The English journalist and historian Paul Johnson has died. His importance to conservatism is such that in America president George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006, the highest civilian distinction, and he was even honored in his native Britain, when, in 2016, the late Queen Elizabeth II made him a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Johnson earned this acknowledgment by championing the decent of modern politics of England and America—political liberty secured by empire and republic both. One could summarize his very popular work as a historian by saying that he largely followed the line suggested by Churchill in his sketch, The History of the English Speaking Peoples. Much of his success must be due to the fact that almost no one else did. Since so much of elite education and public discourse in the last two generations reduces to contempt for intelligent patriotism, Johnson was both daring and ordinary, qualities required for success in a democracy.
Johnson was born in 1928, lived through the poverty of the times, but received a Catholic education and went to Oxford. He then worked as a journalist and a man of the left until the ‘70s, rising to edit The Statesman. In the second half of his life, he made a spectacular political turn by supporting Lady Thatcher for Conservative leader and becoming a Tory himself, as well as becoming her advisor and speechwriter. He also became a columnist for the Spectator in 1981.
The Turn to History
Johnson’s greatest public service was as a historian. In his middle age, he turned from journalism to history, as though recalling that he had studied with the famous historian A. J. P. Taylor at Oxford, and he attempted to give the general audience the best introduction available to the important questions of modern life. Even today, I believe all high school seniors and college students should be required to read his 1983 overview (later revised to cover the 90’s) Modern Times, that they may learn what the passion for revolution has wrought in our times. Just as useful for education is his 1997 volume, A History of the American People, which shows his great love for Americans and the understanding it fostered.
Johnson wrote incredibly long histories that make for very pleasant reading, teaching his audience without condescension or any pretense, gradually making them familiar with the things they presume to know already or not to care about at all—in short, helping his readers come into possession of their civilizational heritage. His volumes make the best case that democracy can be educated in our times; they are the fulfillment of the Enlightenment ideals that animated him and of the Enlightenment historians whom he imitated better than most in our times. His The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 (1991) makes these ideals most obvious. He also wrote histories of Christianity (1976) and of the Jews (1987), to offer a moral correlative of the political ideas he pursued in his other works.
In his old age, Johnson turned to supply what he thought was most needed for our times, a lively interest in adventure and manliness. He wrote biographies of great men who founded or saved political liberty—Washington, Napoleon, Churchill. And he also turned his attention to other impressive achievements of the human soul, in the conviction that without such examples, civilization cannot sustain itself. These volumes seem intended to amaze and inspire young men: Creators (2006), Heroes (2007), and even Humorists (2010). Altogether, his aim was to help restore nobility, since otherwise, liberty would not be well used and, if ill-used, would not long be maintained.
Johnson’s outlook is that of a gentleman; his success shows the great desire audiences have for such teachers, who are incredibly scarce. Going beyond politics, Johnson revealed his beliefs honestly in his biographies of Jesus (2010) and Socrates (2011), the two figures of the greatest importance for our civilization. His basic decency shows in describing Socrates as a devoted husband and father and a patriotic soldier of Athens in war. Obviously, he could not say the same about Jesus, but he tried to explain with modesty his faith in the most exalted vision of the human heart.
Johnson seems to have only really become himself in the ‘70s, when all this impressive work began. Partly, the misery of that decade shocked him into seriousness. The chapter concerning that decade in Modern Times, written at the beginning of the ‘80s, is titled “America’s suicide attempt.” Like most decent people, Johnson was very grateful for the arrival of remarkable politicians like Thatcher, Reagan, and Pope John Paul II (whose biography he also wrote), who restored faith in democracy. Unlike most people, he was aware of the grave weaknesses revealed by the crisis that made their rise necessary and possible.
A measure of his political seriousness is his defense of Nixon, who was treated as the devil in public discourse after Watergate. Johnson understood that Watergate the political scandal did much more harm to America and the cause of liberty than Watergate the crime; the moralistic liberals of that era started a trouble that has yet to end—it is too easy to compare Nixon to Trump, who also faced impeachment. Another measure is Johnson’s defense of Pinochet, who saved Chile from the complete catastrophe of the economy, society, and constitutional order unleashed by Allende. Such positions were of course enough to make Johnson intolerable to most liberals; it didn’t help that he condemned all the revolutionary tyrannies that these p-eople loved. As a conseq-uence, Johnson ended up e-ntirely dependent on conse-rvatives for his reputation.
Altogether, Johnson was on the side of ordered liberty and when he faced the economic collapse of the ‘70s, he faced the foundation of modern politics in private property and prosperity—without it, nothing else is possible. As he reached down to this foundation, he also reached up in Christian hope for a certain kind of progress especially dear to Americans, but which was once the pride of Englishmen as well—the hope of spreading among mankind the knowledge of the law and a respect for human nature as somehow part of a providential order.
Johnson also seems to have met every important man or woman in Britain and many in America in his time and came away with anecdotes. My favorite is his Churchill anecdote. Johnson was a very young journalist in the ‘50s when Churchill last was PM and then an MP. As young journalists did then and clever students still do now, he asked the great man what got him into politics in the first place. Churchill answered, ambition, and added, and anger kept him involved in politics all his life. These are fundamental truths the young Johnson cannot have understood at the time, but he remembered the exchange as anyone would, with pleasure and gratitude for the generosity of a man arrived at the age of candor.
As for his own English witticisms, readers should consult a volume published in America a generation back, in 1994, The Quotable Paul Johnson. It makes for enjoyment and gives some measure of the desire of the man to provoke his readers to look at things with lively interest, perhaps the only decent justification for comedy.
I will close with an encouragement to read his other books as well, especially Art: A New History (2003). He also wrote about the castles and cathedrals of England. All told, Johnson encouraged understanding of the beautiful works bequeathed to us, which should, not least, encourage gratitude in us. And to the extent to which we make him an educator of our young, we can be grateful for his impressive achievements, which is the best way to remember Paul Johnson.