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1711 and all that: the untold story of The Spectator

1 March 2019

8:44 PM

1 March 2019

8:44 PM

The first edition of the first Spectator was published 308 years ago today. I recently found a copy in a second-hand bookshop (pictured above), complete with every issue of the first series of that publication. It’s one of the most expensive things I’ve bought but gives me no end of pleasure and inspiration. The Spectator that you see today is the oldest weekly in the world, but that is dating it back to the current run from July 1828. The original – and the inspiration behind the reboot of The Spectator – was the 1711 edition created Joseph Addison, a Whig politician and his womanising mate, Dick Steele. What we do now, in print, broadcast and online, samples the DNA of what was created by those two back then.

They decided to set up a one-page newspaper consisting entirely of a single comment piece. It would range from foreign affairs, theatre and book reviews, the classics, life and love. It was a crazy, quixotic project that ought to have failed – but it succeeded, to a degree never seen by any publication before or since. The extent of the debt that the current Spectator owes (and continues to owe) to original a story that has never really been told before. Today seems as good a day as any to tell it.

You’ll know that our blog is called Coffee House, but you might not know why. Journalistic innovation requires good writing, certainly, but also two other factors: technology and an audience. The Spectator came about because these three were aligned. Addison had the content, a guy called Sam Buckley had the printing technology (more about him later) and the new breed of coffee houses provided the audience. They represented a revolution: before they came along, high-level debate was confined to university quads and royal courts.  But Glorious Revolution of 1688 had created the conditions for a massive economic expansion and the rise of new kind of man. They gathered in coffee houses, and were keen to learn and debate. Without the coffee houses, there would not have been a Spectator.

During the reign of Queen Anne (the ‘old queen’ referred to in our current address, 22 Old Queen St) London was in the opening flush of the Enlightenment, a city given over to pleasures of the imagination. Before 1688, the old landed families had the education – but there was no way of acquiring it unless you were born into wealth. This was changing with the emergence of a middle class. Addison saw that they didn’t want to supplant the landed fox-hunting class, but join them. He welcomed the world of free trade and the opportunities it brought. He teased the members of the gentry who grumbled against “the inconveniences of trade, that carried from us the commodities of our country and made a parcel of upstarts as rich as men of the most ancient families of England.” Addison was on Team Upstart, but his point was that there need not be (another) civil war: the two can learn to coexist. And could do so through agreeing to disagree, learning from each other – and mastering humour.  And anyway, the upstarts wanted to sup with, rather than supplant, the Tory squires. A middle class was being created: they had wealth, but no classical education. They craved it, and Addison – a poet, politician and arguably one of the greatest Latin scholars of his generation – was able to provide it. His Spectator was not angry or partisan: neither is today’s.

London’s newspaper scene was thriving due to the accidental end of state interference. The Licensing Act had been allowed to lapse in 1695 (by a parliamentary cock-up) so censorship ended and hundreds of publications exploded on to the London scene. (Quite a contrast with France where hundreds of pre-publication censors were at work.) This was at a time when learning, debate and culture was moving from royal courts and university quads into the new breed of coffee houses. And it was these coffee houses that created the most fertile ground for a publication like The Spectator.

It’s hard to describe, now, what these coffee houses were like. Different groups of people – thespians, merchants, Whigs, poets and Tories – would meet in different coffee houses to exchange conversation and ideas. There were no offices in those days, so people quite often worked from the coffee house table. Lloyd’s insurance grew out of Lloyd’s coffee shop; Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets was commissioned in a coffee shop. The price of admission was a 1p, and the real commodity being sold was conversation. The coffee houses were sometimes called the ‘penny universities’ because if you paid a penny, you were set up there all day long. If someone was in town and wanted to find Dryden, one of England’s greatest poets, they’d be sent to Will’s Coffee House, where he held court. As Macaulay later put it, the Coffee House was the Londoner’s home ‘and those who wished to find a gentleman commonly asked not whether he lived in Fleet St or Chancery Lane but whether he frequented the Grecian or the Rainbow’.

Inside The Grecian coffee house

You can get a sense of the coffee house scene from the letters and memoirs of the time.  William Defoe once wrote that ‘After the play. the best company generally go to Tom’s and Will’s coffee houses, near adjoining, where there is playing at picquet and the best of conversation till midnight.’ But crucially, you didn’t have to join in the conversation. You could just listen – or spectate.  (For all his eloquence, Addison was an awful public speaker – a deficiency for which he was much mocked in his brief career as an MP.) This was the idea for The Spectator: someone who drops by the best coffee houses in London, who listens and then shares the ideas with a readership. The first-ever edition of The Spectator, pictured above, spelled this out. It was written in the name of Mr Spectator who declared…

‘There is no place of general resort where I do not often make an appearance. I am seen thrusting my head into a round of politicians at Will’s. Sometimes I smoke a pipe a Child’s and overhead the conversation of every table in the room. I appear on Sunday Nights in St James’s Coffee House, and sometimes join the little committee of politics in the Inner Room. My face is likewise very well- known at the Grecian and the Cocoa-Tree.’

And this mattered because it was rare to visit them all because in those days: a Whig would not turn up to the Cocoa-Tree any more than a Tory would be seen at the Coffee House in St James’s. But no fear: we had, in Mr Spectator, someone who was interested in high-quality debate whatever the orientation. And who loved debate for its own sake, not due to any ideological drive. “I have taken a particular care never to be of the same opinion as the man I converse with,” says Mr Spectator in a 18 June 1714 edition. “I was a Tory at Button’s and a whig at Child’s” – Whig and Tory clubs respectively. “In short, I wrangle and dispute for exercise.”

The Spectator excoriated partisanship, regarding it as a poison that undermined civility, killed off wit and impeded the free exchange of ideas. At a time when social media partisanship can force everyone to extremes, the Addison formula for keeping it civil – using humour and rigour and giving space to all sides of the argument – is certainly useful today. We have James Forsyth, Katy Balls and Isabel Hardman listening to the most interesting political conversations in Westminster and informing you, the reader (or podcast listener) what’s being said. It’s the same idea. The Spectator’s mission, now as then, is to inform and entertain – not preach or convert.

Addison, in his own words. A graphic by Carla Millar.

And this matters. Then, as now, most publications came from a partisan angle: Jonathan Swift’s Tory Examiner, for example, lambasted everyone from a Tory perspective. Addison had responded to it with a (better-written) Whig Examiner but then gave up: he didn’t just hate Swift’s spiel, but the whole reductive notion of partisan writing. This, he thought, we the enemy.

Addison’s Spectator explicitly sought to rise above this and make space for all arguments. It’s ridiculous to claim that a publication devoted to opinion and ideas can be neutral: the 1711 Spectator had a Whiggish bent (especially when Addison was away and Steele was editing). Today, our centre of gravity is right of centre. But Addison realised the road of partisanship was short one, and not just alienated a chunk of your potential readership but insulted the intelligence of people who like ideas. His Spectator was a rebuke not to Toryism but partisanship.

Its pages introduced (fictional) characters of opposing views in civil, humourous conversation with each other. Sir Roger De Coverely, a landed Tory whose old world was rapidly ageing. Andrew Freeport, an upstart trader and Whig. There was Will Honeycomb, an affable man-about-town, an more such characters who attracted a soap-opera following. The Spectator set out to introduce the notion of manners, then, a revolutionary concept. A kind of framework for civil discussion, much needed in a country where the embers of the civil war were still glowing. And the prospect of a Jacobite rebellion looming,

Addison used The Spectator to denounce the poison of partisanship and promote the idea of friendly discussion between rivals. This is, today, a vital part of the magazine: our readers like well-written articles with which they disagree. Prof Brian Cox, the physicist, summed it up in a Facebook post earlier today. “I disagree with most of the articles in The Spectator,” he wrote, “which is why I read it.” Addison would have been delighted to have this said about his magazine: this is precisely what he had in mind. In Spectator edition no 244, there is a quote that have posted on my fridge at home. (I’m afraid I have Addison quotes all over the place.)

“A man must be excessively stupid, as well as uncharitable, who believes that there is no virtue but on his own side and that there are not men as honest as himself who may differ from him in political principles.”

Addison referred to tribalism as ‘false wit’. True wit – original, independent, elegant – was harder to find. So how would you fill a magazine if not with news from around the world to agitate people? His concept was to have a magazine that would care as much about books, the arts, philosophy and life as it did about political events. As we do now. From Spectator edition ten:

‘Is it not much better to be let into the Knowledge of ones-self – than to hear what passes in Muscovy or Poland. Is it not better to amuse ourselves with such Writings as tend to the wearing out of Ignorance; Passion, and Prejudice – than such as naturally conduce to inflame Hatreds, and make Enmities irreconcilable.’

This was The Spectator’s project in 1711: to break away from partisan rants and skirmishes. To be “more of a cocktail party than a political party” (a quote from Alexander Chancellor, whose 1970s editorship saved this magazine). Addison wanted The Spectator’s loyalties to lie not with any party, but with elegance of expression, originality of thought and independence of opinion. These remain the principles behind The Spectator today. Addison despised partisan writing and his Spectator railed against “the mischief” that saw trolls (or their equivalent) “spoil good neighbourhood and make honest gentlemen hate on another.” He’d have loathed today’s Brexit partisanship. Yes, you can take a view. But never in a way that portrays your opponent as confused or malign.

The sheer variety of Addison’s Spectator marked it out. At the time, newspapers had very little comment in them. Opinion sheets tended to bang on about politics but in The Spectator, the arts and literature and classics mattered more. Addison devoted several Saturday editions of The Spectator to extolling and explaining the virtues of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Each edition of today’s Spectator gives at least twice as much coverage to books and arts as it does politics. Addison roped in others to his project: Eustace Budgell, who popularised the idea of ‘Prime Minister’ and the poets Thomas Parnell and Thomas Tickell. It gave space to the original poetry, as we do today.

And Addison saw, in the classics, not just the greatest collection of writing ever written but the greatest collection that could be written. Although one of the greatest essayists in English had a low opinion of his language (and never rated Shakespeare, for example). He rated Milton but comparing him to Homer, he said, was like comparing a building made out of bricks with one made from marble. He sought to make the classics more accessible, which is why he opened each issue with a quote from Homer, Horace etc. In Spectator No10, he declared that

“It was said of Socrates, that he brought Philosophy down from Heaven, to inhabit among Men; and I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of Closets and Libraries, Schools and Colleges, to dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-tables, and in Coffee houses.”

This was, at once, a high-minded and a base aspiration. Addison wanted to take the highest quality of ideas, arguments, classical references – but serve them up in a way that could be eagerly digested by any bloke (or, importantly for his Spectator, woman) who walked into coffee house. He rejected the idea that the classics were historical, or that you needed to be a clergyman or a specialist to understand their beauty. Each week in today’s Spectator we have Ancient & Modern, a column about the classical world and its parallels with today. We agree with Addison think that the values and relevance of the classical world is eternal. We’re now thinking of bringing back Addison’s Latin Quote of the Day on the daily Coffee House email: it’s amazing how much wisdom can be stored in so few words.

Almost all of The Spectator’s essays – not just those of Addison and Steele – were humorous. Some were rude or even outrageous, but the tone mattered: it was a vehicle for exploring incendiary topics without getting swivel-eyed. Humour was the medium for a proper exchange of ideas, the antidote to tribalism (or “enthusiasm,” as Addison called it). And that this mattered because man is (as he famously put it in edition no3) a “sociable animal”. Today’s Spectator always leads on a cartoon, drawn by the peerless Morten Morland: now and again, I wonder if this gentle Norwegian might be Britain’s greatest cartoonist since Gillray.

Addison’s Spectator didn’t last long. The government regulation mean a new tax (to fund a national lottery) meant the end the year after it started. Addison and Steele steadily killed off their characters – Sir Roger de Coverely passed away (and was anyway depicted as being lost in new world where people were judged by performance, not by birth). Sir Andrew Freeport moved away, Will Honeycomb caught the clap.

Only after it closed did Addison & Steele’s magazine enter immortality. And why? Because of Sam Buckley, who was the George Martin to their Lennon & McCartney. Buckley was perhaps the only printer in London who had a press able to produce a daily opinion sheet. As Rupert Murdoch has always understood, new tech and new audiences are always the handmaiden of journalistic innovation. In 1711, coffee houses provided the audience and Sam Buckley provided the tech. When it folded, he paid £500 for the copyright to the series, because he had worked something out. The short lifespan of The Spectator was a virtue: every article could now be reprinted in about eight small volumes. They were a sensation, and were never out of print for the next two centuries. My house is full of them (example below)

As the decades went on and the middle class expanded, the market for these bound volumes of The Spectator just kept on growing – in Britain and abroad. Bound volumes of the Spectator were in every educated house in England and the United States. Benjamin Franklin said that he taught himself how to write, talk and argue by reading The Spectator. Samuel Johnson summed it up  saying that anyone who wanted to learn how to combine with wit with flair should “give his days and nights to the study of Addison.” At one stage, the French translation of Addison’s Spectator was the most-read book in France. Jane Austin has her characters reading volumes of The Spectator.

One of the reason that I collect reprints is to read the introductions, and see how Addison’s writing (unsigned at the time) grew in stature as the decades went on. A 1956 edition says the Spectator was “second only to the bible in its influence on British manners and morals, the most popular model for English prose composition” My most treasured reprint is in 1827 (below), because this, or one very like it, will have been what inspired the 1828 Spectator that we work for now.

You can see why the project was restarted. If everyone in 1828 was crazy about the Addison formula – wit and style, politics and poetry – why not resurrect it? So in July 1828, a Dundonian printer named Stephen Rintoul did just that. The links between his magazine and that of Addison and Steele are outlined here by Prof David Butterfield, who has written a brilliant (as yet published) history of the 1828 Spectator.

Today, The Spectator sells more print copies than at any point in our history. We also have emails, podcasts, blogs, events – all of them seeking to continue the tone, style, humour and variety of the Addison project. Our slogans – “don’t think alike”, “firm but unfair”, “open for debate” – could all have been used to sell the Addison edition. Or any edition since 1828. I worked out pretty early on as editor that this is not, in any real way, my magazine. It has its own trajectory, its own values, its own voice. The mission of those of us at The Spectator now is to protect and project that voice. Are are those 1711 values still relevant today? The best way to find out is to try a month’s subscription for free, here.

My thanks to Prof. Butterfield for his direction in my treasure-hunting expeditions into the Spectator’s  history, and to Queen’s College in Oxford which invited me to speak about Addison last month.


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