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The False Alarm 1770
by [?]

[Note: On Johnson’s character, as a political writer, we cannot dwell with pleasure, since we cannot speak of it with praise. In the following pamphlets, however, though we cannot honestly subscribe to their doctrines, we must admire the same powers of composition, the same play of imagination, the same keen sarcasm and indignant reproof, that embellish his other productions. He might, and did, think wrongly on these subjects, but he never wrote what he did not believe to be true, and, therefore, must be acquitted of all charges of servility or dishonesty. The False Alarm was published in 1770, and “intended,” says Mr. Boswell, “to justify the conduct of the ministry, and their majority in the house of commons, for having virtually assumed it as an axiom, that the expulsion of a member of parliament was equivalent to exclusion, and thus having declared colonel Lutterel to be duly elected for the county of Middlesex, notwithstanding Mr. Wilkes had a great majority of votes. This being justly considered as a gross violation of the right of election, an alarm for the constitution extended itself all over the kingdom. To prove this alarm to be false, was the purpose of Johnson’s pamphlet; but even his vast powers are inadequate to cope with constitutional truth and reason, and his argument failed of effect; and the house of commons have since expunged the offensive resolution from their journals. That the house of commons might have expelled Mr. Wilkes repeatedly, and as often as he should be rechosen, was not to be denied; but incapacitation cannot be but by an act of the whole legislature. It was wonderful to see how a prejudice in favour of government in general, and an aversion to popular clamour, could blind and contract such an understanding as Johnson’s in this particular case.” Where Boswell expresses himself with regard to Johnson, in terms so reprehensive as the above, we cannot be accused of severity in repeating his just censure. Several answers appeared, but, perhaps, all of them, in compliance with the excited feelings of the times, dealt rather in personal abuse of Johnson, as a pensioner and hireling, than in fair and manly argument. The chief were, the Crisis; a Letter to Dr. Samuel Johnson; and, the Constitution Defender and Pensioner exposed, in Remarks on the False Alarm.]


One of the chief advantages derived by the present generation from the improvement and diffusion of philosophy, is deliverance from unnecessary terrours, and exemption from false alarms. The unusual appearances, whether regular or accidental, which once spread consternation over ages of ignorance, are now the recreations of inquisitive security. The sun is no more lamented when it is eclipsed, than when it sets; and meteors play their coruscations without prognostick or prediction.

The advancement of political knowledge may be expected to produce, in time, the like effects. Causeless discontent, and seditious violence, will grow less frequent and less formidable, as the science of government is better ascertained, by a diligent study of the theory of man. It is not, indeed, to be expected, that physical and political truth should meet with equal acceptance, or gain ground upon the world with equal facility. The notions of the naturalist find mankind in a state of neutrality, or, at worst, have nothing to encounter but prejudice and vanity; prejudice without malignity, and vanity without interest. But the politician’s improvements are opposed by every passion that can exclude conviction or suppress it; by ambition, by avarice, by hope, and by terrour, by publick faction, and private animosity.

It is evident, whatever be the cause, that this nation, with all its renown for speculation and for learning, has yet made little proficiency in civil wisdom. We are still so much unacquainted with our own state, and so unskilful in the pursuit of happiness, that we shudder without danger, complain without grievances, and suffer our quiet to be disturbed, and our commerce to be interrupted, by an opposition to the government, raised only by interest, and supported only by clamour, which yet has so far prevailed upon ignorance and timidity, that many favour it, as reasonable, and many dread it, as powerful.