed the most spirited protest that is perhaps of record. The opposition intend still to pursue the point in every shape they can devise.

Lord Chatham told the Lords that while he lived it should never rest, nor would they cease to bring it before Parliament in every possible method, till the wound in the Constitution was healed. His last speech upon this occasion (about two o'clock last Saturday morning) was amazingly fine. Neither Greece nor Rome, I believe I may venture to say, ever heard anything superior to it. Roused with indignation at some unfair proceedings of the ministry, as well as warmed by the universal ardor of the debate, he displayed. his utmost powers of eloquence, and with astonishing ability and energy even vanquished Lord Mansfield, who is certainly one of the first of mankind, and worthy of such an antagonist. He obliged him to change his ground even in a point within his own profession,--the law. The conflicts of these two great men are such as would have been seen between Demosthenes and Cicero, had they been opposed to each other, warmed by emulation and heated by opposition. They excel each other in different manners of eloquence, but are equally superior to all others. This dispute so engrosses the attention of all the politicians that they can hardly think of anything else. Hence it is that American affairs have not yet been taken up, though we expect they will be soon entered upon. There seems to be but little hope, at present, that we shall obtain more than the repeal of the duties upon glass, paper, and painters' colors, which will answer no purpose to America. On the contrary, they threaten us with some severe resolutions, or perhaps a penal act, against agreements not to import goods. Lord Chatham, we are told, wishes the repeal of the whole of this Revenue act, but I fear he will not have influence enough to effect it.

Project Canterbury