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Samuel Johnson’s Defense of Magna Carta

Samuel Johnson. A History and Defence of Magna Charta: Shewing the Manner of its Being Obtained from King John. London: Printed for J. Bell ... at his Circulating-Library, 1772. 23 cm. Modern buckram.

Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), author and lexicographer, was born in Breadmarket Street, Litchfield. He was educated at Pembroke College, Oxford from 1728-1729, after which he returned to relative idleness. He held no degree until the university conferred an MA on him in 1755 in recognition of the forthcoming Dictionary.

Magna Carta in Statutes at Large

He suffered from chronic depression as well as other chronic illnesses and had been disfigured by scrofula and small pox, none of which helped his career. His first professional appointment was as a writer for the newspaper, The Birmingham Journal. For years he rattled between teaching and writing – all for very short stints. In 1837 he moved to London to pursue a writing career, the high point of which was his Dictionary, compiled on commission between 1746 and 1755. From 1760 on he lived on a pension and continued to write in a variety of genres, especially biography. He spent much of his later years travelling extensively. After his death, he rapidly achieved a celebrity he had not enjoyed during his lifetime.

Johnson, unlike Blackstone and Coke, viewed Magna Carta as an antiquarian document providing liberties not to all of England, but simply a handful of barons. His “Defence” reads more like a condemnation than a celebration of the document.

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