STEELE, Richard (1672-1729), of Bloomsbury Square, London, and Llangunnor, Carm.
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Family and Education
bap. 12 Mar. 1672, o. s. of Richard Steele of Monkstown and Dublin, co. Dublin, attorney and subsheriff, co. Tipperary, by Eleanor (d. 1713), da. of one Sheyles, wid. of Thomas Symes (or Sims), of Dublin. educ. Charterhouse 1684–9; Christ Church, Oxf. 1689, postmaster Merton, Oxf. 1691–2. m. (1) May 1705, Margaret (d. 1706), da. of John Ford (or Foord) of St. Andrew Overhills, Barbados, sis. and testamentary h. of Maj. Robert Ford of St. Andrew’s, Barbados, wid. of John Stretch of St. James’s, Barbados, s.p.; (2) 9 Sept. 1707, Mary (d. 1718), da. and h. of Jonathan Scurlock of Llangunnor, 2s. (d.v.p.) 2da., and 1 da. illegit. suc. fa. c.1677; kntd. 9 Apr. 1715.
Vol. 2 tp. Life Gds. c.1693; sec. to Ld. Cutts (John*) 1696–7; ensign, Coldstream Gds. 1697; capt. 34 Ft. 1702–c.1705.
Gent.-waiter to Prince George 1706–8; gazetteer 1707–10; commr. of stamps 1710–13; surveyor, royal stables at Hampton Court 1714–c.1717; commr. for forfeited estates 1716–25.
Gov. Theatre Royal, Drury Lane 1715–20.
Steele’s career in Whig politics grew out of his notoriety in the world of metropolitan journalism. His appearance on the parliamentary scene towards the end of this period was brief but dramatic. After only a month’s attendance in the 1714 session he was expelled for printing a resounding denunciation of the Tory administration, thereby achieving renown as a martyr to the Whig cause. In the course of the preceding ten years he had established an enviable position for himself at the centre of London’s socio-literary circuit through which he cultivated extensive political connexions. To his ability with the pen he harnessed an entrepreneurial vigour which in the later years of Queen Anne’s reign enabled him to captivate the reading public with a series of exceptionally successful periodicals of which The Tatler and The Spectator are best known.
Steele’s insecure beginnings did not foretell such achievements, however. His father was a penurious Irish lawyer who died when Steele was five. He was then placed in the care of an uncle, Henry Gascoigne, whose first wife was Steele’s aunt. Years later he spoke of Gascoigne as one ‘to whose bounty I owe a liberal education’. Gascoigne’s position as private secretary to the dukes of Ormond ensured that Steele was put through the scholarly paces that enabled him to acquire his penchant for letters. In 1684 Steele was admitted at Charterhouse, of which the first Duke was governor, where he remained until 1689. It was while there as a student that he forged his friendship with Joseph Addison*. He was then admitted to Christ Church, Oxford, the young 2nd Duke of Ormond having lately become the university’s chancellor and having himself attended the same college under Dr Aldrich, its recently appointed dean. Steele’s own tutor was Dr Welbore Ellis, brother of John Ellis*, Gascoigne’s friend at Whitehall, both of whom were also dependants of the Ormond family. The Ormond connexion also facilitated Steele’s entry into the army in 1693 when he was commissioned into the Duke’s 2nd troop of Life Guards as a cadet or ‘volunteer’. By 1696 he had reached the notice of Lord Cutts who for a while employed him as his confidential agent and in 1697 made him an ensign in his own regiment, the Coldstream Guards.1
It was mainly in order to relieve the tedium of guard-duty at the Tower and his shortage of money that Steele took up the pen, and in April 1701 he published a treatise entitled The Christian Hero, a work with serious pretensions as a devotional study. It addressed the need for an improvement in moral virtues, but did so in the manner of a breezily written essay, a style which was to become his trademark. In the hope of military advancement he dedicated the work to Cutts, and to the delight of his publisher, the celebrated littérateur Jacob Tonson (also the uncle of Steele’s illegitimate daughter), the book ran to several editions. His friendship with a fellow literary Irishman, the dramatist William Congreve, inspired him to follow up this success with a stage work of his own, and in December his first dramatic effort, The Funeral, or Grief à la Mode, a comedy, opened at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. This second literary success notwithstanding, he was appointed captain in Lord Lucas’ regiment of foot in March 1702 and in May was sent with his company to garrison the fort at Landguard in Suffolk. He was able to inject some interest into this dull command by assisting his acquaintance John Ellis, the new MP for the nearby borough of Harwich, in his local constituency affairs, thereby gaining his first practical experience of politics. Steele’s second and third plays, though competent, were commercial failures and for the next few years he turned his attention away from the stage. He had left the army by the early months of 1705, realizing, no doubt, that he would never have the resources to sustain a military career. At some point previously he and Lord Cutts had quarrelled grievously, apparently when the latter ‘did so unsuitable a thing as to postpone my pretensions to those of a young gentleman you hardly ever spoke to’, even though he knew Cutts had been aware of ‘a crisis in my little affairs’. In May 1705 Steele married the heiress to a 700-acre estate in Barbados, said to be worth £850 p.a., but considerably encumbered with debt. It proved a somewhat loveless match which did not noticeably improve his solvency although it did provide him with ample security for his borrowings.
Still only a minor playwright, Steele’s literary connexions, assisted by his natural conviviality and gifts of repartee, nevertheless brought him into contact with leading politicians, but it was the Whigs who made him their own. It has been presumed that his famed association with the Kit-Cat Club had begun around 1705, and it was in consequence of this and the intercession of one or other of its members, quite possibly the Junto Whig Lord Halifax (Charles Montagu*), who was the most obvious patron of literature among them, that he was appointed in August 1706 gentleman-waiter to Prince George, a minor household post with a salary of £100 p.a. He was also said to have won the approbation of the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†) by ‘a pleasant repartee [which] passed on his Grace’s preferring his own relations, which being told to Marlborough pleased him, and he favoured Steele thereafter’. In late April or May 1707 he was appointed to the more arduous position of gazetteer, the government’s official news-writer responsible for the London Gazette. The Junto was clearly seeking to gain by having writers of Steele’s calibre in their service, and the importance which the ministry now attached to the office and its new holder was apparent in the increase in the yearly stipend from £60 to £300. Lord Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*) had lately been appointed secretary of state in the southern department, under whose aegis the Gazette was produced, but it is far more likely that Steele’s name was suggested by his friend Addison who, as under-secretary, was by now a senior figure in Sunderland’s department. Swift’s later recollection that the office was given to Steele on Arthur Maynwaring’s* recommendation to the other secretary Robert Harley* is more likely to reflect the fact that Harley’s approval of Steele’s appointment was also sought in order to preserve harmony within a delicately balanced ministry. Of his governmental duties, Steele later wrote that he ‘worked faithfully according to order, without ever erring against the rule observed by all ministries, to keep that paper very innocent and very insipid’. But neither can the possibility be dismissed that Sunderland recruited Steele specifically to tailor the Gazette’s content in favour of Junto policy as occasion demanded. Later in 1707, Steele married again, his first wife having died the previous year. Not only was the new Mrs Steele ‘a cried-up beauty’ but she was also heiress to a small estate in Carmarthenshire.2
Steele’s letters to his wife were indeed full of hopes of wealth and preferment. Though prone to regular indebtedness, he never allowed his finances to run out of control, and the largest sums were nearly always owed to Addison. The sale of his Barbados estate in 1708–9 for £9,300 was a protracted affair involving Chancery, and it left him with little surplus wealth. The Junto’s triumph towards the end of 1708 opened up fresh prospects of advancement, and for a while there was speculation that he might be promoted to under-secretary in place of Addison who was nominated to accompany Lord Wharton (Thomas*) to Ireland. Sunderland had found Steele indispensable in his present role, however, and fobbed him off with a promise of the next place he asked for. He had also been unsuccessful in his quest for the post of usher of the privy chamber. It was probably these career disappointments that impelled Steele to strike out in a new direction and enter the thriving world of periodical publishing. In April 1709 he launched The Tatler. Through the urbane persona of ‘Isaac Bickerstaff Esq.’, Steele provided his rapidly expanding readership with polite and invariably good-humoured discussion on all manner of topical matters in essays containing a unique and stylish blend of social, moral and political awareness. Party politics were rarely touched upon overtly, at least at first.3
In January 1710, at the height of the Sacheverell furore, Steele was rewarded with a commissionership in the stamp office worth £300 p.a. As party acrimony escalated, The Tatler became more openly party-minded. Steele, ever grateful for the government’s marks of approbation, was loud in his praise for his Junto superiors, ‘a constellation of great persons’, and lauded Marlborough as a hero. In late June and early July as the ministry’s predicament worsened, Steele lashed out with a series of bitterly partisan editions of his paper. According to Swift, who may well have been reflecting the opinions of the incoming Tory ministers, Steele had compromised himself badly, ‘all the world detesting his engaging in parties’. Although subsequent issues of The Tatler avoided politics, he was no doubt well aware that with the change of ministry his flagrantly Whiggish outbursts would almost certainly lose him the Gazette. In mid-October he appears to have hoped, paradoxically, that Harley, now in power again, would not completely cut him adrift. But his efforts to interest Harley on 9 Oct. in ‘an expedient’ he had devised for preventing ‘further frauds upon stamp-paper’ did not forestall his removal from the Gazette a week later. The question of whether Steele was to be retained in the stamp commission, however, seems to have exercised Harley on and off for the rest of the year. Swift reported in his Journal to Stella on 9 Dec. that he had ‘been hankering with Mr Harley to save Steele his other employment’. It is not exactly clear whether Swift was acting as intermediary between Harley and Steele, or if, on his own initiative, he was pandering to Harley’s strong disposition to retain Whigs in office wherever possible. To Swift, Steele affected indifference over whether he kept the office or not, but the possibility that he was subjected to governmental pressure over the matter is strongly suggested by the fact that while Steele was retained, publication of The Tatler ceased at the beginning of January 1711. One of Steele’s literary cronies, the poet and playwright John Gay, remarked soon afterwards that the discontinuation of The Tatler appeared ‘as a sort of submission to or composition with the government for past offences’.4
Despite his anxiety to remain in Harley’s good opinion and to retain his office, Steele resented the attempt to muzzle him. On 1 Mar. 1711 he and Addison began publishing a new paper, The Spectator. Appearing six days a week, it was an enormous success, soon selling over 3,000 copies an issue. On affairs of state it trod cautiously, but it was Addison rather than Steele who insisted on political abstinence. While outwardly eschewing ‘party’, its general outlook was nevertheless distinctly Whiggish. Consistently, though with great and often ingenious subtlety, The Spectator juxtaposed the benefits of modernizing Whiggery with the old-fashioned values of rural Toryism. Steele was anxious to go public with his political views, however. In November the government swiftly acted on intelligence that Steele, along with the Whig MP Richard Edgcumbe and the Duke of Montagu, was to lead a great pope-burning procession through the City. He came close to losing his commissionership again in the summer of 1712, having, in Swift’s words, ‘been mighty impertinent of late in his Spectators’, as well as annoying the government in publicizing a lottery scheme of his own devising which contravened recently enacted law. He responded gratefully to Harley’s tolerance: ‘the generous treatment which I have had from your lordship exacts all that I am capable of doing for the advancement of anything more immediately under your administration’.5
Publication of The Spectator came to an end in December 1712. No reason for this development was given in its final number, but Steele was restless to participate more openly in the propaganda war which was gathering pace with the party debate over the implications of the imminent peace settlement. He had made a serious foray as a political journalist at the beginning of 1712 with a stout defence of Marlborough. In doing so he set himself ever more firmly against Swift whose attacks on the Duke had been relentless and were generally thought to have contributed to his recent fall from grace. By the end of the year Steele was in league with the Junto lords, Halifax and Somers (Sir John*). In March 1713, fortified by his recent inheritance of his mother-in-law’s estate of £500 a year, Steele began publishing a new paper, The Guardian. Politics, he declared in the first issue, were to be its staple diet: ‘the parties among us are too violent to make it possible to pass them by without observation. As to these matters I shall be impartial, though I cannot be neuter.’ For the time being, Steele refrained from partisan politics, having a week before published a separate broadside attacking the Tories’ creation of a dozen new peers. Swift’s condescension toward Steele and Addison during these weeks in fact gave the appearance of a thawing of animus between them. In May, however, Steele’s smouldering animosity towards Swift, occasioned chiefly by the latter’s hounding of Marlborough, broke out with a hitherto unmatched ferocity to which the Dean, in The Examiner, responded in kind. Although this exchange had subsided by the end of the month, Steele publicly declared his intention to sever all links with the ministry, and accordingly, on 4 June, wrote to Oxford resigning his commissionership and stating his desire to stand for Parliament at the approaching election. He assured the lord treasurer ‘that whatever I have done, said, or writ has proceeded from no other motive but the love of what I think truth’.6
On 7 Aug., by which time he had already been lined up for a parliamentary seat at Stockbridge, Steele published a devastating attack on the ministry in The Guardian, exposing the fact that no steps had been taken by the French to demolish the strategically important harbour at Dunkirk as required under the terms of the recent peace, implying that the Tory ministry had purposely ignored the matter. Steele was duly returned towards the end of the month but rumour soon followed that attempts would be made to turn him out on petition when the new Parliament met. It was also thought for a while that as his name was still in the commission of stamp taxes, he could still be technically disqualified for holding an office incompatible with a seat in the House. Fierce exchanges between himself and the leading ministerial writers Swift and Defoe continued in September over the subject of Dunkirk, and at the beginning of October The Guardian was superseded by The Englishman. Steele, who had been pilloried in a Tory pamphlet as a ‘mindless devotee’ of the Junto, appears to have been engaged by Wharton and others to produce a periodical wholly devoted to the Whig point of view. Towards the end of the year he was heavily preoccupied in the production of a major pamphlet, The Crisis, again probably at Wharton’s behest, which examined the whole question of the Protestant succession and spelt out the threat to it represented by the Oxford administration. The Crisis was undoubtedly intended by Wharton as part of his campaign to keep the succession issue before the public and to ensure that it dominated proceedings when the Commons met. Released for sale on 19 Jan. 1714, its impact was immediate. Steele chose to amplify its message and his support for Revolution principles in a final edition of The Englishman published on 15 Feb., the day before Parliament reassembled.7
Steele was determined to take the very first opportunity to address the House, but his speech in commendation of (Sir) Thomas Hanmer II* for the Speakership was an embarrassing fiasco. Having complimented Hanmer’s opposition to the recent French commerce bill, he caused helpless laughter and shouts of ‘the Tatler! the Tatler!’ when he prefixed his next remark with the words, ‘I rise up to do him honour’, the sexual connotations of which were not lost on this exclusively male gathering. As one commentator wrote: ‘he was so laughed at, that his own party thought shame of him, and some of them pulled him down by the sleeves’. According to another version of events, the laugh was occasioned by Steele having stated ‘he could not satisfy himself without doing Sir Thomas the honour of declaring his approbation’ which was taken as an unwitting compliment to himself. Though under consideration for some time, the case for Steele’s expulsion was put to Lord Oxford in the most compelling terms by Daniel Defoe on the 19th:
It is impossible but with the utmost indignation to hear and converse among the constant indecencies and furious excursions of the people here, who set themselves in opposition to her Majesty . . .
The new champion of the party, Mr Steele, is now to try an experiment upon the ministry, and shall set up to make speeches in the House and print them, that the malice of the party may be gratified and the ministry be bullied in as public a manner as possible. If, my lord, the virulent writings of this man may not be voted seditious none ever may, and if thereupon he may be expelled it would suppress and discourage the party and break all their new measures. But if not the mischiefs which will follow will be innumerable: they are prepared for his losing his election for Stockbridge, and Mr Hampden [Richard II*] has the town of Wendover or Berwick to put him into. But if he may be expelled it would break all their projects at once. It is far from me to move your lordship to personal resentment. It is the party not the man, and I see such black designs in their view that, if possible, they will run things up to blood and confusion.
Defoe concluded by warning Oxford of rumours that Steele was planning to move for the Duke of Cambridge to be brought over from Hanover, the intention being that the prince would act as a royal figurehead for the Whig cause. On 3 Mar., after a period of adjournment, the opposing Tory candidates in the Stockbridge election presented their long-threatened petition against Steele, but the ministry had already decided to deal with him summarily and to instigate his expulsion by launching a full-scale censure of his most offensive writings. Talk of Steele’s imminent expulsion was rife. Lord Halifax warned Steele not to be in the House on 11 Mar. when the ministry was expected to initiate its attack on The Crisis and two recent numbers of The Englishman which had dwelt on the succession issue. Attention was drawn on the 11th to the ‘seditious’ nature of these publications by Thomas Foley II, a Tory ministerialist, but though it was pointed out by the Tory MP Arthur Moore that no action could be properly taken in Steele’s absence, an order for his attendance was not at this point ventured: only a general resolution that on the 13th the House in committee would consider the Queen’s Speech insofar as it related to ‘seditious libels and factious rumours’. With some relief, Steele informed his wife:
they could not bring it to bear so far as to obtain an order for my attending in my place, or anything else to my disadvantage than that all pamphlets are to come on Saturday. I think they have begun very unhappily and ungracefully against me and doubt not but God will turn their malice to the advantage of the innocent.
The following day, however, the 12th, Foley renewed the complaint and this time Steele’s attendance was ordered for next day. Accordingly, on the 13th, with Steele in his place, several paragraphs from The Crisis and The Englishman were read to the House ‘as . . . tending to sedition, highly reflecting on her Majesty, and arraigning her administration and government’, and after initial objections the ministry acceded to Steele’s request to be given until the 18th to prepare his defence.8
According to the later testimony of William Pulteney, a rising star among the ministry’s Whig opponents, Steele was dissuaded by Robert Walpole II, Addison and Pulteney himself from preparing his own defence, and it was initially agreed that this should be written by Addison. But after Addison and Walpole acknowledged that it would be inappropriate ‘to speak a speech in cold blood’, Walpole managed to give a creditable extempore version of what should be said and this was used as the basis for Steele’s own speech. In the meantime, on the 15th, Steele, a little over-confidently, or perhaps defiantly in the face of his impending fate, stoked Tory ire with a motion to address for all ministerial papers pertaining to Dunkirk harbour. It is possible that Steele hoped to use the resulting report as a justification for his recent stance on this issue, but the motion was defeated by 214 votes to 109. The diarist Edward Knatchbull* recorded that ‘it was not thought proper to furnish him with evidence to make out what he was charged with’, while another Tory observer noted that the overall effect amounted to no more than ‘a sad bustle’.9
The proceedings on 18 Mar. were opened by Foley who stated that Steele should proceed with his defence. A debate immediately ensued, however, upon objections chiefly from Walpole and James Stanhope, who sat beside him, as to whether it was in fact proper that Steele should be made to respond to the paragraphs in his writings to which exception had been taken, when the substance of the ministry’s charge had yet to be declared. Indulging in further sophistry, the Whigs prodded at the ministry’s arbitrary reaction, arguing that ‘to say in general that they [Steele’s writings] reflected on her Majesty was to apply them all to her which Steele had not done’. The Tories, however, insisted that the charge was already apparent in the complaint, but finding great difficulty in gaining their point by force of argument, called for the question that Steele should proceed with his defence, which was carried without a division. Before addressing the House specifically on each of his offending paragraphs, Steele took notice of the ‘great liberty’ which the Tory press, most notably The Examiner and the Post Boy, had lately taken in their own commentaries on state affairs:
That he had been careful always to prevent his writings should be thought faulty and he hoped the House would be cautious in making them so now. He writ with a warmth proper for the concern of his country. If his zeal for the demolition of Dunkirk and the Protestant succession had carried him to any unwary expressions, he hoped he would extenuate his crime that others had been more bold to another end and without offence to the government. That what he had writ was only a paper war between him and The Examiner and Post Boy, that the ministers’ writers were the first aggressors who were in inventing scandals and reflections as base as false. They even foretold the censure he now lies under and its consequences unless prevented by this honourable House, who only could defend an innocent man against an offended ministry. Those writers had even drawn a summary of this complaint here and determined what only lay here. They vilified the best of her Majesty’s subjects and even this place if what was proposed did not pass and yet these were never called to account as writers tending to sedition. Who can read without horror his poor conceit of the Queen’s death and yet he is allowed to write not only with impunity but encouragement. I could not forbear writing in answer to him who turns truth into falsehood, and thought I might take the liberty to justify those he had falsely aspersed. He must be very defective in his defence of this charge if they should interpret to any minister what was only a private war.
Steele then went through the offending passages, justifying his viewpoint on each, and at seven in the evening, after having spoken for three hours, he withdrew from the House. It was, as the annalist Boyer later reported, a performance of ‘such temper, modesty, unconcern, easy and manly eloquence, as gave entire satisfaction to all not inveterately prepossessed against him’. A charge of sorts was then made by Foley, albeit ‘lamely’, and seconded by Sir William Barker, 5th Bt. This was debated until after midnight, during which a near two-hour speech by Walpole was generally commended as the best and most forceful, consisting chiefly ‘of a defence of the several paragraphs from the constructions put upon them by Mr Foley which he did with great dexterity and a great deal of wit and many telling observations on the conduct of a great minister’. At the end of the debate the House divided 245 votes to 152 on the motion that the papers were ‘scandalous and seditious libels’, but there was no division on the next question, for Steele’s expulsion, since, as was noted by one Scots Whig, ‘we knew we would lose it’. Despite this decisive result, which was not unexpected, the Whigs were more than satisfied with the impact they had made in the proceedings. One MP reported to his constituency in Scotland:
in the debate of the House after Mr Steele had made his defence, there never were such free speaking. The ministry were torn in ten thousand pieces. And as the Whigs have all the good speakers on their side, so they did employ their talent with a surprising freedom. The other side sat mute, for they could not deny facts.10
Steele saw himself as a martyr. The following day he wrote to Speaker Hanmer in a predictably self-righteous vein, asking that if the House could not deal with him ‘but in a discretionary and declarative way’, it should consign him to be tried in a court of law, and decree also whether or not he was eligible for later re-election. On the 20th, Hanmer answered that ‘the resolutions which you desire the House would pass can by no means be regularly proposed to them, since all debate upon that subject is closed and at an end’. In the weeks that followed, Steele concentrated largely on publication of The Lover, a journal which he had begun in February, in which he ridiculed Lord Oxford under the name of Sir Anthony Crabtree, and which he afterwards replaced with a more overtly political paper, The Reader. In further successive pamphlets before the Queen’s death, Steele targeted Catholics, the schism bill and Dunkirk. He also put together an Apology for Himself and His Writings, his own account of the proceedings leading to his expulsion, in which he expressed his deep appreciation to Walpole, but it was not published until after the Queen’s death.11
Within days of the accession of George I, Steele was, in his own words, ‘loaded with compliments’ by the regents, ‘and assured of something immediately’. He did not, however, aspire to a position within the government, but saw the theatre as his best potential source of income. He made widely known his desire for the governorship of Drury Lane, having already turned it down when it was offered in 1712 or 1713 by the Oxford ministry almost certainly as a ruse to lure him from his dangerous pen. He was appointed to this post in January 1715. That same month Steele returned to Parliament, but in the years that followed he did not exhibit the kind of devout support for the Whig government which he might have been expected to show, but was openly critical when he felt the ministry strayed from Whig principles. Despite the bestowal of a knighthood on him in April 1715, he came to regard himself as poorly rewarded for his services to the Hanoverian cause during the late reign. Fundamentally, he was still governed by the same natural restlessness of temperament that had motivated him since the early days of his career. His constant need for money led him to dabble and experiment with a variety of projects, some of them highly esoteric and impracticable, but conceived to bring him commercial gain. Deeply involved in the politics of the Whig ‘schism’, he firstly supported Sunderland, then Walpole. After the political confusion of the early 1720s his career rapidly tapered off as indebtedness, declining health and the onset of a ‘paralytic’ condition increasingly overcame him. He died on 1 Sept. 1729 and was buried at St. Peter’s, Carmarthen, having bequeathed his Llangunnor estate to his two daughters.