On 17 July 1798, the publisher and bookseller Joseph Johnson was hauled before Guildhall and charged as a “malicious, seditious, and ill-disposed person” for selling Gilbert Wakefield’s A Reply to Some Parts of the Bishop of Landaff’s Address. Declared guilty, he was not only forced to pay £20 and provide sureties amounting to £700, but was also sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. In distinct contrast, the publisher of Wakefield’s piece, John Cuthell, was only ordered to pay £20 and court costs before being discharged. It was quite obvious, then, that Johnson was being punished not so much for publishing a work that denounced the “pestilential operations” of the then Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, but rather for guilt by association with those regarded as dangerous political radicals.
Posterity seems to have accepted the view of the “packed” jury, even if the hostility has largely disappeared: today, Joseph Johnson is more anecdotally remembered as the publisher and bookseller who wined and dined London’s radical intelligentsia. We remember him for employing William Blake as an occasional engraver. We remember him for taking Mary Wollstonecraft under his wing and for helping to bail Thomas Paine out of prison for a debt. And so on. But beyond that, little is known of the full range of Johnson’s activities as a publisher and bookseller, let alone the scope of his long purported radicalism. In all, what kind of works did he publish? How were they perceived by an increasingly politicized reading public? These questions are addressed in Helen Braithwaite’s recent monograph, Joseph Johnson, Romanticism, Publishing and Dissent: Joseph Johnson and the Cause of Liberty. Braithwaite’s study is not only a welcome addition to Gerald P. Tyson’s earlier biography of Johnson, but also a keen and insightful study of late eighteenth-century British reform and radicalism. Here, Braithwaite demonstrates how Johnson’s publications supported the emergence of socially and politically progressive causes, particularly his tacit championing for the first modern political agitator, John Wilkes, the continued promotion of religious toleration for Dissenters, particularly Unitarians, support for American independence, the abolition of slavery, the debate over the French Revolution as well as his interest in science and educational reform.
The primary strength of Braithwaite’s study is its analysis of the social dynamics behind rational Dissent, one that brings a new dimension to recent scholarship by James Bradley, John Seed, and others. Chapter 1, “Dissenting Origins,” focuses on Johnson’s receptiveness of Socinian thought in the 1760s and ‘70s, and his publication of such works as Thomas Amory’s Life of John Buncle, and Paul Cardale’s True doctrine of the New Testament Concerning Jesus Christ, Considered (1767), and the “typically combative” (11) works of Caleb Fleming. As Braithwaite points out, Johnson’s publications, even at this early stage, already “reflected a liberal appreciation of the value of theological discussion, particularly when based upon the rational, almost scientific, evaluation of scriptural and historical evidence, a growing dissatisfaction with many of the mysteries and superstitions still tolerated by orthodox believers,” not to mention a “keen ability to tap into the widening metropolitan and provincial network of contemporary dissent” (11). But even more intriguing is her discussion of Johnson’s relationships with members of the faculty at Warrington Academy, a Dissenting alternative to Oxford and Cambridge universities, through his acquaintance with Thomas Bentley, a co-founder of Warrington and a business partner of Josiah Wedgwood. It was through Warrington that Johnson came to establish a longstanding friendly business relationship with one of its most famous (or infamous) tutors, Joseph Priestley.
Indeed, Brathwaite’s sketch of Priestley sheds much needed light on the public awareness of radicalized Dissent in the latter half of the eighteenth century. If Priestley provoked Anglicans and Dissenters alike by promoting toleration for Roman Catholics in the 1760s, he would increasingly shock and enrage them by proclaiming himself “an oppugner of the doctrine of the trinity” : certainly, his Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religion (1772-4), which encouraged readers to “Respect a parliamentary king” but reject a “a parliamentary religion, or a parliamentary God” would horrify the former Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder, who had himself introduced the bill for the abolition of subscription. It is certainly telling that Johnson did not hesitate to publish Priestley’s controversial yet unpopular journal, Theological Repository (1769-73; 1784-8), which as Braithwaite puts it, “potentially brought him to infringing the laws on blasphemy” (18) or following its failure, the more successful Analytical Review (1788-98), established by Thomas Christie, with its original emphasis on theology and ecclesiastical history. Not least, Braithwaite also highlights Johnson’s practical involvement with the Feathers’ Tavern petition as well as the opening of Theophilus Lindsay’s Unitarian chapel, a fact that has barely been addressed elsewhere, not even in Anthony Page’s otherwise admirable biography of John Jebb. Hardly deterred by either hostile letters or a request from MPs to desist from pursuing their plan, Johnson helped negotiate with the Unitarian book-buyer and auctioneer, Samuel Paterson, for the rental of space and helped publish Lindsay’s revised liturgy.
Equally enlightening is Braithwaite’s discussion of Johnson’s publications in the 1770s and 1780s, a period that has long been ignored by literary scholars for the flashier 1790s and the advent of Romanticism. What few realize is that had it not been for the constitutional debates stimulated by the American Revolution, the ensuing drive for parliamentary reform, the sharp rise of class identity politics, and the renewed push for the abolition of slavery, the reaction to the Fall of the Bastille would not have gathered such intensity. Chapters 2 and 3 investigate Johnson’s role in publishing not only fast-day sermons and other writings in favor of the American cause for independence, but also the first collected edition of Benjamin Franklin’s Political, Miscellaneous and Philosophical Pieces: a daring act in the anti-American climate of 1780. Johnson, however, would prove instrumental in publishing not only tracts predominantly in favor of American independence, but also those promoting domestic parliamentary reform. Johnson’s commitment to progress emerges as we learn of his unabated willingness to publish John Horne (Tooke) and Richard Price’s Facts: Addressed to the Landholders, Stockholders, Merchants, Farmers…and Generally to All the Subjects of Great Britain and Ireland, despite the loss of Shelburne’s promised support, as well as John Jebb’s first publication proposing a new body of the Commons outside Parliament, Address to the Freeholders of Middlesex. Braithwaite also carefully weighs Johnson’s support for the abolition of slavery, noting that as early as 1764, he had published John Newton’s anonymous account of his experiences on a Liverpudlian slave ship. But if Johnson proceeded to publish other anti-slavery works such as John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative or Alexander Geddes’ ironic “Apology for slavery,” he would also publish a few pro-slavery writings, including The Negro and the Free-born Briton Compared (1789) and a second edition of Thoughts on civilization and the Gradual Abolition of Slavery (1790). The fact of these publications strengthens Braithwaite’s thesis that Johnson was not a “radical” publisher, but rather one whose “overriding aim was always roundly and impartially to inform public opinion as the best means of countering ignorance, rather than simply peddle an alternative form of orthodoxy” (78).
This brings us back to the question of Johnson’s radicalism. Has posterity been altogether erroneous in regarding him as a radical publisher and bookseller? To what extent was Johnson like his friend, John Horne Tooke, who famously disavowed Painenite radicalism by claiming that “Men may get into the same stage-coach with an intention of traveling to a certain distance; one man chooses to get out at one stage, another at another?” While it is certainly true that Johnson’s roster of authors were not all equally progressive, it might also be argued that the works he published by them frequently bolstered the arguments made by more avowedly liberal writers. Consider the example of Sarah Trimmer who, according to Braithwaite, was “a true pillar of the establishment” and “deeply averse herself to Socianism” (70). If we examine Trimmer’s Oeconomy of Charity; or, An Address to Ladies concerning Sunday-schools in Old Brentford, we discover that it reveals many Dissenting ideas and characteristics, not least an empathy for the poor—a fact that is not surprising since, as Braithwaite points out, Trimmer was “directly inspired” by Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s Lessons for Children (1778) and Hymns in Prose (1781).
But more significantly, despite Johnson’s ultimate refusal to publish Paine’s Rights of Man, or indeed, anything more radical, such as the works of Thomas Spence or Daniel Isaac Eaton, a sizeable proportion of the works he published did indeed test the limits of “acceptable” public opinion to a considerably higher and more consistent degree than those of other publishers. The fact that we conveniently divide “reform” from “radicalism” by using 1789 as a dividing line hardly indicates that readers before the onset of the French Revolution did not view the opinions of Major John Cartwright, John Jebb, James Murray, Richard Price and Joseph Priestley as reaching beyond the fringes of political sacrilege, particularly since all were fairly prolific writers and at least three were activists. Could it not be the case that the readers from 1760 through 1790 regarded some of the works we label “reformist” as radical? Consider, for instance, James Murray’s highly popular and incendiary Sermons to Asses (1768), which openly scolded its readers with “Asses, and worse than asses, surely you are, who either give up the cause of your country, or the rights of your own consciences to civil or religious dominators” : a rhetoric that almost rivals that of Paine in Common Sense (1776) and even The Rights of Man, Parts 1 and 2 (1791-92). The same may be applied to the movement for parliamentary reform in the late 1770s as promoted by Jebb and Cartwright, the two men who founded the Society for Constitutional Information in 1780. Even if the ideas of Cartwright appear relatively tame next to those of Paine given the former’s avowed preference for a constitutional monarchy over a republic, could it not be argued that Cartwright’s and Jebb’s support for universal male suffrage—unlike that of many other less enthusiastic parliamentary reformers of the 1780s (i.e., Charles James Fox, William Pitt, and Christopher Wyvill)—made them appear radical? Cartwright’s stalwart support of progressive causes, after all, was enough to cost him promotions in the military, including one to the vacant lieutenant-colonelcy of the regiment in 1792 after he was discovered to have attended a Bastille anniversary dinner.
In all, Braithwaite’s Romanticism, Publishing, and Dissent: Joseph Johnson and the Cause of Liberty offers a clear, elegant, and focused study of the ideology of rational Dissent—its theological developments, political concerns, as well as its social connections and alliances. Even if Braithwaite does not succeed altogether in her attempt to divest Johnson of his imputed radicalism, her study is a long overdue one that will help historians and literary scholars alike attain a significantly more nuanced understanding of the culture of late-eighteenth-century British reform and radicalism.