Eighteenth-Century Life 25.3 (2001) 80-93
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The Politics of Samuel Johnson's Life of Savage
Steven D. Scherwatzky
One of the most memorable episodes in Johnson's Life of Savage (1744) occurs when Savage, soon after his pardon for the murder of James Sinclair, encounters in the streets of London the very woman whose perjury led to his conviction. Desperately impoverished, she begs Savage for relief. He responds, without acrimony, by sharing equally with her his only guinea, a gesture that Johnson applauds as one that "in some Ages would have made a Saint, and perhaps in others a Hero, and which, without any hyperbolical Encomiums, must be allowed to be an Instance of uncommon Generosity, an Act of complicated Virtue; by which he at once relieved the Poor, corrected the Vicious, and forgave an Enemy." 1 Though this act of "complicated virtue" has been wisely read as an instance of Christian charity, 2 I believe an inquiry into the idea of virtue in English political discourse during the 1730s and 1740s can enrich its ideological context. Despite his own poverty and many faults, Savage rises, when least expected, above the selfishness that Johnson associated with a corrupt Whiggish world. While Savage's poverty lends pathos to the episode, his charitable act also suggests the paternal concern Savage might have demonstrated had he not been denied the birthright Johnson believed to be his. Given Johnson's faith in Savage's aristocratic heritage and their shared distrust of Whiggism, Life of Savage can be read as the story of a man bereft of proper care in an increasingly mercantilist society that had abandoned the ideal of civic virtue.
Johnson and Savage met in London in the late 1730s, a time that J. G. A. Pocock has defined as "the era in which political thought became engrossed with the conscious recognition of change in the economic and social foundations of politics and the political personality." 3 Pocock explains how England could conceive of itself, with the aid of republican values, as a "mixed government" in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with an Aristotelian or Polybian balance of the one, the few, and the many represented by the limited powers of the King, Lords, and Commons. 4 Yet during the early decades of Hanoverian rule, many citizens believed that the consolidation of power among Court Whigs posed a challenge to this ideal balance. As a result, the political opposition to [End Page 80] George II and his prime minister Robert Walpole argued that virtue was rapidly becoming a thing of the past, part of a classical republican heritage that had been neglected by Court politics in its embrace of a credit economy subject to the instability of future markets. Working from civic humanist notions imported from Renaissance Italy to England through James Harrington, a Country alliance hoped to restore virtue to what it saw as the corrupt modern world of the Court. The word "corruption" permeates the Opposition critique of Court politics. As Pocock remarks, "corruption" in eighteenth-century discourse "is used to denote a disturbance of the balance of the constitution, with the demoralization of individuals and the public that is supposed to go with it" (Politics, p. 131).
It is within this politically charged atmosphere that Johnson and Savage, two struggling writers who shared a mutual distrust of Court politics under George II and Walpole, became friends and aligned themselves with the Country politics of the Patriot Opposition. 5 From the Opposition perspective, articulated most forcefully by Bolingbroke, the ideal of a "mixed government" had been compromised by Court Whigs who allowed faction to disrupt the balance promised by a blend of monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic rule. The prime minister, it seemed, encroached upon the king's authority while attempting to silence the voice of dissent, most notably through Tory proscription from government places and the fruits of patronage. In the spirit of classical republicanism, the Opposition argued that the political individual could never be truly free or virtuous if dependent upon the Crown...