Johnson: He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies…

50 Massachusetts Ave, NE- Union Station

“He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him. So it is in travelling. A man must carry knowledge with him if he would bring home knowledge.”

Washington is not just a city of words, it is a city of travel and change. Even in the age of automatic connectivity, diplomacy still happens where the wheels of the plane hit the ground, business still happens over a handshake. And long before the Reagan National airport brought the dignitaries and wonks of the world to Washington, Union Station did. With roughly 70,000 people passing through the granite arcades every day, the train station is still a major hub. Commuters, students, soldiers, transients, and guard dogs all bustle through the white granite arcades at all hours of the day.

This sense of movement is captured in an unattributed quotation by Samuel Johnson inscribed on the south face of the station. Dr. Johnson, an 18th century English literary critic and renowned man of letters, supposedly dictated this thought to his friend and biographer James Boswell while debating whether Johnson should write an account of his travels in France. Johnson, a man of robust stature and strong opinions, stated there was no use in writing about countries that one had visited only briefly. Boswell countered that Johnson always planned his writing out beforehand anyway and had written most of his famous A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland before even visiting the country. Johnson responded with the Spanish proverb, “He who would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him,” adding, “so it is in travelling; a man must carry knowledge with him, if he would bring home knowledge.”

The possible interpretations are various. One could consider the proverb in a material sense: in order to bring home the wealth of the Indies, one has to actually carry the weight. A traveler needs to bring a draft with him if he expects to produce a travel narrative. Or, perhaps this is Johnson’s exhortation to do your research before traveling- if you know what to expect, your experience will be deeper and your gains richer. Or perhaps he is referring to the transactional nature of being a guest in a foreign place – that a traveler should approach a journey not as an empty vessel to be filled, but as a merchant to trade in ideas. Boswell himself seemed to have interpreted it similarly. Afterward, he writes, “The Proverb, I suppose, Sir, means, he must carry a large stock with him to trade with.” Johnson in turn replied, “Yes, Sir.”

Samuel Johnson was a well-traveled man himself, but never made it to America. He did however, partake in the political debate around the American Revolution. After Thomas Paine published the pro-revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense in 1776, Johnson responded with a pamphlet of his own, Taxation No Tyranny. He challenged the arguments of the upstart colonists, including a famous critique of the American colonists’ involvement in the global trade in African slaves… “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

Johnson’s words certainly made it to America though, where they join four other quotations on the side of Union Station. Italian laborers carved the inscription onto the massive Beaux-Arts style structure before it was finished in 1908. Since then, the quotation has presided over travelers and itinerants of all sorts. None, perhaps, are carrying the fabled wealth of the Indies, but anyone who takes the time to look up and read the words frozen in marble may leave a little bit richer.

Union Station, DC

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Filed under 1700s, Literature

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