Secret Library

The Meaning and Origin of ‘Patriotism is the Last Refuge of the Scoundrel’

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle delves into the misconceptions surrounding one of the most famous pronouncements on patriotism

Samuel Johnson (1709-84) was a curious man. The one thing everyone knows him for, compiling the first English dictionary, is something he didn’t do: dictionaries of the English language were well-established by the time Johnson’s monumental achievement appeared in print in 1755. His Dictionary of the English Language did, however, raise the bar considerably where English lexicography was concerned, even if, as Blackadder observed, he left ‘aardvark’ out.*

What Johnson did do, then, was even more remarkable than what he’s popularly celebrated as doing: he took existing dictionaries and showed where they were lacking. One of his greatest innovations was to include plenty of illustrative literary quotations to show how words were used.

He was, though, a strange fellow. Some of his definitions, such as the famous one about oats, are well-known for being a little partisan, and his definition of ‘urinator’ as ‘a diver’ is just plan odd. He collected orange peel, but refused to tell anyone – even his trusty biographer, James Boswell – what he was doing with it all. He also reportedly liked to drink up to 25 cups of tea in one sitting.

And it’s his large personality and gift for aphorisms and one-liners that, after his Dictionary, remain celebrated to this day. Some of these are mainstays of that other popular genre of dictionary, the dictionary of quotations: ‘he who praises everybody praises nobody’, for instance, or ‘language is the dress of thought’. And there’s his comment on writing: ‘the only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it’. His advice on reading: ‘a man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good’. And on editing: ‘read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’ And let’s not forget this culinary advice: ‘a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out as good for nothing.’

But one of Johnson’s most oft-quoted lines is also one of his most misunderstood: ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.’ This line is often interpreted as being a denunciation of patriotism per se, and has frequently been used by people who wish to dismiss any form of national pride. Using the authority of Johnson and his weighty apophthegm is simply a way to prop up this rather simplistic view.

In fact, if we place Johnson’s line in the context in which it originally appeared, we immediately see that this is a misunderstanding of what Johnson meant. For a start, Johnson didn’t say ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’ at all, according to Boswell (the original source for this quotation): he said ‘patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’. That may not make any significant difference to the meaning, but the context does shed a different light on what Johnson meant:

Patriotism having become one of our topicks, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone, an apophthegm, at which many will start: ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.’ But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest.

Boswell tells us that Samuel Johnson made this famous pronouncement that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel on the evening of April 7, 1775. A year earlier, Johnson had printed The Patriot, in which he stated that ‘A patriot is he whose publick conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers every thing to the common interest.’ This hardly sounds as if Johnson is describing a scoundrel. But this is because, when he declared that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’, Johnson had in mind not patriotism but Patriotism.

The Patriot Party began life in 1725 as an offshoot of the Whig Party in Great Britain. They later became simply the Patriots, until they were disbanded in 1803. The group was formed in opposition to the ministry of Robert Walpole, the first de facto Prime Minister of Britain, and William Pitt the Elder – who would later become Prime Minister himself – became a prominent member of the Patriot Party. This is the eighteenth-century context in which Johnson’s quotation must be read.

So, ‘patriotism is the last refuge of a [not the] scoundrel’ was not, in fact, a denunciation of patriotism in general but rather a very specific reference to what Johnson considered the false use of the term ‘patriotism’ by William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham. Johnson actually valued patriotism as an idea, but he was – probably quite rightly – suspicious of those who use the word to describe themselves without following up such a label with any meaningful actions.

*Actually, although Blackadder is correct and ‘aardvark’ does not appear in Johnson’s Dictionary, Johnson can hardly be blamed for this. The earliest citation given by the one English dictionary more famous and comprehensive than his, the OED, gives 1785 as the first citation for the medium-sized insectivore – thirty years after Johnson’s Dictionary was published.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.

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