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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2012

Chapter 10 - America

from Part III - Contexts


CO′LONY. n.s. [colonia, Latin]

1. A body of people drawn from the mother-country to inhabit some distant place.

Osiris, or the Bacchus of the ancients, is reported to have civilized the Indians, planting colonies and building cities. Arbuthnot on Coins.

Samuel Johnson’s lifetime circumscribed the most momentous political episode in eighteenth-century English history, the rise and fall of the British empire in North America. His notorious hostility towards America rested on a potent mixture of insular nationalism and cosmopolitan humanitarianism, which fueled his lifelong hatred of imperialism and racism. Few other major English authors wrote more, or more passionately, about America than he did.

Home and colonies

Home undoubtedly came first to Johnson, as it did to his countrymen. Colonists were a new and suspect category of citizenry unknown to ancient common law. In his Dictionary, a definition of land as “Nation; people” is a revealing conflation of soil and subjects, of locality and loyalty. This nativism had feudal origins in the unwritten British constitution for an agrarian society, where landholding meant subsistence and allegiance to the monarch as supreme owner of the island’s real property. The homeland was a largely self-sufficient entity for survival and civilization, and had precedence over extra-territorial concerns of foreign trade and distant empire: “We have at home,” Johnson wrote, “all that we can want, and … we need feel no great anxiety about the schemes of other nations for improving their arts, or extending their commerce” (Works, 10:125).