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Get it while it’s hot

In 1771, Samuel Johnson published Thoughts on the late transactions respecting Falkland’s Islands, a pamphlet defending the actions of the government of Lord North in a dispute with Spain over England’s occupation of the Falkland Islands, which would flare up as a trouble spot again in 1982. As first published, the pamphlet contained a cutting remark against the former Prime Minister George Grenville, then recently deceased, about an earlier showdown with Spain. “Let him not, however, be depreciated in his grave; he had powers not universally possessed; if he could have got the money, he could have counted it.” This relatively subtle¬†insult (indeed, I’m not sure I entirely understand how it is an insult, although all my reference sources agree that it is) apparently contained an even subtler swipe at the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Francis Dashwood, who was described by Walpole as “a man to whom a sum of five figures was an impenetrable secret” (now that’s an insult I understand!).

In any event, the remark was politically inconvenient for Lord North, who needed the support of Grenville’s followers, and he insisted that sales of the pamphlet be halted until the offending line could be altered. Johnson apparently chose to soften the line to such an extreme that it almost reads as damning by faint praise: “he had powers not universally possessed; and if he sometimes erred, he was likewise sometimes right.” Since the unexpurgated pamphlet was only on sale for a few days, copies with the original line intact are rare. The Hyde Collection has four copies of the later version, but just one of the earlier, and not surpisingly, it was one of the copies Johnson received to give to friends and colleagues. Johnson wrote rather wickedly to Bennet Langton, just after Lord North’s injunction, that “Before his order a sufficient number were dispersed to do all the mischief, though perhaps not to make all the sport that might be expected from it.”

Published in:John Overholt |on February 10th, 2006 |Comments Off on Get it while it’s hot

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