The World’s Greatest Outlaw

The life of Samuel Johnson, would-be attorney-at-law

“The Third Otani Hiroemon as an Outlaw Standing Near a Willow Tree” by Katsukawa Shunsho, 1777, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1918
‘The Great Ebussuud Teaching Law,’ miniature from a divan by Mahmud Abd-al Baqi, mid-sixteenth century. The jurist and theologian Ebussuud Efendi greatly contributed to the shaping of classical Ottoman law. Image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of George D. Pratt, 1925
‘Aura’ by Chris Fraser, 2015, courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.

It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me.

— Martin Luther King Jr., 1962

Johnson happily accepted the work, regu­larly removing his hulk-like, lumbering frame off to Oxford for joint working sessions. To-gether they shared, wrote Boswell, “a great in­ti­macy.” The partnership lasted until 1773, when Chambers was offered an important judgeship in Bengal. The result of the collaboration, in its most recent published edition, comprises two volumes totaling more than nine hundred pages. This Course of Lectures on the English Law boasts Chambers as principal author on the title page but also has the line “Composed in association with Samuel Johnson” — a well-kept secret throughout the time the lectures were delivered, and still not widely known.

‘Signing of the Constitution’ by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940, via the U.S. Capitol

The law makes ten criminals where it restrains one.

— Voltairine de Cleyre, 1890

Johnson published his re-creation of Sav­age’s life in 1744, the year after the poet’s death, and records the court case in detail. Al­though there was little doubt of his friend’s guilt, Johnson tilts the events as if he were counsel for the defense. The testimony of the three prosecuting witnesses — a coffeehouse maid and a prostitute and her pimp — he dismisses witheringly: “The witnesses which appeared against him were proved to be persons of char­acters which did not entitle them to much credit; a common strumpet, a woman by whom strumpets were entertained, and a man by whom they were supported.” Savage, by con­trast, is “a modest, inoffensive man.” The whole account was published anonymously.

Necessity knows no law except to conquer.

— Publilius Syrus, 50 BC

In effect, the financial obstacles preventing Johnson from studying law were perhaps a blessing, saving him the trouble of discovering later on that his worldview would prevent him from enjoying being a lawyer. For all his regrets at the path not taken, there was good reason that he preferred to come at the law from the outside and not from the ranks of the formally admitted. The ways of the human heart might be effectively managed by the courts (“the law is the last result of human wisdom acting upon human experience for the benefit of the public,” he would proclaim in its defense), but they were better understood by what he called “the nose of the mind.” His nose, his mind.

A magazine of history and ideas, celebrating ten years in print. Sign up for our weekly newsletter: https://bit.ly/3fxTmiV.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store