Sober historian, disciplined thought, jovial presence.
One of Britain’s—and for that matter, the West’s—most-prominent journalists and popular historians of the past 75 years, Paul Johnson, died Thursday at the age of 94. Johnson authored more than 50 books on significant topics in religious history, political thought, and the arts. Among the most notable of all that he authored were his histories of the modern world, Judaism, and Christianity.
Johnson’s intellectual pilgrimage in the world of political thought is notable, as well. He began that journey professionally in the 1960s as the “bomb-throwing” polemicist editor of the left-wing British magazine The New Statesman. Then, always the sober historian, he put his realist instincts to work as a columnist for the conservative Spectator, after which he appeared in the conservative Daily Mail.
His shift from left to right is reflected by the way in which he explained his love for America and the American people in his books, columns, and public speaking. “The creation of the United States is the greatest of all human adventures,” according to his masterful A History of the American People. “No other national story holds such tremendous lessons, for the American people themselves and for the rest of mankind.”
Fully in agreement with Alexis de Tocqueville, Johnson believed that Christianity was critical to the maintenance of republican institutions.
Given that his argument for the exceptional nature of the American experience became a force in much conservative argumentation for the same and related concepts and applications, I had the pleasure to engage with Johnson personally and professionally while working on and leading the program staff of Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Johnson’s disciplined thought always positively influenced the way Bradley approached its grantmaking in political thought and history.
He honored the foundation by agreeing to serve as a member of the Bradley Prizes selection committee in 2004, its inaugural year. When the committee met, I recall, his participation was helpfully active and his jovial presence was typically “larger than life.”
He will be missed, and remembered.