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Chapter 8 - Johnson, Race, and Slavery

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 September 2022

Greg Clingham
Affiliation:
Bucknell University, Pennsylvania
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Summary

From his earliest publications in the 1730s, Johnson expressed unwavering abhorrence of slavery as well as antagonism to the racial division of humankind. Even with the rise of abolitionist writing in the 1760s, however, Johnson’s public statements on these issues are scattered through several works or recorded by Boswell in the Life of Johnson, who himself opposed the abolition of the slave trade. We can explain Johnson’s failure to intervene more fully and publicly in the debate over slavery by considering that he feared connections between abolitionism and extensions of “human rights” to a broader platform of political reform. His longest statement on the status of slaves in Britain in Boswell’s Life is carefully worded and legally narrow compared with the more sweeping condemnations of slavery in contemporary abolitionist publications. On the issue of “race,” however, Johnson remained committed to the idea of the common and equal humanity of all people.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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