Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Why Dr Johnson found Charles Leslie
was ‘a reasoner not to be reasoned with’

Castle Leslie, home of Sir Jack Leslie and his Nonjuring ancestor, Charles Leslie, who was admired by Samuel Johnson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The death of Sir Jack Leslie earlier this week at the age of 99 brought back happy memories of my visits to Castle Leslie in Glaslough, Co Monaghan.

Sir Jack was known everyone who visited Castle Leslie as “Uncle Jack.” Many of the reports and obituaries are discussing his close kinship to Sir Winston Churchill. But I was also reminded this week of his descent from Canon Charles Leslie (1650-1722), who succeeded to the Glaslough estates at the age of 71 but only enjoyed them for a few short months before he died.

Charles Leslie was a leading theologian among the Nonjurors. Oliver Goldsmith said he was an arguer of some wit; Dr Samuel Johnson said “he was a reasoner not to be reasoned with.”

As a Nonjuror, Charles Leslie opposed the accession of William III after the defeat of James II at the Boyne in 1690. He was Chancellor of Connor Cathedral before fleeing to France, where he was a member of the Jacobite court in exile.

In a particularly heated conversation in 1775, Johnson referred to William III as “one of the most worthless scoundrels that ever existed.” He appears determined to disparage William at every opportunity, castigated his rude table manners, accused him of being overbearing towards his immediate family, and despising his narrow militarism.

Johnson was angered by what he saw as the degradation of the Anglican Church that began to set in under the Whig ‘Junto’ that grabbed power under William and so agreed with those who those High Church figures during the reign of Queen who warned about the “Church in Danger.”

His admiration for High Church leaders such as Charles Leslie leads scholars to ask whether Johnson was a closet Jacobite. Remarkably, Johnson’s Dictionary contains no definition of the word ‘Jacobite’ and he defines Nonjuror as “One who conceiving James II unjustly deposed, refuses to swear allegiance to those who have succeeded him.”

Charles Leslie … a Nonjuror allowed to return home in old age

Charles Leslie was a Jacobite and Nonjuror. He was born in Dublin in July 1650s, the son of John Leslie (1571-1671), Bishop of Raphoe and later Bishop of Clogher. He was educated at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, and Trinity College, Dublin. He was ordained in 1680, and in 1687 he became Chancellor of Connor, where Jeremy Taylor had been bishop.

Leslie was a firm supporter of the Stuart dynasty, and, having refused to take the new oath of loyalty to William and Mary, he was deprived of his offices in the Church of Ireland. For about 20 years, he lived in England, where he spent his time writing pamphlets in favour of the Nonjuring cause, and against Quakers, Jews, Socinians, Roman Catholics and Deists. He was zealous in his attacks on heretics, his defence of the sacraments, and in his support of the Jacobite cause.

When a warrant was issued for his arrest in 1710 for his pamphlet The Good Old Cause, or Lying in Truth, he left England for France, and joined the Jacobite court in exile in 1711.

After the failure of the Stuart cause in 1715, Leslie accompanied his patron into Italy, where he remained until 1721.

Samuel Johnson later praised Leslie as the only Nonjuror who could reason, saying: “Leslie was a reasoner and a reasoned who was not to be reasoned against.” The sale catalogue of his library shows Johnson owned a copy of Charles Leslie’s two-volume Theological Works, published in 1721.

However, Johnson disagreed with Leslie on many points, Including the duty of passive obedience and the divine right of kings.

Johnson filled his Dictionary with citations from High Church figures during Queen Anne’s reign. In all, he cites four Nonjurors in his Dictionary: John Kettlewell (1653-1695), Vicar of Coleshill, near Tamworth, Robert Nelson (1656-1715), William Law (1686-1761) and Charles Leslie. Johnson knew and admired the work of other leading Nonjurors, including the Nonjuring bishops George Hickes (1642-1715), former Dean of Worcester, and Thomas Brett (1667-1743). He defended their writings against their Whig critics, and Boswell records many political remarks by Johnson that find parallels in the published works of the Nonjurors.

Johnson’s first biographer, Sir John Hawkins, tries to argue that Johnson actually sided with Leslie’s main antagonist, the Whig and Latitudinarian theologian, Bishop Benjamin Hoadly (1676-1761). This has been challenged firmly by many Johnson scholars, but as Nicholas Hudson points out in A Political Biography of Samuel Johnson, published in October 2015, Johnson never showed sympathy for the patriarchal origins of government. Like the great Elizabethan Anglican apologist Richard Hooker, Johnson consistently maintained a secular understanding of the origins and nature of society.

When Johnson praises Charles Leslie as “a reasoner,” he is probably referring to The Case of Regale, published in 1710. This is the work by Leslie that Johnson cites most frequently in the fourth edition of his Dictionary.

However, The Case of Regale is not expressly Jacobite in its arguments, and is best understood as a defence of the autonomy of the Church of England from control by both Parliament and the King. So, while Johnson enjoyed Leslie’s energetic reasoning and faith, he may have disapproved of Leslie’s self-alienation from the Church of England.

At the end of his days, George I pardoned Charles Leslie in 1721, saying: “Let the old man go home to Glaslough to die.” He returned to Ireland and died at Glaslough on 13 April 1722.

Samuel Johnson’s statue in the Market Square, Lichfield … he enjoyed Charles Leslie’s energetic reasoning and faith (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)