James Boswell, born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 29, 1740, was the oldest son and heir of a distinguished Scottish judge, the proprietor of an ancient estate in Ayrshire who, when raised to the bench, took the title of Lord Auchinleck. Young Boswell was privately tutored as a child. Following his studies at the Edinburgh high school, he entered the University of Edinburgh. He also studied at the University of Glasgow and later at the University of Utrecht, in preparation for a career in law.
As early as 1758, Boswell began keeping a journal and publishing articles in various periodicals. In 1759-1760, he became interested in Roman Catholicism and voiced his determination to become a priest. When Lord Auchinleck, a dour and ardent Scottish Presbyterian, opposed the idea, father and son compromised on the plan of a military career for the young man. Although he did not enter the army when his father took him to London, Boswell remained in the English city, enjoying its society and becoming a friend of many of the great and near-great of that time. On his return to Edinburgh in the following spring of 1761, he entered the university, but he much preferred the social life of the capital, becoming acquainted with young actors, young military officers, and even such a solid man of learning as David Hume. On the pretext of trying for a commission in the guards, Boswell returned to London in 1762; there he met Samuel Johnson, the famous lexicographer, critic, and conversationalist, in 1763. Also in 1763, Boswell crossed the channel to the Continent, partly to study at the University of Utrecht and partly to satisfy his appetite for famous people, good times, and new sights. During his stay on the Continent, Boswell contrived to visit both Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In 1764, he journeyed to Corsica, which, under the famous patriot Pasquale Paoli, was then fighting for independence from Genoa. The energetic Boswell became an enthusiast for the Corsican cause, and in 1768 he published An Account of Corsica: The Journal of a Tour to That Island, and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli in an effort to secure help for the Corsican patriots. Upon his return to England, Boswell tried to enlist the aid of such men as Lord Chatham and Lord Holland in getting British aid to the Corsicans, but he was unsuccessful in his attempts.
In 1766, Boswell was admitted to the bar in Scotland, and he practiced law in 1766 and 1767. His work on the Douglas case, involving the inheritance of a large estate in Scotland, sparked his interest, and he twice wrote about it: Dorando: A Spanish Tale discussed the case under the thin disguise of fiction, and The Essence of the Douglas Cause was an ambitious treatise on the subject. During these years, Boswell, always enthusiastic for women,...
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