Joseph Addison

The English essayist and politician Joseph Addison (1672-1719) founded the "Spectator" periodical with Sir Richard Steele.

Joseph Addison was born on May 1, 1672, the son of the rector of Milston, Wiltshire. He was educated at the Charterhouse, an important boarding school, and then at Oxford, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1691.

Addison used poetry to further his political ambitions; his earliest poems include flattering references to influential men. In 1699 Addison was rewarded with a grant of money which allowed him to make the grand tour, a series of visits to the main European capitals, which was a standard part of the education of the 18th-century gentleman. One record of his travels is his long poem Letter from Italy.

In 1703 Addison returned to England to find that the Whigs, the party with which he had allied himself, were out of power. But his poem on the Battle of Blenheim won him an appointment as commissioner of appeal in excise. Addison continued to combine literary with political success. He was elected to parliament in 1707, and in 1709 he went to Dublin as secretary to the lord lieutenant of Ireland. In 1710 he founded the Whig Examiner to counter the Tory views of the Examiner, a periodical managed by Jonathan Swift.

In 1709 Addison had begun to write for the Tatler, a magazine edited by his friend Sir Richard Steele; Addison contributed in all 42 essays. The last issue of this periodical was published in January 1711. Two months later, under the joint editorship of Addison and Steele, the first number of the Spectator appeared. Published every day, it ran for 555 numbers (the last issue appeared on Dec. 6, 1712). Although its circulation was small by modern standards, it was read by many important people and exercised a wide influence. Addison and Steele wrote 90 percent of the essays. Their purpose was, in their words, to bring "Philosophy out of Closets and Libraries, Schools and Colleges, to dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Tables, and in Coffee-Houses." Some of the essays are concerned with literary and philosophical questions; others comment on good manners and bad, life in the country and in the town. Addison and Steele invented characters who represent different types, notably the old-fashioned country gentleman, Sir Roger de Coverley.

In 1713 Addison wrote Cato: A Tragedy, a play in which he undertook to imitate and to improve upon classical Greek tragedy. The play was a success, probably because some of the audience took it to be a political allegory. Alexander Pope wrote the prologue, and Samuel Johnson later praised the play as Addison's noblest work.

In 1714 Queen Anne died, and Addison shared in the Whigs' rise to power. He was known as a temperate, conciliatory politician. In 1717 he was appointed secretary of state; he retired the next year with a generous pension. Addison died on June 17, 1719.

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Further Reading on Joseph Addison

The best biography of Addison is Peter Smithers, The Life of Joseph Addison (1954; 2d ed. 1968). Addison was much admired by the Victorians, and there is a long biographical essay in Thomas Babington Macaulay, Essays: Critical and Miscellaneous (1843). For a more recent view see Bonamy Dobrée, Essays in Biography, 1680-1726 (1925). An invaluable guide to Addison's intellectual milieu is Alexandre Beljame, Men of Letters and the English Public in the Eighteenth Century: 1660-1744 (1881; 2d ed. 1897; trans. 1948).

Additional Biography Sources

Addison and Steele, the critical heritage, London; Boston:Routledge & K. Paul, 1980.

Otten, Robert M., Joseph Addison, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.