On Junius

Communicated by Mr Porden

From Dr Johnson’s pamphlet relative to Falkland Islands

The thirst of blood, however the visible promoters of sedition may think it convenient to shrink from the accusation, is loudly avowed by Junius, the writer to whom his party owes much of its pride, and some of its popularity. Of Junius it cannot be said, as of Ulysses, that he scatters ambiguous expressions among the vulgar; for he cries havoc without reserve, and endeavours to let slip the dogs of foreign or of civil war, ignorant of whither they are going, and careless what may be their prey.

Junius has sometimes made his satire felt, but let not injudicious admiration mistake the venom of the shaft for the vigour of the bow. He has sometimes sported with lucky malice; but to him that knows his company, it is not to be sarcastic in a mask. While he walks like Jack the Giant-killer in a coat of darkness, he may do much mischief, with little strength. Novelty captivates the superficial and thoughtless; vehemence delights the disconcerted and turbulent. He that contradicts acknowledged truth will always have an audience; he that vilifies established authority will always find abettors.

Junius burst into notice with a blaze of impudence which has rarely glared upon the world before, and drew the rabble after him as a monster makes a show. When he had once provided for his safety by impenetrable secrecy, he had nothing to combat but truth and justice, enemies whom he knows to be feeble in the dark. Being then at liberty to indulge himself in all the immunities of invisibility; out of the reach of danger, he has been bold; out of the reach of shame, he had been confident. As a rhetorician, he has had the art of persuading when he seconded desire; as a reasoner, he has convinced those who had no doubt before; as a moralist, he had taught that virtue may disgrace; and as a patriot, he has gratified the mean by insults on the high. Finding sedition ascendant, he has been able to advance it; finding the nation combustible, he has been able to inflame it. Let us abstract from his wit the vivacity of insolence, and withdraw from his efficacy the sympathetic favour of plebeian malignity; I do not say that we shall leave him nothing; the cause that I defend scorns the help of falsehood; but if we leave him only his merit, what will be his praise?

It is not by his liveliness of imagery, his pungency of periods, or his fertility of allusion, that he detains the cits of London, and the boors of Middlesex. Of style and sentiment they take no cognizance. They admire him for virtues like their own, for contempt of order and violence, of outrage, for rage of defamation and audacity of falsehood. The supporters of the Bill of Rights feel no niceties of composition, nor dexterity of sophistry; their faculties are better proportioned to the bawl of Bellas, or barbarity of Beckford; but they are told that Junius is on their side, and they are therefore sure that Junius is infallible. Those who know not whither he would lead them, resolve to follow him, and those who cannot find his meaning, hope he means rebellion.

Junius is an unusual phenomenon, on which some have gazed with wonder and some with terror, but wonder and terror are transitory passions. He will soon be more closely viewed or more attentively examined, and what folly has taken for a comet that from its flaming hair shook pestilence and war, inquiry will find to be only a meteor formed by the vapours of putrefying democracy, and kindled into flame by the effervescence of interest struggling with conviction which after having plunged its followers into a bog, will leave us enquiring why we regard it.

Yet though I cannot think the style of Junius secure from criticism, though his expressions are often trite, and his periods feeble, I should never have stationed him where he has placed himself, had I not rated him by his morals rather than his faculties. What, says Pope, must be the priest, where a Monkey is the God? What must be the drudge of a party of which the Heads are Wilkes and Crosby, Sawbridge and Townsend?

Junius know his own meaning, and can therefore tell it. His is an enemy to the ministry, he sees them growing hourly stronger. He knows that a war at once unjust and unsuccessful would have certainly displaced them, and is therefore, in his zeal for his country, angry that war was not unjustly made, and unsuccessfully conducted. But there are others whose thoughts are less clearly expressed, and whose schemes perhaps are less consequentially digested, who declare that they do not wish for a rupture, yet condemn the ministry for not doing that, by which a rupture would naturally have been made.

If one party resolves to demand what the other resolves to refuse, the dispute can be determined only by arbitration; and between powers who have no common superior, there is not other arbitration than the sword.