Smith and Samuel Johnson: Unlucky Altercation?

samuel johnson the club

Thomas Keymer for AdamSmithWorks

October 14, 2020
Adam Smith and Samuel Johnson, two of the most powerful and original thinkers of the eighteenth century, didn’t much care for one another. Both were members of the Literary Club, a dining and debating society formed by the gregarious portraitist Joshua Reynolds, which met weekly from 1764 at the Turk’s Head Tavern in London’s Gerrard Street. However, Smith and Johnson rarely coincided at meetings, and temperamentally they were chalk and cheese, with sharply contrasting styles of participation. The Club’s importance as a crucible of creative interaction and multidisciplinary thinking has recently been highlighted in a study by Leo Damrosch; membership also included the politician Edmund Burke, the dramatist, novelist and poet Oliver Goldsmith, the historian Edward Gibbon, and the star actor David Garrick. Johnson, who once declared that “a tavern chair was the throne of human felicity” and was never happier than when talking for victory (perhaps he was only happy when doing so), dominated the early proceedings and set the enduring tone. Reticent Smith refused to play ball, however. His election to the Club in 1775 was resented by several members including Garrick, who thought his conversation “flabby,” and Smith’s own former student James Boswell, who sniffily remarked that now the Club “has lost its select merit.” Self-awareness never was Boswell’s strong suit. But Boswell did at least observe the Club’s prevailing code of conduct, which emphasized expansive, free-flowing talk. Smith didn’t, and he kept his best ideas to himself. “He had book-making so much in his thoughts,” Boswell alleged, “and was so chary of what might be turned to account in that way, that he once said to Sir Joshua Reynolds that he made it a rule when in company never to talk of what he understood.”

Several surviving anecdotes about Smith and Johnson—all at second hand, it should be noted—suggest real animosity. The most extreme case is a contribution made by the novelist Sir Walter Scott to John Wilson Croker’s 1831 edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. The anecdote concerns Johnson’s brief visit to Glasgow as he returned from his Hebridean tour of 1773, and turns on a conversation, or at least an exchange, about David Hume:
Mr. Boswell has chosen to omit, for reasons which will be presently obvious, that Johnson and Adam Smith met at Glasgow; but I have been assured by Professor John Miller that they did so, and that Smith, leaving the party in which he had met Johnson, happened to come to another company where Miller was. Knowing that Smith had been in Johnson’s society, they were anxious to know what had passed, and the more so as Dr. Smith’s temper seemed much ruffled. At first Smith would only answer, ‘He’s a brute—he’s a brute;’ but on closer examination, it appeared that Johnson no sooner saw Smith than he attacked him for some point of his famous letter on the death of Hume. Smith vindicated the truth of his statement. ‘What did Johnson say?’ was the universal inquiry. ‘Why, he said,’ replied Smith, with the deepest impression of resentment, ‘he said, you lie!’ ‘And what did you reply?’ ‘I said, you are a son of a —— !’ On such terms did these two great moralists meet and part, and such was the classical dialogue between two great teachers of philosophy.

Scott knew how to stage and report a fight, and his anecdote is rich in delicious detail: Johnson’s famous conversational belligerence; Smith’s wounded incomprehension and shock; the paradox of eloquent men slumming it in the linguistic gutter; at the same time, the serious religious overtones of a quarrel grounded in conflicting responses to Humean skepticism. One almost resents the mundane fact that Smith wasn’t in Glasgow when Johnson passed through, and that his notorious letter defending Hume wasn’t published until four years later.

It’s now generally agreed that the Wizard of the North was making things up, or at the very least, getting them spectacularly wrong. Yet his story also embodies a larger truth about Smith and Johnson, and there are other, better attested anecdotes to flesh out this truth. Some seem rather petty, such as Johnson’s remark that “Adam Smith was the most disagreeable fellow after he had drank some wine, which, he said, ‘bubbled in his mouth’” (the report is Boswell’s, and here’s another case of the pot calling the kettle black, since the notoriously slovenly Johnson had no credentials at all as an etiquette coach). Johnson often stuck to lemonade at Club meetings, which may have helped the late-night talking for victory. But by Smith’s account, he violated social convention in more disruptive ways, with displays of faith that overflowed into embarrassing religious enthusiasm or even mania. “Of the late Dr. Samuel Johnson, Dr. Smith had a very contemptuous opinion,” reported a journalist who had interviewed Smith in 1780.
‘I have seen that creature,’ said he, ‘bolt up in the midst of a mixed company; and, without any previous notice, fall upon his knees behind a chair, repeat the Lord’s Prayer, and then resume his seat at table.—He has played this freak over and over, perhaps five or six times in the course of an evening. It is not hypocrisy, but madness.’

In another context, Smith told Boswell “that he imputed Johnson’s roughness to a certain degree of insanity which he thought he had,” and he was far from alone in making that suggestion (Johnson, in fact, privately suggested it himself). Yet the roughness flowed above all from the imperative of conversational victory. On one occasion, as Smith proudly expatiated on the beauty of Glasgow, Johnson cut him off by saying “Pray, Sir, have you ever seen Brentford?” Brentford was a byword for dirt and squalor, or as the poet James Thomson put it, “a Town of Mud.” One’s reminded of the “Athens of the North” gag in Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers (1972), a comedy of competing philosophers and national pride: “He took offence at my description of Edinburgh as the Reykjavik of the South.”

There was certainly one quite serious altercation, and it’s probably this (broken telephone-style) that gave rise over time to Sir Walter Scott’s story. “I was once in company with Smith, and we did not take to each other,” Johnson told Boswell in 1763, speaking in unusually muted terms. He was alluding to an event reported by Boswell in a later volume of the Life, but one that for various reasons can be confidently pinpointed to Smith’s London visit of September-October 1761. Boswell’s source is the historian William Robertson, who first encountered Johnson at the house of William Strahan (the Scots-born printer of Johnson’s Dictionary and other works), and had never felt the rough edge of Johnson’s tongue:
Robertson. ‘He and I have been always very gracious; the first time I met him was one evening at Strahan’s, when he had just had an unlucky altercation with Adam Smith, to whom he had been so rough, that Strahan, after Smith was gone, had remonstrated with him, and told him that I was coming soon, and that he was uneasy to think that he might behave in the same manner to me. “No, no, Sir, (said Johnson,) I warrant you Robertson and I shall do very well.” Accordingly he was gentle and good-humoured, and courteous with me the whole evening; and he has been so upon every occasion that we have met since. I have often said (laughing,) that I have been in a great measure indebted to Smith for my good reception.’

Scholars have debated the subject of the “unlucky” and obviously vehement altercation described by Robertson, which can’t (in 1761) have concerned the Great Infidel’s controversial serenity in death. Perhaps it was something else to do with Hume, or some other writer or body of work on which Smith and Johnson held opposing views: perhaps Lord Kames, whom Smith mostly admired but Johnson liked to ridicule; perhaps the Ossianic confections of James Macpherson, which Smith (like many Scots intellectuals) endorsed and which Johnson aggressively debunked.

It has also been suggested that Johnson was seizing the opportunity to object in person to Smith’s critical review of one of the towering achievements of his career, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Johnson had labored on his Dictionary project for the best part of a decade, and was understandably defensive—or typically aggressive—about it. When his neglectful patron Lord Chesterfield tried to cash in at the time of publication on a project he’d failed to support except in the most perfunctory way, Johnson’s response was a masterpiece of regulated fury. “Is not a Patron, My Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for Life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help,” Johnson wrote in a letter that circulated widely: “The notice which you have been pleased to take of my Labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known and do not want it.”

Smith’s review of the Dictionary is certainly an odd one, though book-reviewing was in its infancy at the time (the Monthly Review, launched in 1749, was the first major reviewing periodical), and the conventions of the genre weren’t yet established. It’s unusually long—ten pages in the Liberty Fund reprint of the standard Glasgow Edition of Adam Smith—but mainly given over to specimen entries for two words, “But” and “Humour,” first in Johnson’s version, then in the alternative, radically different version that Smith would have composed in its place. Smith tops and tails these illustrations with paragraphs offering an overview of Johnson’s project and his own general evaluation, and these paragraphs include a number of negative points. The Dictionary is too neutrally descriptive, and insufficiently prescriptive, in its policies for inclusion: it admits not only recognized locutions but “most words … that ever were almost suspected to be English,” and rarely censures “those words which are not of approved use.” Apparently synonymous words are unsatisfactorily distinguished from one another, and different significations of individual words proliferate without adequate categorization: “they are seldom digested into general classes, or ranged under the meaning which the word principally expresses.” Above all, the Dictionary’s underlying plan “appears to us not to be sufficiently grammatical,” and Smith’s purpose in the body of the review is to illustrate the potential fruits of an alternative, more rigorously structural approach to the task. It’s the prospectus, in effect, for A Dictionary of the English Language, or even A Grammar of the English Language, by Adam Smith.

These criticisms notwithstanding, there are several reasons to doubt that Smith’s review of Johnson’s Dictionary was the bone of contention in their “unlucky altercation” six years later. In the first place, there’s no firm evidence that Johnson ever saw the piece. Smith was writing in the inaugural number of the Edinburgh Review, but this was not the high-profile liberal organ of the Romantic period, launched by leading Whigs in 1802; it was a short-lived precursor of 1755-6, with nothing like the same reach or impact. That’s not to say that Smith’s essay attracted no notice at all, and authorship in this kind of case was typically an open secret. It was targeted by an Edinburgh satirist who thought Smith’s specimen entries “dark and almost unintelligible” (A New Groat’s Worth of Wit, 1756), and gained a reprint in the Scots Magazine for November 1755. Even this more prominent periodical, however, still had very limited penetration south of the border, and the review’s earliest reprint in England was not until 1802.

Let’s suppose, even so, that Johnson saw the review, and that he knew Smith to have been the author. He would have found plenty of praise to offset the blame. The Dictionary was far more ambitious, and far more successful, than any precursor in the English language, Smith declared; Johnson had achieved as much alone, and in shorter time, than the Académie française and the Florentine Accademia della Crusca in their comparable collective undertakings; in these respects, “when we compare this book with other dictionaries, the merit of its author appears very extraordinary.” The alternative plan outlined in the body of the review might be viewed as tribute more than critique, Smith urbanely suggests: “Where a work is admitted to be highly useful, and the execution of it intitled to praise; the adding, that it might have been more useful, can scarcely, we hope, be deemed a censure of it.” In the rough and tumble of eighteenth-century literary culture, there was no need for soft soap or mollifying pull quotes; this was genuine praise, and it reads as such. Given the grating inanity of other early responses to the Dictionary, moreover, Johnson may well have felt that Smith had entered into the complexities of his project more thoughtfully than anyone else. Alongside their offensive opportunism and their leaden wit, Chesterfield’s periodical articles on the Dictionary made clear that he’d entirely failed to grasp the sophistication of Johnson’s enterprise. Language was in a state of anarchy, his lordship blandly declared, and “We must have recourse to the old Roman expedient in times of confusion, and chuse a dictator. Upon this principle I give my vote for Mr. Johnson to fill that great and arduous post.” Not only was this a vote Johnson didn’t want; he didn’t want the office. Smith, with his emphasis on the descriptive as opposed to prescriptive nature of Johnson’s real ambitions, saw that fact more clearly than anyone else. By zeroing in on the particle “But,” moreover, he was more or less alone in cutting to the heart of the intractable intellectual dilemma with which Johnson had wrestled.

We may turn to Johnson’s astonishing Preface to the Dictionary, which builds from routine methodological statement toward an almost tragic final intensity, to see the point. Johnson begins somewhat in the spirit Chesterfield describes, deploring the chaos of language, though in terms that also imply intermingled celebration: alongside the usual pejorative terms (“corruption,” “confusion”), language is also in a state of “wild exuberance … copious without order, and energetic without rules.” As he advances in the project, however, he comes to recognize not only the impossibility but also the undesirability of the ambitions, projected onto him by Chesterfield and others, of “fixing” or “purifying” English in its present state of linguistic instability. For this state of chaos is also one of dynamism or cornucopian growth. Much of Johnson’s argument flows from the paradox, most pronounced in his account of the simplest and most basic units of language, that unlike any science, lexicography can never get outside the system it seeks to analyze. As he laconically puts it, “To interpret a language by itself is very difficult; many words cannot be explained by synonyms because the idea signified by them has not more than one appellation; nor by paraphrase, because simple ideas cannot be described.” Moreover, with his commitment to variability of usage—his sense of language as a free and flourishing republic, not Chesterfield’s sterile dictatorship—he fully recognizes the danger of murdering to dissect. “It must be remembered that while our language is yet living, and variable by the caprice of every one that speaks it, these words are hourly shifting their relations, and can no more be ascertained in a dictionary than a grove, in the agitation of a storm, can be accurately delineated from its picture in the water.” Finally, Johnson moves into the plangent first person of a man who recognizes, for all his heroic efforts and high achievements, that lexicography epitomizes the limits of worldly ambition: “the vanity of human wishes,” as he puts it in the title of his great Juvenalian poem of 1749. The lexicographer can merely register, but not form, the language before him; he can merely end, but not complete, the task at hand. At least he can avoid the folly of Xerxes at the Hellespont, for “to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.”

At the close of this remarkable essay, we should not take too literally Johnson’s envoi: “I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds: I therefore dismiss it with frigid tranquillity, having little to fear or hope from censure or from praise.” Praise is always better than censure, and Johnson liked praise as much as anyone else. But Smith had delivered genuine praise, and had censured him only in the sense of outlining an alternative kind of work—focused on grammatical analysis instead of lexicographical discrimination—that Johnson had never intended to produce.

This is the Smith of the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, which occupied much of his energy in Glasgow in the early to mid 1750s. His intellectual ambitions then developed in other ways, and we know little about the impact on Johnson of Smith’s towering later achievements. There’s no surviving record of his response to The Theory of Moral Sentiments, but it’s a work we can scarcely imagine him not knowing. He was no economist, though an intriguing argument has been made by Eliza Gray that his intermittent writings on commercial society, consumption and demand, and the division of labor, look forward to The Wealth of Nations; Gray focuses especially on his Adventurer paper about specialized goods and services in London (No. 67, 26 June 1753) and his comparison between Old and New Aberdeen in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775). And while we cannot prove from his one surviving mention of The Wealth of Nations that Johnson read Smith’s masterpiece, it does seem clear that he absorbed one of its central lessons, on the reciprocal benefits of trade. Boswell again:
I mentioned Dr. Adam Smith’s book on The Wealth of Nations, which was just published, and that Sir John Pringle had observed to me, that Dr. Smith, who had never been in trade, could not be expected to write well on that subject any more than a lawyer upon physick. JOHNSON. ‘He is mistaken, Sir: a man who has never been engaged in trade himself may undoubtedly write well upon trade, and there is nothing which requires more to be illustrated by philosophy than trade does. 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: but trade procures what is more valuable, the reciprocation of the peculiar advantages of different countries.

Related Links:
Alice Temnick, Joining the Club

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Damrosch, Leo. 2019. The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Fay, C. R. 1956. Adam Smith and the Scotland of His Day. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gray, Eliza. 2009. “Samuel Johnson and the Virtue of Capitalism.” Wall Street Journal, September 10th.
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