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Significant Scots
William Strahan


STRAHAN, WILLIAM, an eminent printer and patron of literature, was born at Edinburgh in the year 1715. [Memoir in Lounger of August 20, 1785.–Nichol’s Lit. An. iii. 399.] His father, who held a situation connected with the customs, was enabled to give him a respectable education at a grammar school, after which he was apprenticed to a printer. Very early in life he removed to the wide field of London, where he appears to have worked for some time as a journeyman printer, and to have with much frugality, creditably supported a wife and family on the small income so afforded him. His wife, whom he early married, was sister to Mr James Elphinston, the translator of Martial. It can be well supposed that he had for many years many difficulties to overcome; but he was of a happy temper, looking forward to prosperity as the reward of his toils, without being unduly sanguine. It is said he used to remark, "that he never had a child born, that Providence did not send some increase of income to provide for the increase of his household." After shaking himself free of his difficulties, he grew rapidly wealthy, and in 1770 was enabled to purchase a share of the patent for King’s Printer of Mr Eyre. Previously to this period, Mr Strahan had commenced a series of speculations in the purchase of literary property, that species of merchandise which more than any other depends for its success on the use of great shrewdness and critical discernment. Strahan was eminently successful, and with the usual effect of good management, was enabled to be liberal to authors, while he enriched himself. With Dr Johnson he was for some time intimately connected and he took the charge of editing his prayers and meditations after the doctor’s death. Johnson, however has been accused of speaking of him in a manner which the world seldom admires, when used towards a person to whom the speaker owes obligations, whatever may be the intellectual disparity. Boswell observes, "Dr Gerard told us, that an eminent printer was veiy intimate with Warburton. Johnson. ‘Why, sir, he has printed some of his works, and perhaps bought the property of some of them. The intimacy is such as one of the professors here might have with one of the carpenters, who is repairing the college.’" In a letter to Sir William Forbes, Dr Beattie has made the following remark on this passage, "I cannot but take notice of a very illiberal saying of Johnson with respect to the late Mr Strahan, (Mr Boswell has politely concealed the name,) who was a man to whom Johnson had been much obliged, and whom, on account of his abilities and virtues as well as rank in life, every one who knew him, and Johnson as well as others acknowledged to be a most respectable character. I have seen the letter mentioned by Dr Gerard, and I have seen many other letters from bishop Warburton to Mr Strahan. They were very particularly acquainted: and Mr Strahan’s merit entitled him to be on a footing of intimacy with any bishop, or any British subject. He was eminently skilled in composition and the English language, excelled in the epistolary style, had corrected (as he told me himself) the phraseology of both Mr Hume and Dr Robertson; he was a faithful friend, and his great knowledge of the world, and of business, made him a very useful one." [Forbes’ Life of Beattie, ii. 185.] The expression was probably one of a splenetic moment, for Johnson was not on all occasions on good terms with Strahan. "In the course of this year," (1778,) says Boswell, "there was a difference between him (Johnson) and his friend Mr Strahan: the particulars of which it is unnecessary to relate." The doctor must have been signally in the wrong, for he deigned to offer terms of accommodation. "It would be very foolish for us," he says in a letter to Strahan, "to continue strangers any longer. You can never by persistency make wrong right, if I resented too acrimoniously, I resented only to yourself. Nobody ever saw or heard what I wrote. You saw that my anger was over, for in a day or two I came to your house. I have given you longer time; and I hope you have made so good use of it as to be no longer on evil terms with, Sir, yours, &c., Sam. Johnson." [Boswell, iii. 392.] Strahan, when he became influential with the ministry, proposed Johnson as a person well fitted to hold a seat in parliament for their interest, but the recommendation was not adopted. So soon as he found himself in easy circumstances, Mr Strahan became an active politician, and corresponded with many eminent statesmen. In the year 1769, he wrote some Queries to Dr Franklin, respecting the discontents of the Americans, which were afterwards published in the London Chronicle of 28th July, 1778. In 1775, he was elected member for the borough of Malmsbury, in Wiltshire, with Fox as his colleague, and in the succeeding parliament he represented Wotton Basset in the same county. He is said to have been an active and useful legislator. On the resignation of his friends in 1784, he declined, partly from bad health, to stand again for a seat. His health from this period quickly declined, and he died on the 9th July, 1785, in the seventy-first year of his age. He provided munificently for his widow and children, and among many other eleemosynary bequests, left 1000 to the company of Stationers, to be disposed of for charitable purposes.

The author of the memoir in the Lounger, gives the following account of his character "Endued with much natural sagacity, and an attentive observation of life, he owed his rise to that station of opulence and respect which he attained, rather to his own talents and exertion, than to any accidental occurrence of favourable or fortunate circumstances. His mind, though not deeply tinctured with learning, was not uninformed by letters. From a habit of attention to style, he had acquired a considerable portion of critical acuteness in the discernment of its beauties and defects. In one branch of writing himself excelled. I mean the epistolary, in which he not only showed the precision and clearness of business, but possessed a neatness, as well as fluency of expression, which I have known few letter-writers to surpass. Letter-writing was one of his favourite amusements; and among his correspondents were men of such eminence and talents as well repaid his endeavours to entertain them. One of these, as we have before mentioned, was the justly celebrated Dr Franklin, originally a printer like Mr Strahan, whose friendship and correspondence he continued to enjoy, notwithstanding the difference of their sentiments in political matters, which often afforded pleasantry, but never mixed anything acrimonious in their letters. * * * In his elevation he neither triumphed over the inferiority of those he had left below him, nor forgot the equality in which they had formerly stood. Of their inferiority he did not even remind them, by the ostentation of grandeur, or the parade of wealth. In his house there was none of that saucy train, none of that state or finery, with which the illiberal delight to confound and to dazzle those who may have formerly seen them in less enviable circumstances. No man was more mindful of, or more solicitous to oblige, the acquaintance or companions of his early days. The advice which his experience, or the assistance which his purse could afford, he was ready to communicate: and at his table in London, every Scotchman found an easy introduction, and every old acquaintance a cordial welcome."


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