When you think of the great writers of the early 18th century you might be able to name Swift, Pope and Johnson … but probably not Joseph Addison.
Although largely forgotten today, he was a huge influence in his time and his writing inspired the Founding Fathers of the United States. His most famous work, Cato, told the last days of the Stoic who resisted Julius Caesar and became an icon of republicanism, virtue and liberty. This stirring story resonated with George Washington who is said to have had the play performed for his army while they were camped at Valley Forge at a low point in the Revolutionary War against the British.
He and his friend Richard Steele also helped usher in a new age of journalism with their papers The Tatler, The Spectator and The Guardian that reported the buzz from the coffeehouses of London.
So who was he?
Addison was born on May 1st, 1672 in a small village in Wiltshire near the River Avon. He wasn’t expected to survive long so his father, the Reverend Lancelot Addison, had him christened the same day. Happily he survived for another 47 years, becoming a revered scholar, writer and politician.
He excelled at school and went to Charterhouse at the age of 14 where he met Steele. The two friends both went to Oxford University but then took very different career paths.
Steele ran away from his college and joined the Life Guards in London under an assumed name. Addison became a respected Latin scholar and Fellow of Magdalen college where he stayed for 10 years. During this time Addison was invited to write the preface to the elderly John Dryden’s famous translation of Virgil’s Georgics – a great honour. He also wrote his own Latin verse.
Addison’s father was Dean of Lichfield and Addison was expected to follow him into the church but his plans changed when he wrote A Poem to His Majesty (William III), dedicated to the Whig statesman Lord Keeper Somers. It caught the attention of influential patrons who spotted Addison’s potential to be an asset to the Crown. He was given a treasury grant to travel abroad in preparation for public service.
Between 1699 and 1703 Addison travelled around Europe and spent a year in Italy where he first encountered the Lion’s mouths of Venice. But after the death of William III his patrons Lord Somers and the Earl of Halifax fell out of favour and his pension was cancelled.
Back in England Addison joined the distinguished KitKat Club, an association of prominent Whigs and literary figures, where Steele was a member. For a while Addison was unemployed but his fortunes changed in 1704 when he was commissioned to write a commemorative poem about the Battle of Blenheim and Marlborough’s sweeping victory over the French – news that electrified the coffee houses across London. The success of The Campaign launched his political career and he became under secretary to the Secretary State and further promoted as the Whigs secured their position in Parliament.
He was elected to Parliament as MP for Lostwithiel in Cornwall in 1708. In the same year he was made Secretary to the earl of Wharton, the new Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
Addison also started spending more time with his old friend Steele, a gregarious Irishman who was living beyond his means in London, and helped him out financially.
The two men collaborated on The Tatler, The Spectator and The Guardian, sharing the load of writing and editing as their political work and other interests allowed.
The first edition of The Guardian was published by Steele in March 1713 while Addison was busy with Cato but four months later Addison was able to take over while Steele campaigned for election.
Addison hit on the idea of creating a splendid Lion’s Head post-box to generate some good PR for the new paper and to encourage more people to contribute stories and comments.
He announced the plan for the Lion’s Head in the 98th edition of The Guardian on Friday, July 3, 1713, saying it was inspired by the lions' mouths he’d seen in Venice – where citizens in the 15th century could post anonymous complaints. He wrote: "There will be under it a box, of which the key will be in my own custody, to receive such papers as are dropped into it. Whatever the Lion swallows I shall digest for the use of the public.”
Just over two weeks later the Lion’s Head was installed on the western wall inside Button’s Coffee House – and Addison said: “If my correspondents will do their parts in prompting him and supplying him with suitable provision I question not but the Lion's Head will be reckoned the best head in England.”
Addison spent the next month editing the “choicest” contributions posted into the lion’s mouth and adding his own fictional embellishments on hot topics of the day, including women’s fashion and masquerades.
In August Addison took over campaigning for the upcoming general election and Steele took the helm again. However on 7th August Steele published a politically-charged piece of Whig propaganda that would lead to months of controversy and ultimately the decline of The Guardian which finally folded in October 1713.
With the death of Queen Anne on August 1, 1714, and the accession of George I, Addison’s political fortunes rose. He was appointed secretary to the regents (who governed until the arrival of the new monarch from Hanover) and in April 1717 was made secretary of state. Ill health, however, forced him to resign the following year.
Meanwhile, he had married the dowager countess of Warwick in 1716 and spent the remaining years of his life in comparative affluence at Holland House in Kensington.
Between 1715 and 1716 he published a series of political essays and in March 1716 his comedy The Drummer was produced at Drury Lane.
Addison died in 1719 and is buried in Westminster Abbey near to his old patron and friend the Lord Halifax.