This celebrated genius was born in Ireland. His father being a counsellor at law, and private secretary to James duke of Ormond, he went over with his grace to that kingdom, when he was raised to the dignity of lord lieutenant. Our author when but very young, came over into England; and was educated at the Charter-House school in London, where Mr. Addison was his school-fellow, and where they contracted a friendship which continued firm till the death of that great man.
His inclination leading him to the army, he rode for some time privately in the guards; in which station, as he himself tells us, in his Apology for his Writings, he first became an author, a way of life in which the irregularities of youth are considered as a kind of recommendation.
Mr. Steele was born with the most violent propension to pleasure, and at the same time was master of so much good sense, as to be able to discern the extreme folly of licentious courses, their moral unfitness, and the many calamities they naturally produce. He maintained a perpetual struggle between reason and appetite. He frequently fell into indulgencies, which cost him many a pang of remorse, and under the conviction of the danger of a vicious life, he wrote his Christian Hero, with a design to fix upon his own mind a strong impression of virtue and religion. But this secret admonition to his conscience he judged too weak, and therefore in the year 1701 printed the book with his name prefixed, in hopes that a standing evidence against him. self in the eyes of the world, might the more forcibly induce him to lay a restraint upon his desires, and make him ashamed of vice, so contrary to his own sense and conviction.
This piece was the first of any note, and is esteem'd by some as one of the best of Mr. Steele's works; he gained great reputation by it, and recommended himself to the regard of all pious and good men. But while he grew in the esteem of the religious and worthy, he sunk in the opinion of his old companions in gaiety: He was reckoned by them to have degenerated from the gay, sprightly companion, to the dull disagreeable pedant, and they measured the least levity of his words and actions with the character of a Christian Hero. Thus he found himself slighted, instead of being encouraged for his declarations as to religion; but happily those who held him in contempt for his defence of piety and goodness were characters, with whom to be at variance is virtue. But Mr. Steele, who could not be content with the suffrage of the Good only, without the concurrence of the Gay, set about recovering the favour of the latter by innocent means: He introduced a Comedy on the stage, called Grief A-la-Mode, in which, tho' full of incidents that move laughter, and inspire chearfulness, virtue and vice appear just as they ought to do. This play was acted at the Theatre in Drury Lane 1702, and as nothing can make the town so fond of a man, as a successful play; so this, with some other particulars enlarged on to his advantage, recommended him to king William, and his name to be provided for was in the last table book worn by his majesty.
He had before this time procured captain's commission in the lord Lucas's regiment, by the interest of lord Cutts, to whom he dedicated his Christian Hero, and who likewise appointed him his secretary: His next appearance as a writer, was in the office of Gazetteer, in which he observes in the same apology for himself, he worked faithfully, according to order, without ever erring against the rule observed by all ministers, to keep that paper very innocent, and insipid. The reproaches he heard every Gazette-day against the writer of it, inspired him with a fortitude of being remarkably negligent of what people said, which he did not deserve. In endeavouring to acquire this negligence, he certainly acted a prudent part, and gained the most important and leading advantage, with which every author should set out.
Whoever writes for the public, is sure to draw down envy on himself from some quarter or other, and they who are resolved never to be pleased, consider him as too assuming, and discover their resentment by contempt. How miserable is the state of an author! It is his misfortune in common with the fair sex, "To please too little, or to please too much." If he happens to be a successful writer, his friends who become then proud of his acquaintance, flatter him, and by soothing his vanity teach him to overrate his importance, and while he grasps at universal fame, he loses by too vigorous an effort, what he had acquired by diligence and application If he pleases too little, that is, if his works are not read, he is in a fair way of being a great loser by his attempt to please.
Mr. Steele still continued to write plays. In the year 1703 his Comedy, entitled the Tender Husband, or the Accomplished Fools, was acted at the Theatre in Drury-Lane; as his Comedy, of the Lying-Lovers, or the Ladies Friendship, was likewise the year following, both with success; so that his reputation was now fully established.
In the year 1709 he began the Tatler, the first of which was published on Tuesday April the 12th, and the last on Tuesday January the 2d, 1710-11. This paper greatly increasing his fame, he was preferred to be one of the commissioners of the stamp office. Upon laying down the Tatler, he set up, in concert with Mr. Addison, the Spectator, which was continued from March the 1st, 1710-11, to December the 6th 1712; and resumed June 18th 1714, and continued till December the 20th, the same year.
The Guardian was likewise published by them, in 1713, and in the October of the same year, Mr. Steele began a political paper, entitled the Englishman.
In the Spectator, Mr. Steele's papers are marked with the letter T. and in them are contained the most picturesque descriptions of low life, of which he was perfect master. Humour was his talent, though not so much confined to that cast of writing to be incapable of painting very tender scenes; witness his Conscious Lovers, which never fails to draw tears; and in some of his Spectators he has written in so feeling a manner, that none can read them without emotion.
He had a strong inclination to find out the humours of low life, and to make himself master of them. When he was at Edinburgh, as one of the commissioners on the forfeited estates, he one day made a very splendid feast, and while his servants were surprized at the great preparations, and were expecting every moment to carry out his invitations to the company for whom they imagined it was prepared, he commanded them to go out to the street, and pick up whatever beggars, and poor people they saw, and invite them to his house: The servants obeyed, and Sir Richard soon saw himself at the head of 40 or 50 beggars, together with some poor decay'd tradesmen. After dinner he plied them with punch and wine, and when the frolic was ended, he declared, that besides the pleasure of feeding so many hungry persons, he had learned from them humour enough for a good comedy.
Our author was a man of the highest benevolence; he celebrates a generous action with a warmth that is only peculiar to a good heart; and however he may be blamed for want of oeconomy, &c. yet was he the most agreeable, and if we may be allowed the expression, the most innocent rake, that ever trod the rounds of indulgence.
He wrote several poetical pieces, particularly the Englishman's thanks to the duke of Marlborough, printed in 1711; a letter to Sir Miles Wharton, concerning Occasional Peers, dated March 5th, 1713. The Guardian of August the 7th, 1713; and the importance of Dunkirk considered, in defence of that Guardian, in a letter to the bailiff of Stockbridge: The French Faith represented in the present state of Dunkirk: The Crisis, a Letter to a Member of Parliament, concerning the bill to prevent the prefect Growth of Schism, dated May 28, 1714; and his Apology for himself and his Writings.
These pieces shew how much he was displeased with the last measures of Queen Anne, and were written to combat the Tory ministry; to oppose which he set about procuring a seat in Parliament; for which purpose he resigned his place of commissioner of the stamp-office, in June 1713, in a letter to the earl of Oxford, lord high treasurer, and was chosen member of the House of Commons, for the Borough of Stockbridge. But he did not long enjoy his seat in that house before he was expelled, on the 18th of March 1713, for writing the Englishman, being the close of the paper so called; and the Crisis.
In 1714 he published the Romish Ecclesiastical History of late years, and a paper intitled The Lover; the first of which appeared Thursday February 25, 1714, and another intitled the Reader, which began on Thursday April 22, the same year. In the sixth Number of this last paper, he gave an account of his design of writing the History of the Duke of Marlborough, from proper materials in his custody: the relation to commence from the date of his grace's commission, as captain-general, and plenipotentiary and to end with the expiration of these commissions. But this noble design he lived not to execute, and the materials were afterwards returned to the duchess of Marlborough, who left them to Mr. Mallet, with a handsome gratuity for the execution of Sir Richard's design.
Soon after the accession of king George the 1st to the throne, Mr. Steele was appointed surveyor of the royal stables at Hampton-Court, and governor of the royal company of Comedians, by a patent, dated January 19, 1714-15. He was likewise put into the commission of the peace for the county of Middlesex; and in April 1775 received the honour of knighthood from his majesty. In the first parliament of that king, he was chosen for Borough-brigg in Yorkshire; and after the suppressing the Rebellion in the North, was appointed one of the commissioners of the forfeited estates in Scotland, where he received from several of the nobility and gentry of that part of the united kingdom the most distinguishing marks of respect. He contracted a friendship while in Scotland, with one Hart, a Presbyterian minister in Edinburgh, whom he afterwards honoured with his correspondence: This Hart he used merrily to stile the Hangman of the Gospel, for though he was a facetious good-natur'd man, yet he had fallen into a peculiar way of preaching what he called the Terrors of the Law, and denounced anathemas from the pulpit without reserve.
Sir Richard held frequent conversations with Hart, and other ministers, concerning the restoration of episcopacy, the antient church-government of that nation, and often observed that it was pity, when the two kingdoms were united in language, in dress, in politics, and in all essential points, even in religion, should yet be divided in the ecclesiastical administration, which still serves to maintain a kind of alienation between the people. He found many of the Scots well disposed towards prelacy; but the generality, who were taught to contemplate the church of England, with as much horror as that of Rome, could not soon be prevailed upon to return to it.
Sir Richard wished well to the interests of religion, and as he imagined that Union would promote it, he had some thoughts of proposing it at court, but the times were unfavourable. The Presbyterians had lately appeared active against the rebels, and were not to be disobliged; but such is now, the good understanding between the episcopal and presbyterian parties, that a few concessions on the one side, and not many advances on the other, possibly might produce an amicable coalition, as it is chiefly in form, rather than in articles of religion, in which they differ.
In the year 1715 he published an account of the state of the Roman Catholic Religion throughout the World, translated from an Italian manuscript, with a dedication to the Pope, giving him a very particular account of the fate of religion amongst the Protestants, and several other matters of importance, relating to Great-Britain; but this dedication is supposed to be written by another very eminent hand, more conversant in subjects of that nature than Sir Richard.
The same year our author published a Letter from the earl of Marr to the king, before his majesty's arrival in England with some remarks on my lord's subsequent conduct; and the year following a second volume of the Englishman, and in 1718 an account of a Fish-Pool, which was a project of his for bringing fish to market alive, for which he obtained a patent.
In 1719 he published a pamphlet called the Spinster, and a Letter to the Earl of Oxford, concerning the Bill of Peerage, which bill he opposed in the House of Commons. Some time after, he wrote against the South-Sea-Scheme; his Crisis of posterity; and another piece intitled, A Nation a Family; and on Saturday January the 2d, 1719-20, he began a paper called the Theatre, during the course of which his patent of governor of the Royal Company of Comedians, being suspended by his majesty, he published, The State of the Case.
In the year 1722, he brought his Conscious Lovers on the stage, with prodigious success. This is the last and most finished of all Sir Richard's Comedies, and 'tis doubtful if there is upon the stage, any more instructing; that tends to convey a finer moral, or is better conducted in its design. We have already observed, that it is impossible to witness the tender scenes of this Comedy without emotion; that is, no man of feeling and humanity, who has experienced the delicate solitudes of love and affection, can do it. Sir Richard has told us, that when one of the players told Mr. Wilks, that there was a General weeping for Indiana; he politely observed, that he would not fight the worse for that; and indeed that a noble school of morality would the stage be, if all those who write for it would observe such delicate chastity; they would then inforce an honourable and virtuous deportment, by the most insinuating and easy means; they would so allure the audience by the amiable form of goodness represented in her native loveliness, that he who could resist her charms, must be something more than wicked.
When Sir Richard finished this Comedy, the parts of Tom and Phillis were not then in it: He read it to Mr. Cibber, who candidly told him, that though he liked his play upon the whole, both in the cast of the characters and execution of them; yet, that it was rather too grave for an English audience, who want generally to laugh at a Comedy, and without which in their opinion, the end is not answered. Mr. Cibber then proposed the addition of some comic characters, with which Sir Richard agreed, and saw the propriety and force of the observation. This comedy (at Sir Richard's request) received many additions from, and were greatly improved by Mr. Cibber. — Our author dedicated this work to the king, who made him a present of £500.
Some years before his death, he grew paralytic, and retired to his seat at Langunner, near Caermarthen in Wales, where he died September the 1st, 1729; and was privately interred according to his own desire, in the church of Caermarthen.
Besides his writings above-mentioned, he began on Saturday the 17th of December, a weekly paper in quarto, called, the Town-Talk, in a letter to a lady in the country; and another, intitled the Tea-Table: He had likewise planned a comedy which he intended to call The School of Action.
As Sir Richard was beloved when living, so his loss was sincerely regretted at his death. He was a man of undissembled, and extensive benevolence; a friend to the friendless, and as far as his circumstances would permit, the father of every orphan: His works are chaste, and manly, he himself admired virtue, and he drew her as lovely as she is of his works it may be said, as Sir George Lyttleton in his prologue to Coriolanus observes of Thomson, that there are not in them
One corrupted, one immoral thought,
A line which dying he could wish to blot.
He was a stranger to the most distant appearance of envy or malevolence, never jealous of any man's growing reputation, and so far from arrogating any praise to himself, from his conjunction with Mr. Addison, that he was the first who desired him to distinguish his papers in the Spectator, and after the death of that great man was a faithful executor of his fame, notwithstanding an aspersion which Mr. Tickell was to unjust to throw upon him. Sir Richard's greatest error was want of oeconomy, as appears from the two following instances related by the elegant writer of Mr. Savage's Life, to whom that gentleman communicated them.
"Savage was once desired by Sir Richard, with an air of the utmost importance, to come very early to his house the next morning. Mr. Savage came as he had promised, found the chariot at the door, and Sir Richard waiting for him ready to go out. What was intended, and whither they were to go, Savage could not conjecture, and was not willing to inquire, but immediately seated himself with Sir Richard: The coachman was ordered to drive, and they hurried with the utmost expedition to Hyde-Park Corner, where they stopped at a petty tavern, and retired to a private room. Sir Richard then informed him, that he intended to publish a pamphlet, and that he desired him to come thither, that he might write for him. They soon sat down to the work, Sir Richard dictated, and Savage wrote, till the dinner which had been ordered, was put upon the table. Savage was surprised at the meanness of the entertainment, and after some hesitation, ventured to ask for wine, which Sir Richard, not without reluctance ordered to be brought. They then finished their dinner, and proceeded in their pamphlet, which they concluded in the afternoon. Mr. Savage then imagined his task over, and expected that Sir Richard would call for the reckoning and return home; but his expectations deceived him, for Sir Richard told him he was without money and that the pamphlet must be sold before the dinner could be paid for; and Savage was therefore obliged to go and offer their new production to sale for two guineas, which with some difficulty he obtained. Sir Richard then returned home, having retired that day only to avoid his creditors, and composed the pamphlet only to discharge his reckoning." As Savage has said nothing to the contrary, it is reasonable to conjecture that he had Sir Richard's permission to use his name to the Bookseller, to whom he made an offer of it for two guineas, otherwise it is very improbable that the pamphlet should be sold at all in so short a time.
The other instance is equally uncommon with the former: Sir Richard having invited to his house a great number of persons of the first quality, they were surprized at the number of liveries which surrounded the table and after dinner, when wine and mirth had let them free from the observation of rigid ceremony, one of them enquired of Sir Richard, how such an expensive train of domestics could be consistent with his fortune? Sir Richard frankly confessed, that they were fellows of whom he would very willingly be rid. And being then asked why he did not discharge them; he declared that they were Bailiffs who had introduced themselves with an execution, and whom, since he could not send them away, he had thought it convenient to imbellish with liveries, that they might do him credit whilst they staid.
His friends were diverted with the expedient, and by paying the debt, discharged the attendance, having obliged Sir Richard to promise that they should never find him again graced with a retinue of the same kind.
He married to his first wife a gentlewoman of Barbadoes, with whom he had a valuable Plantation there on the death of her brother, who was taken by the French at Sea as he was coming to England, and died in France. This wife dying without issue, he married Mary, the daughter of Jonathan Scurlock of Langunnoc in Carmarthanshire, esq; by whom he had one son, Eugene, who died young: of his two daughters, one only is living; which lady became sole heiress to a handsome estate in Wales. She was married, when young, to the hon. John Trevor, esq; one of the judges of the principality of Wales; who since, by the death of his brother, has taken his seat in the house of Lords, as Baron Trevor, &c.