John Wilkes, Esq., and Dr. Samuel Johnson

FIRST ENCOUNTERS

DR. JOHNSON ABHORRED John Wilkes as a man of no principle. Wilkes was a member both of the notorious Hell-Fire Club and of Parliament; he was a demagogue, a rake. A stay in the Tower for a near-treasonous pamphlet made him a hero as a defender of liberty, but Johnson scorned him as a “patriot” in the eighteenth-century sense—a factious disturber of the government. “Patriotism,” Johnson sniffed, “is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

Still, Wilkes was good company and frequented London’s best dinner tables. But Edward Dilly, the bookseller, was careful not to invite him with Johnson—until the mischievous Boswell proposed just that. Dilly was horrified, but Boswell promised to arrange it.

Boswell: “Mr. Dilly, Sir, sends his respectful compliments,” and would Johnson dine there Wednesday next? He would. Boswell: “Provided, Sir, I suppose, that the company ... is agreeable?” What if Mr. Dilly asked some of his patriotic friends—like Jack Wilkes? “What is that to me, Sir?” Johnson said huffily. “As if I could not meet any company whatever, occasionally.”

Wednesday (May 15, 1776) came, and at dinner Wilkes seated himself next to Johnson. He was determined to please. “Pray, give me leave, Sir,” he said, caring Johnson a juicy slice of veal, and then, “a little of the stuffing—some gravy ... a squeeze of this orange, or the lemon, perhaps?” Johnson’s surly response gradually softened. The names of mutual acquaintances came up, and Wilkes scoffed at those he knew Johnson to have mocked, but the latter would let no one speak ill of his friends but himself. Of Scotland, however—that was another matter. Boswell had taken him there—a barren place! Johnson and Wilkes began sparring with jibes against Scotland. Poor Boswell, Johnson said, hardly knew real civility for living among savages in Scotland and rakes in London. Wilkes beamed. “Except,” he said, “when he is with grave, sober, decent people, like you and me.”
—Nancy Caldwell Sorel