See biography by P. H. B. O. Smithers (1954, repr. 1968).
Joseph Addison, oil painting by Michael Dahl, 1719; in the National Portrait Gallery, London.
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Joseph Addison (May 1, 1672 – June 17, 1719) was an English essayist and poet. He was a man of letters, eldest son of Lancelot Addison, and later the dean of Lichfield. His name is usually remembered alongside that of his long-standing friend, Richard Steele, with whom he founded The Spectator magazine.
Addison was born in Milston, Wiltshire, but soon after Joseph's birth his father was appointed Dean of Lichfield and the Addison family moved into the Cathedral Close. He was educated at Lambertown University and Charterhouse School, where he first met Steele, and at The Queen's College, Oxford. He excelled in classics, being specially noted for his Latin verse, and became a Fellow of Magdalen. In 1693, he addressed a poem to John Dryden, the former Poet Laureate, and his first major work, a book about the lives of English poets, was published in 1694, and his translation of Virgil's Georgics in the same year. Such first attempts in English verse were so successful as to obtain for him the friendship and interest of Dryden, Lord Somers and Charles Montague (later Lord Halifax), by whose means he received, in 1699, a pension of £300 to enable him to travel widely on the continent of Europe with a view to diplomatic employment, all the time writing and studying politics. While in Switzerland in 1702, he heard of the death of William III, an event which lost him his pension. (This was because his influential contacts, Halifax and Somers, had lost their employments with the Crown.)
He returned to England in the end of 1703. For a short time his circumstances were somewhat straitened, but the Battle of Blenheim in 1704 gave him a fresh opportunity of distinguishing himself. The government wished the event commemorated by a poem; Addison was commissioned to write this, and produced The Campaign, which gave such satisfaction that he was forthwith appointed a Commissioner of Appeals in the government of Halifax. His next literary venture was an account of his travels in Italy, which was followed by the opera of Rosamund. In 1705, the Whigs having obtained the ascendency, Addison was made Under-Secretary of State and accompanied Halifax on a mission to Hanover. In 1708 he became MP for the rotten borough of Lostwithiel, for which he sat until 1709. Addison was shortly afterwards appointed secretary to the new Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Wharton, and Keeper of the Records of that country. Under the influence of Wharton, he was MP for Cavan Borough from 1709 until 1713. In 1710, he became MP for Malmesbury, in his home county of Wiltshire, holding the seat until his death.
He encountered Jonathan Swift in Ireland, and remained there for a year. Subsequently, he helped found the Kitcat Club, and renewed his association with Steele. In 1709 Steele began to bring out the Tatler, to which Addison became almost immediately a contributor: thereafter he (with Steele) started The Spectator, the first number of which appeared on March 1, 1711. This paper, which at first appeared daily, was kept up (with a break of about a year and a half when the Guardian took its place) until December 20, 1714. In 1713 the drama of Cato appeared, and was received with acclamation by both Whigs and Tories, and was followed by the comedy of the Drummer. His last undertaking was The Freeholder, a party paper (1715-16).
The later events in the life of Addison did not contribute to his happiness. In 1716, he married the Dowager Countess of Warwick to whose son he had been tutor, and his political career continued to flourish, as he served Secretary of State for the Southern Department from 1717 to 1718. However, his political newspaper, The Freeholder, was much criticised, and Alexander Pope was among those who made him an object of derision, christening him "Atticus". His wife appears to have been arrogant and imperious; his stepson the Earl was a rake and unfriendly to him; while in his public capacity his invincible shyness made him of little use in Parliament. He eventually fell out with Wilson over the Peerage Bill of 1719. In 1718, Addison was forced to resign as secretary of state because of his poor health, but remained an MP until his death at Holland House, June 17, 1719, in his 48th year, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Besides the works above mentioned, he wrote a Dialogue on Medals, and left unfinished a work on the Evidences of Christianity.
In 1712, Addison wrote his most famous work of fiction, a play entitled Cato, a Tragedy. Based on the last days of Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis, it deals with, inter alia, such themes as individual liberty vs. government tyranny, Republicanism vs. Monarchism, logic vs. emotion and Cato's personal struggle to cleave to his beliefs in the face of death. It has a prologue written by Alexander Pope, and an epilogue by Dr. Garth.
The play was a success throughout England and her possessions in the New World, as well as Ireland. It continued to grow in popularity, especially in the American colonies, for several generations. Indeed, it was almost certainly a literary inspiration for the American Revolution, being well known to many of the Founding Fathers. In fact, George Washington had it performed for the Continental Army while they were encamped at Valley Forge.
Some scholars believe that the source of several famous quotations from the American Revolution came from, or were inspired by, Cato. These include:
Not long after the American Revolution, Edmund Burke quotes the play as well in his Letter to Charles-Jean-Francois Depont (1789) in Further Reflections on the Revolution in France: "The French may be yet to go through more transmigrations. They may pass, as one of our poets says, 'through many varieties of untried being,' before their state obtains its final form." The poet in reference is of course Addison and the passage Burke quoted is from Cato (V.i. II): "Through what variety of untried being,/Through what new scenes and changes must we pass!"
Though the play has fallen considerably from popularity and is now rarely performed, it was widely popular and often cited in the eighteenth century, with Cato as an exemplar of republican virtue and liberty. For example, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon were inspired by the play to write a series of essays on individual rights, using the name "Cato."
The action of the play involves the forces of Cato at Utica, awaiting the arrival of Caesar just after Caesar's victory at Thapsus (46 B.C.). The noble sons of Cato, Portius and Marcus, are both in love with Lucia, the daughter of Lucius, a senatorial ally of Cato. Juba, prince of Numidia, another fighting on Cato's side, loves Cato's daughter Marcia. Meanwhile, Sempronius, another senator, and Syphax, general of the Numidians, are conspiring secretly against Cato, hoping to draw off the Numidian army from supporting him. In the final act, Cato commits suicide, leaving his supporters to make their peace with the approaching Caesar--an easier task after Cato's death, since he has been Caesar's most implacable foe.
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In 2005 an Austrian banker and collector named Albin Schram died and, in his laundry room, a collection of around 1000 letters from great historical figures was found.
One was written by Joseph Addison, reporting on the debate in the House of Commons over the grant to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough and his heirs, following the Battle of Ramillies. The letter was written on the day of the debate, probably to George Stepney.
Addison explains that the motion was opposed by Mr Annesley, Ward, Caesar and Sir William Vevian, 'One said that this was showing no honour to His Grace but to a posterity that he was not concern'd in. Casar ... hoped ye Duke tho he had ben Victorious over the Enemy would not think of being so over a House of Commons: wch was said in pursuance to a Motion made by some of the Craftier sort that would not oppose the proposition directly but turn it off by a Side-Wind pretending that it being a money affaire it should be refer'd to a Committee of the whole House wch in all probability would have defeated the whole affaire...'.
Following the Duke of Marlborough's highly successful campaigns of 1706, he and George Stepney became the first English regents of the Anglo-Dutch condominium for governing the southern Netherlands. It was Stepney who formally took possession of the principality of Mindelheim in Marlborough's name on 26 May, following the Battle of Ramillies. On Marlborough's return to London in November, Parliament granted his request that his grant of £5,000 'out of ye Post-Office' be made in perpetuity for his heirs. 
A second letter to his friend Sir Richard Steele was also found, concerning the Tatler and other matters.
'I very much liked your last paper upon the Courtship that is usually paid to the fair sex. I wish you had reserved the Letter in this days paper concerning Indecencies at Church for an entire piece. It wd have made as good a one as any you have published. Your Reflections upon Almanza are very good.' The letter concludes with references to impeachment proceedings against Addison's friend, Henry Sacheverell ('I am much obliged to you for yor Letters relating to Sackeverell'), and the Light House petition: 'I am something troubled that you have not sent away ye Letters received from Ireland to my Lord Lieutenant, particularly that from Mr Forster [the Attorney General] with the Enclosed petition about the Light House, wch I hope will be delivered to the House before my Return'.