Among Dr. Johnson’s lesser-known works is a pamphlet, “Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland's Islands,” published in 1771. The previous year, England and Spain nearly went to war over possession of the desolate but strategically positioned islands in the South Atlantic, three-hundred miles east of what is now Argentina. When France declined to back Spain, England and Spain averted war without resolving their claims to the islands. In the words of his biographer, W. Jackson Bate, Johnson was responding to the “opposition [in Britain] clamoring for war.” Bate writes:
“[H]e speaks of the shocking unawareness with which most of humankind will see a war started. The drab horror and suffering of war is completely beyond their experience. What little they know of it has been picked up from colorful accounts of battles in ‘heroic fiction.’”
Boswell likewise lauds Johnson’s arguments in the pamphlet:
“[E]very humane mind must surely applaud the earnestness with which he averted the calamity of war; a calamity so dreadful, that it is astonishing how civilised, nay, Christian nations, can deliberately continue to renew it. His description of its miseries in this pamphlet, is one of the finest pieces of eloquence in the English language. Upon this occasion, too, we find Johnson lashing the party in opposition with unbounded severity, and making the fullest use of what he ever reckoned a most effectual argumentative instrument, contempt.”
Readers who long ago decided Johnson was a bellicose reactionary may be surprised. He never experienced war firsthand but appreciated its horrors. His rhetoric is breathtaking:
“As war is the last of remedies, ‘cuncta prius tentanda’ [“try everything first”], all lawful expedients must be used to avoid it. As war is the extremity of evil, it is, surely, the duty of those, whose station intrusts them with the care of nations, to avert it from their charge. There are diseases of animal nature, which nothing but amputation can remove; so there may, by the depravation of human passions, be sometimes a gangrene in collective life, for which fire and the sword are necessary remedies; but in what can skill or caution be better shown, than preventing such dreadful operations, while there is yet room for gentler methods!”
Today we leave for Annapolis, Md., where our son Michael will graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy on May 27 and be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. Posts will continue, time and internet connection permitting.