Joseph Addison might easily have followed in his father’s footsteps: attending Oxford University, becoming a minister of the Anglican Church, pursuing a series of increasingly important ecclesiastical posts, and supporting the divine right of Stuart kings. Addison, however, took a different path.
Two revolutionary currents swept up Addison while he was at Oxford. The first was an enthusiasm for the “New Philosophy,” the scientific method that was challenging the supremacy of classical philosophy; the second was the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which brought William III to the throne in place of James II and established the principle that Parliament’s choice for a king weighed equally with God’s anointing of his earthly representative. Addison followed the traditional classical curriculum at Oxford (where he achieved his first literary reputation for Latin poetry), but with the idea of supporting a new English culture and political order. Based on the Roman concept of an educated citizenry, this new order, Addison and like-minded revolutionaries hoped, would be the greatest civilization England had yet known: A literate and cultured populace would sensibly cooperate in their own government to develop a thriving commercial economy at home and to achieve leadership among European nations.
While at Oxford, Addison expressed his enthusiasm for this new concept of England in poems that brought him to the attention of leading Whig politicians. In 1699, Lord Somers and Lord Halifax secured for Addison a grant from William III, allowing Addison to travel throughout the Continent in preparation for government service. Addison remained abroad until late 1703, when William’s death ended the pension. He produced little for the next year until, at the request of two of Queen Anne’s ministers, he wrote The Campaign to celebrate the military victories of the duke of Marlborough against the French. This successful poem, which was published in 1705, won for Addison a position as commissioner of appeals.
This post placed Addison in a circle of Whig politicians and writers called the Kit-Kat Club. The powerful politicians supported the writers by patronage; the writers...
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