Category Archives: People

Boswell and Johnson Walk Into a Bookstore: May 16, 1763

On Monday, May 16, 1763, 261 years ago this week, young James Boswell was introduced to Samuel Johnson at Thomas Davies’s bookshop on Russell Street, near Covent Garden in London. Boswell was a 22-year-old Scotsman, perhaps best described as what we’d today call a “social influencer”—he wanted to be famous, and he was hugely ambitious. Johnson was 53, an already-acclaimed writer and author that Boswell desperately wanted to meet. Boswell famously described their meeting years later: Boswell went to his friend Davies’s bookstore for afternoon tea, and in walked Johnson. Introducing the two, and knowing the grumpy Johnson’s dislike of the Scots, Davies playfully revealed Boswell’s nationality. Boswell blurted out, ““Mr. Johnson, I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.” Johnson’s riposte: “That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.” Such was the beginning of one of the most famous—if bumpy—friendships in all of literature.

I wrote about Boswell in another blog entry from December 10, 2014, nearly 10 years ago, and on this auspicious anniversary of that famous meeting, I can do no better than to quote a bit from that post (with slight editing) again here:

“I am lost without my Boswell.” So says Sherlock Holmes about Dr. Watson in “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Boswell is most famous as the author of the monumental biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, first published in 1791 and never out of print. I bought a nice Easton Press edition in three volumes a few years back and loved it. Boswell is best known as Johnson’s biographer, but he was a fascinating and complex man in his own right, well worthy of our attention, and his published journals are just the place to start.

Boswell would be well at home in today’s world of social media. He kept extensive journals throughout his life, covering the most intimate details of his private goings-on and detailed transcriptions of his conversations with the great men and women of 18th-century Britain, including Georgia’s founder James Edward Oglethorpe, Samuel Johnson of course, the artist Joshua Reynolds, actor David Garrick, writer Oliver Goldsmith, the aforementioned David Hume, Voltaire, and many, many others.

And just like today’s most avaricious social media posters, he held nothing back, even when he probably should have. He wrote about everything: politics, art, literature, court intrigues, his sexual and sensual escapades (including cavorting with London’s prostitutes and contracting and living with an STD), the peccadilloes of his friends and associates, falling out with his father over his chosen career, his fear of ghosts, and everything else you can imagine. He was an inveterate sinner who feared damnation but would walk out of a church and have sex with a prostitute. Sometimes he would miss the sermon because he was lusting over a woman in another pew. It is about as revealing a snapshot of everyday life in 18th-century Britain—and a man driven by and forever at war with his passions—as we are ever likely to have, and it is all fascinating, a ripping good read.

Boswell died in 1795 at age 54, leaving behind a wealth of personal papers and journals that he hoped would one day be published. His family, however, had other ideas. Generations of his descendants thought his writings inappropriate and scandalous, detailing as they did his every whim, fancy, and indiscretion. They were also ashamed of their association with a man whom they considered to have lowered himself by acting the sycophant to the overbearing and boorish Johnson simply to obtain material for his biography.

Boswell’s descendants didn’t exactly lose his writings, but it’s safe to say they put them away and mostly forgot about them as they passed from generation to generation. They were “rediscovered” in the 1920s and 1930s in a croquet box at Malahide Castle in Ireland and in a stable loft at the home of a Scottish laird at Fettercairn House near Aberdeen.

The story of the Boswell Papers’ disappearance and re-discovery is told in fascinating if sometimes excruciating details in Frederick Pottle’s Pride and Negligence: The History of the Boswell Papers (1981) and in David Buchanan’s more enthralling The Treasures of Auchinleck: The Story of the Boswell Papers (1974). Pottle was a lifelong Boswell scholar and edited, in the “Boswell Factory” at Yale, all but one of the thirteen volumes of the popularly published journals that begin with the London Journal.

When Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763, was first published in 1950, it was a surprising best seller and one can see why. It’s racy and titillating, gossipy and erudite, introspective and philosophical, witty and just plain fun. There are two famous scenes in these pages: Bozzy’s first meeting with Johnson on May 19, 1763, of course, but also the memorable day when he confronts his girlfriend Louisa as to whether she knowingly gave him a venereal disease: “Madam, I have had no connection with any woman but you these two months. I was with my surgeon this morning, who declared I had got a strong infection, and that she from whom I had it could not be ignorant of it. Madam, such a thing in this case is worse than from a woman of the town, as from her you may expect it. You have used me very ill. I did not deserve it.” Louisa protested her innocence, but to no avail. Boswell stormed out and ended the relationship. Later in a quieter moment he confessed to his journal that he’d had this same disease twice before, but if he ever apologized to poor Louisa, the journal is silent.

Boswell kept on writing till his last days, and though his father scolded him for keeping “a register of his follies and communicat[ing] it to others as if proud of them,” we are the ultimate beneficiaries. There are twelve other volumes after this one and I look forward to reading them all.


With the publication of Boswell’s Journals, the perception of the famous friendship has begun to change: Boswell has come into his own as one of the great historical figures of the 18th century, a flawed genius that, for many people, now eclipses Johnson’s brilliance. In Clifton Fadiman’s words, “the disciple is beginning to overshadow the master.” Boswell, he rightly insisted, “is more than a superb reporter. He is an artist, just as surely as Rembrandt.”

The literature on Boswell, Johnson, and their famous friendship is vast, but start, as mentioned above, with the London Journal, then read as many of the other Journals as you desire. I’ve since read six volumes now, with seven more to go. They never disappoint. And of course, read Boswell’s Life of Johnson, which critic Michael Dirda called “the greatest of all biographies and probably the most entertaining book in English literature.”

But you don’t have to stop there. In addition to the Pottle and Buchanan books cited above, I recommend the following: Frederick Pottle, James Boswell: The Earlier Years, 1740-1769 (1966); W. Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson (1977, winner of the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Biography); Frank Brady, James Boswell: The Later Years, 1769-1795 (1984); Peter Martin, A Life of James Boswell (2000); Liza Picard, Dr. Johnson’s London (2001); Adam Sisman, Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson (2001) Peter Martin, Samuel Johnson: A Biography (2008); John B. Radner, Johnson and Boswell: A Biography of Friendship (2013); and Leo Damrosch, The Club:  Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped An Age (2020).

As for the date of that famous meeting, Boswell missed dying on the anniversary itself by three days—32 years later—on May 19, 1795. He is buried in the family vault at Auchinleck Old Churchyard in Auchinleck, Scotland. Johnson died on December 13, 1784, at age 75, and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

But how’s this for coincidence? Frederick Pottle, the man who spent nearly his entire professional career as the editor and biographer of Boswell and his papers, considered the greatest Boswell scholar of all, himself died on the anniversary of that famous meeting, on May 16, 1987, at age 89. I suspect that would have pleased Dr. Pottle very much. No Westminster Abbey for him: Pottle is buried, appropriately, at Elmwood Cemetery in quiet Otisfield, Maine.

Alas, the Boswell Papers Project at Yale that Pottle captained for so long is no more, unceremoniously shut down by Yale bean counters during the pandemic. But the great friendship that began on that long-ago Monday in a London bookstore lives on for all of us to discover and explore, not only through print but now also on numerous social media pages and forums, dedicated to every aspect of Boswell, his life, and his world, in all his wickedness and glory—which he most assuredly would have loved.

Savannah, May 16, 2024

Podcast S7E14: Michael Thurmond on James Oglethorpe

Stan’s guest this week is DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, who talks about his new book, James Oglethorpe, Father of Georgia: A Founder’s Journey From Slave Trader to Abolitionist, published by the University of Georgia Press. Michael argues that Oglethorpe has never gotten credit for his pathbreaking efforts to keep slavery out of the Georgia colony and his subsequent impact on the emerging abolitionist movement in England.

Podcast S7E13: Georgia’s Big Cat: The Life of Baseball Hall of Famer Johnny Mize

Stan’s guest this week is Jerry Grillo, author of Big Cat: The Life of Baseball Hall of Famer Johnny Mize. Mize was born in Demorest, Georgia, and played 15 seasons in Major League Baseball and won 5 World Series.

George Washington and The Road Not Taken

This first appeared as an editorial in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday, February 19, 2024.

Percy Shelley wrote that power poisons every hand that touches it. History is littered with the names of those who attained power ruthlessly, wielded it arbitrarily, and refused to give it up.

In one of history’s most famous stories, King George III asked the American painter Benjamin West what George Washington would do after winning independence. West replied, “They say he will return to his farm.” King George was incredulous: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

At the end of the American Revolution, George Washington rode to Annapolis, Maryland, where Congress was in session, to resign the commission he had accepted in June 1775, eight years earlier.

Consider what he was doing. Congress had vested full military authority in Washington to lead the Continental Army as commander in chief, and he had done so for the duration of the conflict. At least twice toward the end of that period, however, he was encouraged by others to seize power as dictator.

The Confederation Congress was weak and had virtually no ability to raise revenue to pay its expenses, chief among them the back pay of soldiers and officers of the Continental Army, months in arrears. Now was the time for Washington to strike.

On May 22, 1782, Washington received a letter from Colonel Lewis Nicola of Pennsylvania, proposing that Washington seize power with the help of the army and declare himself dictator or king. It had apparently been talked about for some time. Nicola was proposing nothing less than a military coup.

Revolutions often dissolve into dictatorships. Chaos breeds the conditions for a strong man to seize power, claiming to have all the answers and authority to solve complex problems. For many people this was where the road of self-government always ended. Why should the American Revolution have been any different?

If there was ever a moment in American history when one individual could have felt justified in seizing power and doing the unthinkable, that was it. There was no central government, no executive branch, no federal bureaucracy, no Supreme Court, and he was head of the national army. Washington could not be charged with acting unconstitutionally because there was no Constitution. Rule of law? Washington could have been the law.

No. Washington responded to Nicola with scorn and contempt. “Be assured, Sir, no occurrence in the course of the war has given me more painful sensations than such ideas existing in the Army as you have expressed, and I view them with abhorrence and reprehend with severity. I am at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my country. You could not have found a person to whom your schemes were more disagreeable.”

Consider the reception Nicola’s letter might have received in other hands than Washington’s: “If you have any regard for your country, for posterity, or respect for me, banish these thoughts from your mind, and never communicate a sentiment of like nature.”

It happened again a year later. In March 1783, Washington refused to support the so-called “Newburgh Conspiracy,” a thinly veiled attempt by Continental officers to extort back pay from Congress by threatening a military coup.

Only one American could play the role of Caesar, and he twice refused to do it.

Two days before Christmas in 1783, Washington stood before Congress, the hall crowded with spectators, his hands visibly trembling. He spoke in a faltering voice. “Mr. President, having now finished the work assigned to me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.” He walked out, the hall ringing with applause.

Thomas Jefferson, present that day, understood the enormity of what he had witnessed: “The moderation and character of a single man has probably prevented the revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of the liberty it was intended to establish.”

Had Washington possessed greater ambition and less character, the history of the United States would have been far different over the last two centuries.

After serving two terms as President, Washington walked away voluntarily again.

By surrendering power and refusing a dictatorship, Washington launched the American experiment on a firm foundation of principled and moral leadership that established that anyone who deviates from this model would be turning their back on one of the core values of the American republic—that ours is a government of laws, not of men—and one of the bedrock principles of American political leadership.

He secured to all mankind the gift of the world’s most enduring self-governing republic that, with all its flaws, remains an inspiration to the world.

The experiment continues, the outcome still in doubt. As Lincoln said, no one will ever conquer us—as a nation of free men and women, we shall live forever or die by suicide.

That need not be our destiny. When in doubt, look to our lodestar. As was said of Voltaire, so we can say about Washington: Consider that life and take courage.

Podcast S7E8: Elizabeth Varon on General James Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South

This week Stan’s guest is historian and author Elizabeth Varon from the University of Virginia discussing her latest book, Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied The South. She talks about the life and career of this most controversial Georgian, from whether “Longstreet was late” at Gettysburg, and how his post-war decision to support Radical Reconstruction, Black office-holding and voting, and his post-war criticisms of Robert E. Lee all combined to nearly destroy his reputation and his life.