Steele was of English parentage, but born in Dublin, March 12, 1671-2. His father held the office of Secretary to the Lord-lieutenant of Ireland the Duke of Ormond, and through Ormond's influence Richard Steele was placed in the Charterhouse London. There he met Addison, just the same age as himself; and a close intimacy was formed between them, one of the most memorable in literature. Steele always regarded Addison with respect approaching to veneration.
"Through the school and through the world," as Mr. Thackeray has said, "whithersoever his strange fortune led this erring, wayward affectionate creature, Joseph Addison was always his head-boy." They were together at Oxford, Steele having been entered of Merton College in 1692. He remained there three years, but left without taking a degree; and becoming enamoured of the military profession, but unable to obtain a commission, he entered as a private in the Horse Guards. A rich relation in Ireland threatened to disinherit him if he took this step, but Steele, "preferring the state of his mind to that of his fortune," enlisted, and was disinherited. In the army, he was soon a favorite, he obtained a cornetcy, became secretary to his colonel Lord Cutts, and afterwards was promoted to the rank of captain. He then plunged into the fashionable vices and follies of the age, at the same time acquiring that knowledge of life and character which proved so serviceable to him when he exchanged the sword for the pen. As a check on his irregularities — a self-monitor — Steele wrote a treatise, called The Christian Hero, which he published in 1701. His gay associates did not relish this semi-religious work (which abounds in fine characteristic passages), and not being himself very deeply impressed with his own reasoning and pious examples he set about writing a comedy, The Funeral, or Grief a la Mode, which was performed at Drury Lane in 1703 with great success. Next year he produced another play, the Tender Husband, and in 1704 the Lying Lover which proved to be too grave a comedy for the public taste. The ill-success of this piece determined him from attempting the stage again until 1722, when he achieved his great dramatic triumph by the production of the Conscious Lovers.
Steele was now a popular and fashionable man upon town. The Whig minister, Harley, conferred upon him the office of Gazetteer and Gentleman-usher to Prince George; he had married a wife who died soon afterwards, leaving him an estate in Barbadoes, and his second marriage with "Molly Scurlock" added to his fortune. But Steele lived expensively, and was never free from pecuniary difficulties. His letters to his wife — of which about 400 have been preserved, forming the most singular correspondence ever published — show that he was familiar with duns and bailiffs, with misery, folly and repentance Addison upon one occasion lent him £1000, which was repaid within a twelvemonth, but another loan from the same friend is said to have been reclaimed by an execution, and Addison has been condemned for harshness. To his friend, Benjamin Victor, Steele related the case. His bond on some expensive furniture was put in force, but from the letter he received with the surplus arising from the sale, he knew that Addison only intended a friendly warning against a manner of living altogether too costly, and taking it as he believed it to be meant, he met him afterwards with the same gaiety of temper he had always shown. The warning was little heeded — Steele had a long succession of troubles and embarrassments, but nothing could depress the elastic gaiety of his spirits. In 1709, a happy project suggested itself. His office of Gazetteer gave him a command of early foreign intelligence, and following up Defoe's scheme of a thrice-a-week journal on the post-days, combining news and literature, he organized The Tatler, the first number of which appeared on the 12th of April, 1709. Swift had, by his ridicule of Partridge the almanac-maker, made the name of Isaac Bickerstaff familiar, Steele adopted it for his new work, and thus, as he said, "gained an audience of all who had any taste of wit, while the addition of the ordinary occurrences of common journals of news brought in a multitude of readers."
Addison also came to his aid. He sent him hints from Ireland and after the 80th number, became a regular contributor. "I fared," says Steele, "like a distressed prince who calls in a powerful neighbour to his aid: I was undone by my auxiliary; when I had once called him in I could not subsist without dependence on him." Some of the most charming of Addison's essays appear in The Tatler, but Steele stamped its character on the work as a gentle censor of manners and morals, a corrector of the public taste and a delightful exponent of English society and English feeling. He aimed at high objects — "to expose the false arts of life, to pull off the disguises of cunning, vanity, and affectation, and to recommend a genteel simplicity in our dress, our discourse, and our behaviour." That the careless and jovial "Dick Steele" should set about such a task is only another illustration of the contradictions and incongruities in his character. His happy genius, however, carried him over all difficulties. The Tatler was continued regularly thrice a week, price one penny each number, until the 2d of January 1710-11. By this time the Tories were triumphant; Steele lost his appointment of Gazetteer; but his success as an essayist inspired him with ambition, and on the 1st of March 1710-11, appeared the first number of The Spectator, which was to be published daily. The design was carried out with unexampled success through 555 numbers, terminating on the 6th of December 1712. In 1714, The Spectator was resumed and eighty numbers — forming an eighth volume — added. In its most prosperous period, when Bolingbroke thought to curb the press by imposing a stamp on each sheet, The Spectator doubled its price, yet maintained its popularity, and paid government on account of the half-penny stamp a sum of £29 each week. It had also a circulation of about 10,000 in volumes. Of the excellent effects produced by the essays of Steele and Addison, we possess the evidence not only of the improved state of society and literature which afterwards prevailed, but likewise the testimony of writers contemporary with the authors themselves. All speak of a decided and marked improvement. The Spectator ceased in December 1712, and in the March following appeared The Guardian, which was also issued daily. It extended to 175 numbers, in two volumes. Pope, Berkeley, Budgell, and other friends, aided Steele in this new work, but Addison was again his principal assistant. Of the 271 papers in The Tatler, Steele wrote 189, Addison 42, and both conjoined, 86. Of 635 Spectators, Addison wrote 274, Steele, 240; and of 175 Guardians, Steele wrote 82 and Addison, 53. At various intervals during his busy life Steele attempted other periodicals on the same plan — as The Englishman, (which was chiefly political, and extended to 57 numbers), The Lover, The Reader, The Plebeian, The Theatre, &c — but these were short-lived productions, and had little influence either on his fame or fortune.
Political controversy now raged. Swift assailed Steele with witty malice and virulence, and the patriotism of Steele prevailed over his interest, for he resigned an appointment he had received as Commissioner of stamps, and threw himself into political warfare with disinterested but headlong zeal. He obtained a seat in parliament as member for Stockbridge, spoke warmly in support of the Protestant succession, which he conceived to be in danger, and published a pamphlet, entitled The Crisis, which contained "some seasonable remarks on the danger of a popish successor." For these insinuations against the Protestantism of the government, Steele was expelled the House of Commons by a majority of 245 against 152 votes. The death of Queen Anne, however, humbled his opponents, and in the next reign, Steele received a place in the household — Surveyor of the Royal Stables, Governor of the Royal Company of Comedians — was placed in the commission of the peace for Middlesex, and knighted by King George I. Through the influence of the Duke of Newcastle he entered parliament as a ember for Boroughbridge, and was an active politician and debater. In 1717, he visited Edinburgh, as one of the commissioners of forfeited estates and whilst there, he is said on one occasion to have given a splendid entertainment to a multitude of decayed tradesmen and beggars collected from the streets! In 1718 he published an account of a patent scheme he had devisd, called The Fishpool, for conveying salmon and other fish alive from Ireland to the London market. In 1719, he opposed the Peerage Bill, by which it was sought to fix permanently the number of peers, and prohibit the crown from making any new creations except to replace extinct families. On this question he was opposed by Addison, but Steele had the advantage in point of argument, and the bill was thrown out. In this controversy Addison is said to have sneered at his friend under the name of "Little Dicky." The allusion, however, has been misunderstood, as Lord Macaulay maintains; the matter is doubtful; but the friends had parted never to meet again Addison sunk into his premature grave before any reconciliation took place. Next year Steele honorably distinguished himself against the South-sea Scheme, he again took an active part in theatrical affairs, and wrote his comedy of The Conscious Lovers (1722), but his pecuniary difficulties increased, and he retired to a seat in Wales, left him by his second wife, where he died on the 1st of September 1729. He was almost forgotten by his contemporaries, but posterity has done justice to his talents and virtues — to his overflowing kindness of heart, and the spontaneous graces and charm of his writings.
As an essayist, Steele is remarkable for the vivacity and ease of his composition. He tried all subjects; was a humorist, a satirist, a critic and story-teller. His Inkle and Yarico, and other tales in the Tatler and Spectator, are exquisite for their simple pathos. His pictures of life and society have the stamp of reality. They are often imperfectly finished, and present trivial and incongruous details, but they abound in inimitable touches. His elevated conception of the female character has justly been remarked as distinguishing him from most writers of his age. His gallantry to women was a pure and chivalrous devotion. Of one lady he said that "to love her was a liberal education" — one of the most felicitous compliments ever paid Steele had also great fertility of invention, both as respects incident and character. His personages are drawn with dramatic spirit and with a liveliness and airy facility that blind the reader to his defects of style. The Spectator Club, with its fine portraits of Sir Roger de Coverley, Sir Andrew Freeport, Will Honeycomb, &c, will ever remain a monument of the felicity of his fancy, and his power of seizing upon the shades and peculiarities of character. If Addison heightened the humour and interest of the different scenes, to Steele belongs the merit of the original design, and the first conception of the actors.