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Lord Chesterfield and the Gregorian Calendar

Chesterfield is better known for a series of instructional letters to his illegitimate son on the art of becoming a gentleman and man of the world. There, he speaks of the legislation he introduced in 1751.

"I have of late been a sort of 'astronome malgre moi', by bringing in last Monday into the House of Lords a bill for reforming our present Calendar and taking the New Style. Upon which occasion I was obliged to talk some astronomical jargon, of which I did not understand one word, but got it by heart, and spoke it by rote from a master. I wished that I had known a little more of it myself; and so much I would have you know. But the great and necessary knowledge of all is, to know, yourself and others: this knowledge requires great attention and long experience; exert the former, and may you have the latter!" (Letter to His Son, CXXXII)

"I acquainted you in a former letter, that I had brought a bill into the House of Lords for correcting and reforming our present calendar, which is the Julian, and for adopting the Gregorian. I will now give you a more particular account of that affair; from which reflections will naturally occur to you that I hope may be useful, and which I fear you have not made. It was notorious, that the Julian calendar was erroneous, and had overcharged the solar year with eleven days. Pope Gregory the Thirteenth corrected this error; his reformed calendar was immediately received by all the Catholic powers of Europe, and afterward adopted by all the Protestant ones, except Russia, Sweden, and England. It was not, in my opinion, very honorable for England to remain, in a gross and avowed error, especially in such company; the inconveniency of it was likewise felt by all those who had foreign correspondences, whether political or mercantile. I determined, therefore, to attempt the reformation; I consulted the best lawyers and the most skillful astronomers, and we cooked up a bill for that purpose. But then my difficulty began: I was to bring in this bill, which was necessarily composed of law jargon and astronomical calculations, to both which I am an utter stranger. However, it was absolutely necessary to make the House of Lords think that I knew something of the matter; and also to make them believe that they knew something of it themselves, which they do not. For my own part, I could just as soon have talked Celtic or Sclavonian to them as astronomy, and they would have understood me full as well: so I resolved to do better than speak to the purpose, and to please instead of informing them. I gave them, therefore, only an historical account of calendars, from the Egyptian down to the Gregorian, amusing them now and then with little episodes; but I was particularly attentive to the choice of my words, to the harmony and roundness of my periods, to my elocution, to my action. This succeeded, and ever will succeed; they thought I informed, because I pleased them; and many of them said that I had made the whole very clear to them; when, God knows, I had not even attempted it. Lord Macclesfield, who had the greatest share in forming the bill, and who is one of the greatest mathematicians and astronomers in Europe, spoke afterward with infinite knowledge, and all the clearness that so intricate a matter would admit of: but as his words, his periods, and his utterance, were not near so good as mine, the preference was most unanimously, though most unjustly, given to me. This will ever be the case; every numerous assembly is mob, let the individuals who compose it be what they will. Mere reason and good sense is never to be talked to a mob; their passions, their sentiments, their senses, and their seeming interests, are alone to be applied to. Understanding they have collectively none, but they have ears and eyes, which must be flattered and seduced; and this can only be done by eloquence, tuneful periods, graceful action, and all the various parts of oratory" (Letter to His Son, CXXXV).

Chesterfield says something else in Letter CXXXII.

"There is a man, whose moral character, deep learning, and superior parts, I acknowledge, admire, and respect; but whom it is so impossible for me to love, that I am almost in a fever whenever I am in his company. His figure (without being deformed) seems made to disgrace or ridicule the common structure of the human body. His legs and arms are never in the position which, according to the situation of his body, they ought to be in, but constantly employed in committing acts of hostility upon the Graces. He throws anywhere, but down his throat, whatever he means to drink, and only mangles what he means to carve. Inattentive to all the regards of social life, he mistimes or misplaces everything. He disputes with heat, and indiscriminately, mindless of the rank, character, and situation of those with whom he disputes; absolutely ignorant of the several gradations of familiarity or respect, he is exactly the same to his superiors, his equals, and his inferiors; and therefore, by a necessary consequence, absurd to two of the three. Is it possible to love such a man? No. The utmost I can do for him, is to consider him as a respectable Hottentot."

The person to whom Chesterfield refers with such disdain is Samuel Johnson, whose life was so famously recorded by James Boswell. The reason for his discomfiture relates to Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language, which was published in 1755. Johnson had addressed his plan for the dictionary to Chesterfield in 1747, hoping that he might be a patron. Only a token sum was contributed at the time but, when it became apparent that the enterprise would be a success, Chesterfield belatedly wrote several favorable reviews. Johnson was not deceived.

"Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labors, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it. I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligations where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the Public should consider me as owing that to a Patron, which Providence has enabled me to do for myself."

Indeed, so resentful was the lexicographer at the niggardly support he had received from Chesterfield that "patron" was defined in the Dictionary as "One who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with indolence, and is paid with flattery." Johnson's dictionary, which contained 40,000 definitions and quotations from 114,000 sources to illustrate their meanings, remained unrivalled until the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1884.

An informative article about the consequences and complications of the New Style calendar is "'Give Us Our Eleven Days!': Calendar Reform in Eighteenth-Century England" (1995) by Robert Poole, Past & Present, 149, 95-139.

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