ADDISON, Joseph (1672-1719), of Sandy End, Fulham, Mdx.; St. Margaret’s, Westminster, and Bilton Hall, Warws.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1708 - 20 Dec. 1709
11 Mar. 1710 - 17 June 1719

Family and Education

b. 1 May 1672, 1st s. of Lancelot Addison, DD, chaplain in ordinary to Charles II and James II, and dean of Lichfield 1683–d., by his 1st w. Jane, da. of Nathaniel Gulston, DD, rector of Wymondham, Leics., sis. of William Gulston, DD, bp. of Bristol.  educ. Amesbury (Thomas Naish), Salisbury g.s., Lichfield g.s. 1683–6, Charterhouse 1686–7; Queen’s, Oxf. 1687; Magdalen, Oxf. (demy) 1689–97, BA 1691, MA 1693, fellow 1697–1711; travelled abroad (France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, United Provinces) 1699–1704.  m. 9 Aug. 1716, Charlotte, dowager Countess of Warwick, da. and h. of Sir Thomas Myddelton, 2nd Bt.†, of Chirk Castle, Denb., sis. of Sir Richard Myddelton, 3rd Bt.*, wid. of Edward Rich, 6th Earl of Warwick and 3rd Earl of Holland, 1da.  suc. fa. 1703.

Offices Held

Commr. appeals in excise 1704–June 1708; under-sec. of state 1705–Jan. 1709; sec. to Lord Halifax (Charles Montagu*) on mission to the United Provinces and Hanover Apr.–Aug. 1706; chief sec. [I] Jan. 1709–10, Sept. 1714–Aug. 1715; PC [I] 1709–d.; keeper of recs. in Bermingham tower, Dublin Castle 1709–15 June 1719 (apptd. for life Oct. 1715); sec. to lds. justices Aug.–Sept. 1714; ld. of Trade Dec. 1715–July 1717; PC 16 Apr. 1717; sec. of state (south) Apr. 1717–18.1

MP [I] 1709–13.

Freeman, Dublin 1709.2


Addison, the Whig littérateur and administrator, was born into genteel poverty as the son of a High Church clergyman whose hopes of preferment beyond his deanery of Lichfield had been effectively terminated by the Revolution of 1688. With both grandfathers parsons and an uncle a bishop, and having grown up in a bookish household, he began an academic career, being chosen a demy of Magdalen College, Oxford in the ‘golden election’ of 1689, and proceeding to a fellowship eight years later. However, neither scholarship, which he dismissed as narrow pedantry, nor a religious vocation held enough attractions for him, and he determined to make his way in the wider world, perhaps aiming at a classical ideal of citizenship, the combination of ‘patriotism and urbanity’. He made his early reputation in Oxford as a Latin poet, and already by the time he became a fellow of Magdalen had gained admittance to the coterie of London wits that congregated at Will’s coffee-house, and had even received praise from Dryden. He had also applied himself to seeking out patrons from among the leading Whig politicians, flattering Charles Montagu with inclusion in his ‘account of the great English poets’, and dedicating poetry to Lord Somers (Sir John*). Despite his father’s example, and the influence of High Tory tutors and friends at Magdalen, of whom the most notable was Henry Sacheverell (according to tradition, his room-mate), Addison had early shown himself a Whig, publishing in 1689 a tribute to the new regime, and in 1690 congratulatory verses on King William’s safe return from Ireland. These convictions, in particular his faith in the Revolution of 1688, remained throughout his adult life. His partisanship was never of the strident kind, however. His correspondence, for example, betrayed few traces of his commitment to the Whig cause. This was partly a reflection of his natural diffidence, described somewhat acidly by Pope as

Alike reserved to blame, or to commend,
A timorous foe, and a suspicious friend;
Dreading e’en fools, by flatterers besieg’d,
And so obliging that he ne’er obliged.

Later, as the ‘Spectator’, Addison was to condemn ‘a furious party spirit’, which

when it rages in its full violence, exerts itself in civil war and bloodshed; and when it is under its greatest restraints naturally breaks out in falsehood, distraction, calumny, and a partial administration of justice. In a word, it fills a nation with spleen and rancour, and extinguishes all the seeds of good nature, compassion and humanity.

This discreet temperament, allied to his talents and political reliability, recommended him to his Whig patrons, and in 1698, at the prompting of Montagu and Somers, he was granted £200 by the Treasury towards the expenses of a European tour, designed to help him prepare for the diplomatic service. Montagu also interceded with the authorities at Magdalen to obtain for him a dispensation from ordination, so that he could keep his college fellowship. Although he was able to meet many prominent European literary figures, travel, especially in France and Italy, confirmed Addison’s prejudices, against Catholicism and against France: ‘the French’, he wrote, ‘are certainly the most implacable, and the most dangerous enemies of the British constitution . . . we are thus in a natural state of war . . . with the French nation’.3

Addison arrived back from the Continent early in 1704 to a changing political climate, with his two protectors, Montagu (now Lord Halifax) and Somers, out of office but acquiring increasing weight with the Godolphin–Marlborough administration. There was no diplomatic posting for him, but he did not return to Magdalen, remaining in London to polish his account of his Travels in Italy and to join the Kit-Cat Club. At Halifax’s suggestion, Lord Godolphin (Sidney†) approached him via the chancellor of the Exchequer, Hon. Henry Boyle*, to compose a public poem to celebrate Blenheim, and so successful was the outcome, ‘The Campaign’, that he was rewarded with a commissionership of appeals, to the value of £200 a year, with a promise of further advancement, which materialized the following year in the form of an appointment as under-secretary in the southern department. His smooth progress, interrupted only by the occasional sniping of Tory satirists, was much envied by Defoe, who wrote in 1705,

Envy and party spleen h’ has never known,
No humbling jails has [sic] pulled his fancy down.

Having accompanied Halifax to Hanover in 1706, he published the next year a strong statement of the Whig case for the resolute pursuance of the war until the ‘French and Spanish monarchies’ were ‘entirely disunited’. The Present State of the War . . . Considered drew upon personal experience to denounce France as a ‘constant and most dangerous enemy to the British nation’. At the 1708 election he was brought in at Lostwithiel in a last-minute arrangement made by his master in the secretary’s office, Lord Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*), with a local Whig interest. Inevitably, he was listed as a Whig. Once elected, he promptly sold his excise place, presumably to prevent disqualification from sitting, and not, as his most recent biographer has argued, because he was short of money, a state of affairs which in any case seems highly unlikely. Then in January 1709 he was appointed as Lord Wharton’s (Hon. Thomas*) chief secretary in Ireland, sailing to Dublin in April. According to the (admittedly suspect) testimony of his friend Swift, the behaviour of the Irish Whigs ‘extremely offended’ Addison’s sensibilities: ‘he told me they were a sort of people who seemed to think that the principles of a Whig consisted in nothing else but damning the Church, reviling the clergy, abetting the Dissenters, and speaking contemptibly [sic] of revealed religion’. In this office Addison proved a faithful servant and an assiduous correspondent, but he does not appear ever to have participated in the political management which was one of the Castle administration’s most important functions. It went against his character, and in any case the viceroy’s extrovert personality left little room. Likewise, although he attended debates in the Irish parliament, no evidence of any contribution survives, and there are apocryphal tales of his extraordinary bashfulness in this context. With Wharton his relationship was comfortable but never close, and some idea of his true feelings may be gleaned from his reaction to news of Tory plans to impeach the lord lieutenant in the 1709–10 session of the British Parliament. ‘For my own part’, Addison wrote, ‘though perhaps I was not the most obliged person that was near his lordship, I shall think myself bound in honour to do him what right I can.’ His ‘obligation’ consisted not only of the chief secretaryship, worth £2,000 a year, but a grant of the sinecure of keeper of the records in the Bermingham tower of Dublin Castle, ‘an old obscure place’, as Swift called it, to which an enhanced salary of £400 was then attached. Addison was subsequently to press Godolphin unsuccessfully to increase this sum by £100 and alter the tenure from pleasure to good behaviour. One of the incidental uses of the appointment may have been to oblige his resignation from the seat at Lostwithiel before the hearing of what was to be a very powerful petition against the return, and he made considerable efforts to prove his title to the office before the British parliamentary session of 1709–10 opened. In fact the Lostwithiel petition was heard, and he was unseated, before he had accomplished the proof, and he had to try to speed up the process again before a by-election arose in another suitable constituency. Fortunately he had succeeded when, in March 1710, a vacancy suddenly occurred in one of Wharton’s boroughs, Malmesbury, where, coincidentally, the son of a former pupil of Addison was also lord of the manor. The by-election took place late enough for him to avoid any potential embarrassment over the impeachment of Henry Sacheverell, and he departed once more for Dublin in April, returning in August with, if Swift is to be believed, the praises of Irish Tories as well as Whigs ringing in his ears.4

Loss of office in the ministerial revolution of 1710 was a financial blow to Addison, but not a grievous one, especially since, through the favour of the new viceroy of Ireland, Ormond, he was able to keep his sinecure in the Dublin Castle muniment room. Always careful in money matters, he was sufficiently well off not to need to come to any arrangement with the Tory ministers. Indeed, his friendship with Swift cooled when the latter began to write for the incoming ministry, though, typically of Addison, there was no serious rupture. He was even able to pass a pleasant evening at table with Henry St. John II* and to ‘talk in a friendly manner of party’. George Berkeley, a visitor to London, reported in 1713 that Addison and Richard Steele* had declared themselves ‘entirely persuaded there is a design for bringing over the Pretender’, though this particular conviction was short-lived. On the whole, Berkeley thought Addison ‘more earnest in the Whig cause than Mr Steele’, and indeed he was a dutiful member of the Hanover Club as well as the Kit-Cat. After his ‘easy and undisputed’ re-election at Malmesbury in 1710 he was classed as a Whig in the ‘Hanover list’, and on 7 Dec. 1711 voted for the ‘No Peace without Spain’ motion. In general, however, he took little or no part in parliamentary business, except for one occasion on 16 May 1713 when old loyalties obliged him to appear as a teller for an amendment intended to soften the terms of a resolution concerning Lord Wharton proposed in the aftermath of the report of the commissioners of accounts. Writing had now become his main preoccupation. Having collaborated with Steele on the Tatler in 1709–10 he began in March 1711 its successor, the Spectator, which for 18 months purveyed a hugely popular mixture of polite philosophy and gentle social satire, Addison’s avowed aim being ‘to bring philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and in coffee-houses’. Although the authors disclaimed any ‘stroke of party’, the general tone was distinctively, if mildly, Whiggish, an antidote to the furious polemic of the Tories. From time to time more obvious political propaganda crept in. As the presiding genius of the Whig wits at Button’s, Addison could not entirely avoid the task of writing for his party. He had, in September 1710, endeavoured to answer the Examiner with his Whig Examiner. Later he offered a verse to lament the exile of a former hero, Marlborough (John Churchill†), in 1712:

O censure undeserved! Unequal fate!
Which strove to lessen Him who made Her great.

And following the defeat in 1713 of the French commerce bill, which he had voted against on 18 June, he contributed a ‘playful Whig parable’, The Late Trial and Conviction of Count Tariff, attacking the Examiner again, among other Tory targets. In private he assisted a Hanoverian minister in preparing official papers for submission to the British government. However, his most successful piece of writing in this period was his reworked play Cato, which was produced to great acclaim in 1713, proving to be ‘so subtly ambiguous or strictly non-party’ in its ‘political innuendoes’ that both sides ‘applied’ it ‘to themselves’ and, like the Whigs and Tories in Ireland, vied with each other in the volume of their applause of the author.5

Before the 1713 election Addison paid some £8,000 to purchase Bilton Hall, near Rugby, in order to make himself eligible for a parliamentary seat under the 1711 Landed Qualification Act, and also to acquire the rural retreat essential for any Augustan statesman. He continued to sit for Malmesbury, though, and did not attempt a Warwickshire constituency. Among several advisers consulted by Steele in the composition of The Crisis, in his case in the correction of drafts, he was one of those nominated by the Kit-Cat Club to prepare Steele’s defence against the projected Commons’ motion of expulsion. In the event, it was Robert Walpole II* who provided the basis for Steele’s speech, though Addison prompted Steele from a nearby bench. Subsequently, as Steele recounted, Addison was ‘sent out after me, from my friends, to bid me not be seen till I heard what will be the censure’. Naturally, Addison voted on 18 Mar. 1714 against Steele’s expulsion, and was classified as a Whig both in the Worsley list and in a list of the Members re-elected in 1715.6

Addison was appointed, through Lord Halifax’s intercession, as secretary to the regency upon Queen Anne’s death. This office seemed to many to be an augury of immediate high preferment, possibly as a secretary of state. Addison himself looked forward to a place on the Board of Trade, and was bitterly disappointed to find himself once again chief secretary for Ireland, this time under his former superior as secretary of state, Lord Sunderland. He was, however, in the next few years to secure not only the post on the Board of Trade, but also the secretaryship of state for the southern department in Sunderland’s administration. In neither capacity did he cut a figure in the Commons. He died on 17 June 1719.7

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: D. W. Hayton


Unless otherwise stated, this biography is based on P. Smithers, Life of Joseph Addison (1968) and Addison Letters, ed. Graham.

  • 1. SP 63/362/10–11; Add. 70677, Misc. 48; Liber Munerum Publicorum Hiberniae ed. Lascelles, i(2), 78–79.
  • 2. Cal. Ancient Recs. Dublin ed. Gilbert, vi. 397.
  • 3. G. Holmes, Trial of Sacheverell, 8; J. Carswell, Old Cause, 158; H. T. Dickinson, Liberty and Property, 100; W. L. Sachse, Ld. Somers, 195, 199.
  • 4. G. M. Trevelyan, Eng. under Queen Anne, i. 422; Poems on Affairs of State ed. Ellis, vi. 666; vii. 166; Cal. Treas. Bks. xix. 400; Carswell, 106; Swift Works ed. Davis, x. 58; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1708–14, p. 163; Hayton thesis, 192.
  • 5. Bolingbroke Corresp. iv. 112–13; Add. 47027, ff. 13–14; HMC 7th Rep. 238; Swift Stella ed. Davis, 52; A. L. Rowse, Early Churchills, 316; The Late Trial and Conviction of Count Tariff (1713); Trevelyan, iii. 258; Wentworth Pprs. 330.
  • 6. Cobbett, Parlty. Hist. vi. 1239, 1268; Steele Corresp. 295, 478; Coxe, Walpole, i. 45.
  • 7. Wentworth Pprs. 410.