Addison and Steele Establish

Though it lasted less than two years, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s Whig newspaper The Spectator set the standard for taste and prose style in early eighteenth century London.

Summary of Event

When Queen Anne came to the English throne in 1702, exactly sixty years had gone by since the Crown had any real control over the English press, and at its restoration (1660), the monarchy had ceded much of its political power to Parliament. With the decisive defeat of the French at Blenheim in 1704, the Whig Party Whig Party (which generally represented the mercantile interests of the rising middle class) Middle class;England gained political ascendancy by identifying itself with the French war. The opposition party, the Tories Tory Party (who were generally associated with the landed gentry), criticized the war and the upstart Whigs, who responded by defending their policies to the public. [kw]Addison and Steele Establish The Spectator (Mar. 1, 1711)
[kw]Spectator, Addison and Steele Establish The (Mar. 1, 1711)
[kw]Steele Establish The Spectator, Addison and (Mar. 1, 1711)
Spectator, The (Addison and Steele)
[g]England;Mar. 1, 1711: Addison and Steele Establish The Spectator[0310]
[c]Communications;Mar. 1, 1711: Addison and Steele Establish The Spectator[0310]
[c]Literature;Mar. 1, 1711: Addison and Steele Establish The Spectator[0310]
Addison, Joseph
Steele, Richard

The primary forum for such disputes in the seventeenth century had been the pamphlet, even though London’s first newspaper, the Weekly News, appeared as early as 1622. By the turn of the eighteenth century, however, the newspaper had become the most efficient medium of communication, and both Whig and Tory newspapers proliferated after 1704. In addition, the Whig Party split into several factions, which delighted in denouncing each other as much as they did in attacking Tories.

It was into this world of journalistic debate that Joseph Addison and Richard Steele appeared as essayists, publishing Whiggish political opinion as well as genteel commentary on anything and everything. In 1709, when Whig leaders in Parliament overstepped their authority in what was perceived as the persecution of the Tory Henry Sacheverell, arguments on both sides became increasingly shrill. Steele, a young British-Irish journalist, captured the tone of the controversy by launching The Tatler, Tatler, The (Addison and Steele) a Whig paper in which he departed from political commentary to craft witty, urbane essays on the events and conversations of London’s various coffeehouses and chocolate houses. This was not as much a departure from political journalism as it may seem today, because the coffeehouses were the centers of political discussion, as well as of literary taste. In reporting the political thoughts of London’s leading citizens as they were promulgated over coffee and tobacco, Steele also described their manners, their dress, and their small talk.

Reading essays in The Tatler with delight, another Whig journalist, Joseph Addison, thought he detected the style of one of his public school classmates, and he was right. Addison and Steele had attended the Charterhouse school and matriculated together at Oxford, though Steele had dropped out after a year to essay a military career and the two had lost touch. Submitting entries in a similar (though more reserved) style to The Tatler, Addison resumed his friendship with his school chum, and their newspaper partnership began.

When The Tatler suspended publication in January of 1711, Addison and Steele regrouped, and less than two months later, beginning March 1, 1711, they launched what has since been recognized as one of the high points of English nonfiction prose style, The Spectator. Part of what made the new periodical successful was the “periodical essay” genre Steele had pioneered in his earlier paper. While British imitations of the essay genre invented by Michel Eyquem de Montaigne Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de (1533-1592) in his Essais (1580-1588; The Essays, 1603) began almost immediately after their translation in 1603, it is Steele who is usually credited with adapting the essay to the British periodical. Steele’s essays in The Tatler were every bit as personal and whimsical as Montaigne’s but carried a more public tone, befitting the coffeehouse atmosphere that bred them.

The Spectator, clearly reflecting Addison’s influence more than Steele’s, modified the tone of the new periodical essay to make it even more genteel. The Spectator of the title was a fictional London gentleman, a looker-on who, like Steele’s Tatler, frequented the gathering places of London’s high society. Because he was just watching rather than “tatling,” however, the essays felt like overheard conversations rather than broadcast gossip. Thus, it became easier for Tory, moderate, and nonpartisan readers to like the amiable moderator of their news and opinion, even when a reader’s opinion differed from that of the Spectator. Instead of following the actual movers and shakers of British government, the Spectator detailed the mundane adventures of fictitious but recognizable London characters, the baronet Sir Roger de Coverley, the merchant Sir Andrew Freeport, the seaman Captain Sentry, and the ladies’ man Will Honeycomb.

While the Spectator and the other characters he described were invented by Addison, Steele took them over in his own contributions to the series, both rounding and deepening the characters. The Spectator’s increased frequency of publication made the collaboration of at least two writers necessary. While The Tatler had marked an increase in frequency over the typical British weekly, appearing Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, The Spectator came out with a new issue every day except Sunday. Since courts, businesses, and Parliament were all silent on Sundays, no political, legal, or mercantile event in London was ever more than twenty-four hours away from being discussed in print.

Furthermore, The Spectator, while originating from London and covering London events, reached the whole of the British Isles. The establishment of the crown postal service, with stages leaving London every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, made nationwide circulation possible: It was no accident that The Tatler appeared only on post days. Addison and Steele doubled production by distributing The Spectator daily to the coffeehouses and posting two issues at a time on post days. Readers in Liverpool might receive Monday’s Spectator as late as Wednesday, but rarely later—extraordinary dispatch for 1711.

While Addison wrote more of The Spectator’s essays than Steele, any given week of the nearly two-year run of the journal boasted liberal contributions from both writers. Both writers used pseudonyms, but the convention was for modesty, not anonymity: Most Londoners knew that articles signed with the initials C, L, I, or O (for the Greek muse of history, Clio) were by Addison and that Steele’s essays were those signed either R or T. Even without the signatures, moreover, the two writers’ styles were immediately recognizable. Addison’s contributions were essays in the fullest sense, but Steele’s often took a dialectical form, as an exchange of letters, sometimes with real and sometimes with fictional correspondents. Thus the editorial positions of the paper, which were more ethical than political in nature, seemed more objective, because they were often presented in the context of opposing, or at least slightly different, points of view.


Addison and Steele’s Spectator essays became the model for English prose style for a century after their publication. Benjamin Franklin Franklin, Benjamin;Spectator tells in his Memoirs de la vie privée ecrits par lui-même (1791; The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, 1793; Memoirs of the Life, 1818; best known as Autobiography) of developing his own prose style by a laborious process of copying and imitating his favorite Spectator essays. The extent to which the essays of Addison and Steele became synonymous with English prose style may be gauged by the fact that Brian McCrea’s 1990 book proclaiming the demise of the traditional English literary “canon” was titled Addison and Steele Are Dead.

Fortunately, the obituary was premature. By writing essays on the broadest possible range of topics, Addison and Steele also succeeded in capturing the essence of their age, in all the details of dress, habit, speech, and pastime. They were indeed “spectators” of their generation’s London, and through their eyes historians and sociologists can more clearly view early eighteenth century London than through any almanac or census. Finally, by loyally supporting and defending their political party, the Whigs, they produced a voice around which the rising middle class of Queen Anne’s England could rally and a persona with which its members could identify in an uncertain political climate. In spite of this unquestionable party identification, The Spectator’s essays transcended their party and, ultimately, their time, to achieve a universal appeal.

Further Reading

  • Bloom, Edward A., and Lillian D. Bloom. Addison and Steele: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980. A collection of the major reviews and critiques of Addison and Steele’s works from 1702 to 1979.
  • Bond, Richard P. Studies in the Early English Periodical. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957. Useful background on the journalism of the era, including a detailed chapter on The Spectator.
  • Goldgar, Bertrand A. The Curse of Party. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961. Background on the Whig and Tory political issues of The Spectator’s era, with particular focus on the reasons for Steele’s break with Jonathan Swift.
  • Mackie, Erin, ed. The Commerce of Everyday Life: Selections from “The Tatler” and “The Spectator.” Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Representative selections of Addison and Steele’s periodical essays, with a generous introduction and headnotes, as well as select related contemporary works.
  • Marshall, David. “Taste and Aesthetics: Shaftesbury and Addison—Criticism and the Public Taste.” In The Eighteenth Century. Vol. 4 in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A chapter of a standard reference book focusing on the influence of The Spectator on eighteenth century taste.

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