The World of Paul Johnson

The late historian didn’t have a lot of friends on the left, but his popular histories help explain the present day

Some of the tributes published since the death of British historian Paul Johnson at age 94 last month have noted that his writings tended to anger people on the left, which of course is true. After deserting the Labor Party in 1977 and becoming a Tory, Johnson voiced a number of provocative views and published books holding collectivist economic and political theories and practices liable for a bulk of the misery and repression in the world.

But the obits have not really delved into the subjects that Johnson explored over the course of decades as a historian or tried to explain how the events of past centuries informed his critique of the present. Put simply, they don’t offer much sense of his prescience.

Johnson is not without his detractors. To discuss his tomes is to invite the scorn of academics who dismiss him as a writer of popular history, or journalism informed by a superficial gloss on the past. He knew a little about a lot of things. He wasn’t a serious scholar. This snooty dismissal ignores the breadth of citations found in Johnson’s work, which speaks to a wealth of knowledge gained over a lifetime of study. If his critics can point out factual errors in his work, then fair enough. If not, then they might at least explain why it is a crime to try to foster in readers the same zest and passion for subjects that the author feels.

Paul Johnson

His most prescient book may be The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830, which finds in that short decade and a half the seeds of the world around us today. This work examines all corners of the planet and considers everything from global trade and conquest to the poetry and music popular at the time.

Published in 1991, when Donald Trump was known mostly as a real estate developer and casino mogul, The Birth of the Modern examines a period in America’s history when an outsider full of disdain for the customs and etiquette of politics and for an establishment marked by cronyism and settled ways of doing things came forward with plans to drain the swamp and fire a lot of bureaucrats. That juncture is the presidential race of 1828, which pitted incumbent John Quincy Adams against Andrew Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans, and was itself a reprieve of the 1824 contest.

Johnson’s account of the 1828 race will sound all too familiar to those of us who grew sick of hearing about Trump’s Access Hollywood flubs or Hillary Clinton’s emails. He calls it the most vicious presidential contest then known, partly because it was the first in which one side tried to use leaks to humiliate and demoralize the other. Johnson quotes Adams stating, “I write few private letters. . . . I can never be sure of writing a line that will not some day be published by friend or foe. Nor can I write a sentence susceptible of an odious misconstruction but it will be seized upon and bandied about like a watchword for hatred and derision.”

Even so, Adams had no idea how lucky he was to live before the age of Twitter. Johnson describes Adams’s side as no less scrupulous, floating rumors that New Orleans would have fallen to the British that day in 1812 had James Monroe not stopped General Jackson from going AWOL. Jackson called this a “vile slander,” yet it is clear from Johnson’s account that the general had little regard for the niceties of diplomacy and tended to demonize his foes in the harshest of terms.

Jackson benefited from having Martin van Buren, the lawyer and future president, as his running mate. Looking at the 2016 race, and the Trump campaign’s tactic of crisscrossing the country to visit those pockets of America that his opponent haughtily dismissed or ignored and drum up support, it is hard not to wonder whether the Trump team borrowed a page from the feisty populist Van Buren, whose voyages to towns and villages and efforts to rally deplorables to the side of Jackson are detailed here.

“Indeed, he spent seven weeks in July and August electioneering in the sticky heat of grim new villages in upstate New York, carrying basic provisions with him in his carriage, for none were to be had, complaining of insects, humidity, and sudden storms which turned the tracks into marshes. He brought with him entire cartloads of posters, Jackson badges, bucktails to wear in hats, and hickory sticks,” Johnson recounts.

That is what you need to do, whether the year is 1828 or 2016. Then, as now, some politicians were unwilling to hold their nose and go out to court the votes of deplorables over weeks and months. This error is fatal. The outcome of the race speaks for itself. Plus ça change. After winning the election, Jackson set about draining the swamp, breaking up musty networks of patronage and favoritism in Washington, though Johnson estimates that the number of people fired during his administration may be a bit lower than thought.

The tensions between convention and populism also flared in the controversy around Jackson’s tapping of John Henry Eaton as his Secretary of War. Eaton’s wife, Peggy Timberlake, did not fit in with the spouses of others in the cabinet. “She was pert, egotistical, selfish, pushy and only 29. The other cabinet matrons, older and plainer, loathed her from the start,” writes Johnson.

This dislike manifested itself in rumors about the young woman’s chastity and the refusal of some of the matrons to sit beside her at the ball ushering in the new administration. You could find no clearer harbinger of the strife and scandals of future decades, where sexual shenanigans and keeping the wrong company would haunt presidents and taint their legacies.

Putin’s Ancestors

The scope of Johnson’s account of this decade and a half allows for a close examination of life in Europe and the Americas and, in particular, those parts of the world where an anti-colonial consciousness was in development. The world today is unimaginable without the struggles he describes between imperial aggressor and native upstart in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. But the passages richest with implications may be those dealing with Russia, which Johnson characterizes as not just a nation-state with belligerent tendencies, but one structured around the plotting and execution of war.

“Muscovy, later Russia, was perpetually fighting. Warfare was its organizing principle,” Johnson writes. One of the reasons has to do with a need to absorb ever more foreign territory to make up for disadvantages of climate and an indigenous agriculture that Johnson describes as backward. As early as the reign of Peter the Great (1682-1725), who made heavy use of a tax on “souls,” Johnson estimates that no less than two-thirds of the country’s manpower went to filling the ranks of the army and providing logistical and material support for it. Russia became the first nation-state to implement conscription applying to all military-age males at times of peace as well as war. When Vladimir Putin calls up hundreds of thousands of reservists for deployment in Ukraine, he is making use of a system pioneered by absolute rulers going back well before the Russian state as we currently know it.

Other features of the modern state date to the rule of Alexander I (1801-1825), who established a Ministry of the Interior, still around today, whose policing functions shaded into boundless control over the people. Trials took place in secret and the police operated a system of payments that encouraged citizens to report on one another. Those who had fallen into disfavor with the regime languished and faced torture in hidden jails. The apparatus of the regime that would carry out the disappearances and mass killings synonymous with Stalin, and emulated by lesser dictators all over the planet, was firmly in place in the decade and a half that are the focus of Johnson’s book.

Blossoming Egos

As hard as it may be for us today to envision, there was a time when musicians, even highly accomplished ones, were far from the preening, self-important celebrities and household names they are now. According to Johnson, they had a status close to household servants as late as the close of the eighteenth century. He sees the change as happening decisively and irrevocably during the life of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), who scoffed at the notion that artists should know their place and show deference to their patrons and other putative superiors.

“Beethoven was a key figure in the birth of the modern because he first established and popularized the notion of the artist as universal genius, as a moral figure in his own right—indeed, as a kind of intermediary between God and Man,” Johnson writes.

Maybe it was inevitable that this hubris would spread to other types of artists. One of the anecdotes Johnson uses to buttress his point is an incident where Beethoven was hanging out with the poet and novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was already quite famous, in the public gardens of Teplitz one day in 1812. In Johnson’s telling, Beethoven not only lectured Goethe on the role and stature of the artist, in the broad sense of the term, but encouraged his friend to snub those who thought they occupied a higher caste.

When the empress of Austria, several dukes, and their attendants came up from another direction, Beethoven told Goethe that they must keep their own arms linked and not give way or show deference. If anyone was to get out of the way, it would be the self-important people, Beethoven said. Growing embarrassed, Goethe extricated his arm, stepped out of the path of the royalty, and doffed his hat, while Beethoven plowed right through them. Beethoven then upbraided his friend for having shown deference to the royalty.

It was Beethoven’s fortune to live and work at a time when music came to occupy a new niche in the public mind. People understood it to play a role in their own self-schemata. For his part, Goethe benefited from a growing permeability of media long thought to belong to discrete spheres.

“Poetry, including most notably Goethe’s own, was being turned into songs, cantatas, operas and even symphonies. It was characteristic of this new approach that Beethoven crowned his greatest symphony, the Ninth in D Minor, with a setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy,” Johnson writes.

Musicians and poets were well on the way to becoming the objects of wide adulation—and, in some cases, the targets of disturbed loners. But Johnson does not judge. Contrary to his detractors, he is more interested in analyzing historical trends and raising questions for us to consider than serving up pat answers.

As we watch the phone-throwing, profanity-ridden tirades, and political posturing of our actors and rock stars, who appoint themselves spokespeople on issues of the day, we can debate the desirability of these trends. Harder to dispute is the transformative nature of that juncture in the life of humanity that Paul Johnson captured, or his own role in and contribution to the historian’s endeavor.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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