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Dr. Johnson and Slavery

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An academic reader writes quoting from “Cultivating Our Garden”:

”Johnson, whose attitudes towards slavery proved a prickly embarrassment to his biographers”? The guy who shocked the table at Oxford by offering a toast to the next rebellion of the slaves and who freed Frank Barber stands up pretty well.

The point is correct. The statement given at the dinner party, as reported in the third volume of Boswell’s Life of Johnson is this:

“Upon one occasion, when in company with some very grave men at Oxford, his toast was, ‘here’s to the next insurrection of the Negroes in the West Indies.’”

Moreover, Johnson treated his Black manservant, Frank Barber as a friend, leaving him a significant inheritance and his freedom, and allowing Barber the free use of his house as a meeting place for London’s growing African community during his lifetime. So the passage in my review-essay is correctly criticized. In fact it was Johnson’s fervent anti-slavery attitudes that gave his biographer, James Boswell, trouble–I misread a discussion of this point several weeks ago and discovered my mistake under the prompting of the reader. One of my Columbia colleagues, James Basker, recently gave a wonderful talk on this subject at Dr. Johnson’s house in London. Here are his prepared remarks (PDF).

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