Who was Samuel Johnson?
Not Really a Harmless Drudge
Samuel Johnson was a giant of English literature who overcame physical disabilities, mental-health issues, and educational and occupational hardship to create the first authoritative English dictionary—as well as plays, poems, biographies, an edition of Shakespeare, and influential collections of essays.
Johnson was among the most eloquent speakers on record, as we know from James Boswell’s Life of Johnson. His ability to formulate memorable observations was second to none. Many observers thought he spoke as if in polished written prose.
Though admired throughout the world, Johnson has strong associations with London. He arrived there in 1737 with the intention of making his fortune as a man of letters, and he died there 47 years later—after a life of struggle, adversity, triumph, and fame. In that period he is known to have occupied 17 different addresses, all rented; the accommodations ranged from relative squalor to relative comfort. Of some we know only the street; of others we have detailed accounts and images. All, however, have been swept away except one: Dr. Johnson’s House at 17 Gough Square.
What are we doing?
Befriending a House
Americans are famous for their beneficence, and we tend to give generously. In this instance, we’re doing what we can to secure for the future one of the most important house–museums in the English-speaking world. Won’t you help us?
It really is very humbling to be here as British Ambassador and to see the unconditional generosity and interest of Americans. So thank you very much on behalf of all the British people and Government. The Anglo-American relationship is very strong. I just want to recall what the Queen said to President Reagan when he paid a state visit in 1982. She spoke about common heritage, common kinship, and said it’s much more than this. It’s fundamentally the common values. It’s language and not manners that maketh man. I would like to recall that Alexander Hamilton said, “We think in English.” Americans admired and used Johnson’s Dictionary. George Washington owned a copy. Thomas Jefferson not only owned a copy but recommended it to friends. And that recommendation was dated 1771. So we can see that Jefferson was using the Dictionary in his writings even before he penned the Declaration of Independence. The Founding Fathers looked to Dr. Johnson as the ultimate authority on what words meant. The Dictionary was central to the crafting of the Founding Fathers’ prose. Dr. Johnson was one of the great figures of the Enlightenment, and his impact on the English language undoubtedly shaped the founding documents of America, and in doing so shaped this remarkable nation itself.
Dame Karen Pierce, British Ambassador to the United States
To the American Friends of Dr. Johnson’s House, 1 Oct. 2022