Page images

Boswell's intercourse with his illustrious associate. Dr. Boswell entertained loòse notions of religion, and Mr. Dempster was a disciple of David Hume. Dempster made a violent attack on Christianity, repeating the arguments of Rousseau, and quoting approvingly the sentiments of Hume and Gibbon. Dr. Boswell preserved a general silence, but was disposed to smile approvingly at Dempster's sallies. In the society of his new acquaintance, Dr. Johnson was appalled to find a bold upholder of infidel sentiments, and his indignation was proportionate. He assailed Dempster with much severity, exposing the sophistry of his school. Boswell took notes of the conversation, doubtless intending to utilize what he had written. Next morning he hastened to Dr. Johnson's chambers to express disapproval of Dempster's sentiments. Dr. Johnson answered, "I have not met with any man for a long time who has given me such general displeasure. He is totally unfixed in his principles, and wants to puzzle other people." This utterance is presented by Boswell in Dr. Johnson's memoirs with the prefatory remark, "Of a gentleman who was mentioned he said," &c. Boswell became very intimate with Mr. Dempster, and so erased from his journal all memorials of the evening's conversation. Not very creditably he affirms, in Johnson's Life, that the evening was wholly occupied "in the discussion of social and political questions." But the truth, which Boswell sought to suppress, reaches us in his own words from two different channels. To Mr. Temple, on the 23rd of July, he wrote thus:

"On Wednesday evening, Mr. Johnson, Dempster, and my uncle Dr. Boswell, supped with me at my chambers. I had prodigious satisfaction to find Dempster's sophistry (which he has learned from Hume and Rousseau) vanquished by the solid sense and vigorous reasoning of Johnson. It was a very fertile

evening, and my journal is stored with its fruits. Dempster was as happy as a vanquished argumentator could be; and the honest Doctor was cheerful and conversible and highly entertained."

On the same day Boswell communicated with Sir David Dalrymple in these words:

"Mr. Johnson did me the honour to sup with me at my chambers some nights ago. Entre nous, he said that Dempster, who was also with me, gave him more general displeasure than any man he has met with of a long time. He saw a pupil of Hume and of Rousseau totally unsettled as to principles, and endeavouring to puzzle and shake other people with childish sophistry. I had infinite satisfaction in hearing solid truth confuting vain subtilty. * * * I thank God that I have got acquainted with Mr. Johnson. He has done me infinite service. He has assisted me to obtain peace of mind; he has assisted me to become a rational Christian; I hope I shall ever remain so.

[ocr errors]

In referring to his having become a rational Christian, Boswell desired to satisfy his Scottish Mæcenas that he had personally abandoned the superstitions of Romish worship. Mr. Dempster's religious views, together with his personal history and his acquaintance with Boswell, may be finally disposed of. Grandson of George. Dempster, merchant and banker at Dundee, he succeeded to several important estates, which his ancestor had acquired by granting extensive loans on mortgages to the former proprietors. Born in 1735, he studied at the University of Edinburgh, and in that city formed the intimacy of Dr. William Robertson, Alexander Carlyle, John Home, and other eminent clergymen. Under their auspices he sat as a lay member in the General Assembly; and in that court he opposed his friends by seconding the injunction of the House passed in 1757,

* Original letter preserved at New Hailes.

forbidding the clergy to countenance theatricals.* Becoming acquainted with David Hume, he renounced Presbyterianism, and embraced infidelity. He abandoned the Scottish Bar to which he had been called, and became candidate for the parliamentary representation of the Fife and Forfar burghs. By a narrow majority he secured his seat, but he was convicted of bribery and the election was annulled. To accomplish his end he had sold two fine estates, and expended nearly £15,000. On presenting himself to the constituents the second time he was returned under less exceptionable circumstances. He retained his seat from 1762 till 1790. He would join no political party, probably owing to an uncertainty of judgment, which was partly an inheritance; two of his ancestors being deposed and afterwards restored to the ministry for certain changes in their civil and ecclesiastical opinions. According to Boswell he early cherished republican sentiments; latterly he resisted the revolutionary ferment created by the French Directory. By the general public he was esteemed a patriot, and was provincially known as "Honest George." The poet Burns held that he should have been ennobled. He supported some liberal measures, and certain important services are associated with his name. He denounced the conflict with the American colonies, opposed the sovereignty exercised by the East India Company, sought to remove all restraints from the national commerce, and advocated the abolition of sinecures. On retiring from Parliament, he devoted himself to the promotion of agriculture and manufactures in North Britain. He established an agricultural society on his estate.† He improved the condition of the

*"Autobiography of the Rev. Dr. Alexander Carlyle." Edinburgh, 1860, 8vo., p. 322.

† Of this society, styled the Lunan and Viney Water Farming Club, the Rev. James Roger, of Dunino, father of the writer, was on


[ocr errors]

Scottish fisheries, and discovered a method of preserving salmon for the London market. He was much respected on his estate, was benevolent to the poor, and exercised a generous hospitality. He did not attend church on the plea of feeble health, but he associated with the clergy of his neighbourhood, and to his household spoke reverently of religion. In some twenty of his letters, written at intervals during a period of twenty-five years preceding his decease, the writer has on a close examination been unable to detect any remark savouring of scepticism. Yet it is nearly certain that he cherished to the close of a long life the blighting infidelity of David Hume. To the Right Hon. John Wilson Croker was communicated by Sir Walter Scott the following metrical epitaph, which it was alleged Mr. Dempster composed upon himself:

"Pray for the soul of deceased George Dempster,

In his youth a great fool, in his old age a gamester;
What you're to know, on this tomb you shall see,
Life's thread he let go when just ninety-three.


So sound was his bottom, his acquaintance all wonder'd
How old Nick had got him till he lived out the hundred.
To his money concerns he paid little attention,
First selling his land, then pawning his pension;
But his precious time he much better did manage,
To the end of his life from his earliest nonage,
He divided his hours into two equal parts,

And spent one half in sleeping, the other at cartes.†

Mr. Dempster died on his estate of Dunnichen, Forfarshire, on the 13th February, 1818, at the age of eighty-four.

Mr. Dempster's nomination elected perpetual secretary. The minutebook is in the writer's possession.

* In 1765 Mr. Dempster obtained the patent office of Secretary to the Order of the Thistle, with a salary of £500 per annum.

† Cards.

In May, 1763, two months before the period reached in the preceding narrative, Boswell asked Sir David Dalrymple to interpose with his father, who was threatening to disinherit him on account of his unsettled habits. He concludes a letter to Sir David in these words,-"Tell him to have patience with me for a year or two, and I may be what he pleases." In June he informs Sir David that his father's proposal that he should proceed to Utrecht, there to study civil law under the celebrated M. Trotz had met with his acceptance, and that his much pleased to find in him so prudent a

father was disposition.

[ocr errors]

He adds,


"My great object is to attain a proper conduct in life. How sad will it be if I turn no better than I am! I have much vivacity, which leads me to dissipation and folly. This I think I can restrain. But I will be moderate, and not aim at a stiff sageness and buckram correctness. I must, however, own to you that I have at bottom a melancholy cast, which dissipation relieves by making me thoughtless, and therefore an easier though a more contemptible animal. I dread a return of this malady. I am always apprehensive of it.”

About the Utrecht scheme he writes to Mr. Temple on the 15th July, "I have had a long letter from my father, full of affection and good counsel. Honest man, he is now very happy: it is amazing to think how much he has had at heart my pursuing the road of civil life; he is anxious for fear I should fall off from my prudent system, and return to my dissipated, unsettled way of thinking; and in order to make him easy, he insists on having my solemn promise that I will persist in the scheme on which he is so earnestly bent: he knows my fidelity, and he concludes that my promise will fix

* Letter of Boswell preserved at New Hailes.

« PreviousContinue »