Saturday, November 6, 2010

Lord Auchinleck v. Samuel Johnson

"Boswell's Life of Johnson", compiled by George Birkbeck Norman Hill, includes a Walter Scott note discussing Boswell's father Lord Auchinleck.  The occasion for this note was a famous argument that the Anglican Tory Johnson and the Presbyterian Whig Lord Auchinleck engaged in during Johnson's visit to Auchinleck House, at the end of his Western Isles tour with James Boswell. 

The event which occurred at Auckhinleck House (wikipedia image below) on November 6, 1773 follows, along with Scott's note:

'Saturday, 6th November

I cannot be certain, whether it was on this day, or a former, that Dr Johnson and my father came in collision. If I recollect right, the contest began while my father was shewing him his collection of medals; and Oliver Cromwell's coin unfortunately introduced Charles the First, and Toryism. They became exceedingly warm, and violent, and I was very much distressed by being present at such an altercation between the two men, both of whom I reverenced; yet I durst not interfere. It would certainly be very unbecoming in me to exhibit my honoured father, and my respected friend, as intellectual gladiators, for the entertainment of the publick; and therefore I suppress what would, I dare say, make an interesting scene in this dramatick sketch this account of the transit of Johnson over the Caledonian hemisphere.

Yet I think I may, without impropriety, mention one circumstance, as an instance of my father's address. Dr Johnson challenged him, as he did us all at Talisker, to point out any theological works of merit written by Presbyterian ministers in Scotland. My father, whose studies did not lie much in that way, owned to me afterwards, that he was somewhat at a loss how to answer, but that luckily he recollected having read in catalogues the title of Durham On the Galatians; upon which he boldly said, 'Pray, sir, have you read Mr Durham's excellent commentary on the Galatians?' 'No, sir,' said Dr Johnson. By this lucky thought my father kept him at bay, and for some time enjoyed his triumph; but his antagonist soon made a retort, which I  forbear to mention.

In the course of their altercation, Whiggism and Presbyterianism, Toryism and Episcopacy, were terribly buffeted. My worthy hereditary friend, Sir John Pringle, never having been mentioned, happily escaped without a bruise.'

And the note:

' Old Lord Auchinleck was an think he has pinned himself to now, able lawyer, a good scholar, after the manner of Scotland, and highly valued his own advantages as a man of good estate and ancient family ; and, moreover, he was a strict presbyterian and Whig of the old Scottish cast. This did not prevent his being a terribly proud aristocrat; and great was the contempt he entertained and expressed for his son James, for the nature of his friendships and the character of the personages of whom he was engoue" one after another.  ' There's nae hope for Jamie, mon,' he said to a friend. ' Jamie is gaen clean gyte. What do you think, mon ? He's done wi' Paoli he's off wi' the land-louping scoundrel of a Corsican ; and whose tail do you think he has pinned himself to now, mon ?'  Here the old judge summoned up a sneer of most sovereign contempt. ' A dominie, mon—an auld dominie : he keeped a schule, and cau'd it an acaadamy.' Probably if this had been reported to Johnson, he would have felt it more galling,  for he never much liked to think of that period of his life]; it would have aggravated his dis like of Lord Auchinleck's Whiggery and presbyterianism. These the old lord carried to such a height, that once, when a countryman came in to state some justice business, and being required to make his oath, declined to do so before his lordship, because he was not a covenanted magistrate. 'Is that a' your objection, mon ?' said the judge ; ' come your ways in here, and we'll baith of us tak the solemn league and covenant together.' The oath was accordingly agreed and sworn to by both, and I dare say it was the last time it ever received such homage. It may be surmised how far Lord Auchinleck, such as he is here described, was likely to suit a high Tory and episcopalian like Johnson. As they approached Auchinleck, Boswell conjured Johnson by all the ties of regard, and in requital of the services he had rendered him upon his tour, that he would spare two subjects in tenderness to his father's prejudices ; the first related to Sir John Pringle, president of the Royal Society, about whom there was then some dispute current: the second concerned the general question of Whig and Tory. Sir John Pringle, as Boswell says, escaped, but the controversy between Tory and Covenanter raged with great fury, and ended in Johnson's pressing upon the old judge the question, what good Cromwell, of whom he had said something derogatory, had ever done to his country; when, after being much tortured, Lord Auchinleck at last spoke out,
'God, Doctor! he gart kings ken that they had a lith in their neck'— he taught kings they had a joint in their necks. Jamie then set to mediating between his father and the philosopher, and availing himself of the judge's sense of hospitality, which was punctilious, reduced the debate to more order. Walter Scott.

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