SIR RICHARD STEELE, the first of a class of writers called the British Essayists, which is peculiar to this country, was born at Dublin in 1671. His family, of English extraction, was genteel. His father, who was a counsellor at law, and private secretary to James, the first duke of Ormond, sent his son, then very young, to London, where he was placed in the Charter-house by the duke, who was one of the governors of that seminary. From thence he was removed to Merton college, Oxford, and admitted a postmaster in 1691. In 1695 he wrote a poem on the funeral of queen Mary, entitled the "Procession." His inclination leading him to the army, he rode for some time privately in the guards. He became an author first, as he tells us himself, when an ensign of the guards, a way of life exposed to much irregularity; and, being thoroughly convinced of many things, of which he often repented, and which he more often repeated, he wrote for his own private use a little book called "The Christian Hero," with a design principally to fix upon his own mind a strong impression of virtue and religion, in opposition to a stronger propensity towards unwarrantable pleasures. This secret admonition was too weak; and therefore, in 1701, he printed the book with his name, in hopes that a standing testimony against himself, and the eyes of the world upon him in a new light, might curb his desires, and make him ashamed of understanding and seeming to feel what was virtuous, and yet of living so contrary a life. This, he tells us, had no other effect, but that, from being thought a good companion, he was soon reckoned a disagreeable fellow. One or two of his acquaintance thought fit to misuse him, and try their valour upon him; and every body, he knew, measured the least levity in his words or actions with the character of "The Christian Hero." Thus he found himself slighted, instead of being encouraged, for his declarations as to religion; so that he thought it incumbent upon him to enliven his character. For this purpose he wrote the comedy, called "The Funeral, or Grief a-la-Mode," which was acted in 1702; and, as nothing at that time made a man more a favourite with the public than a successful play, this, with some other particulars enlarged upon to advantage, obtained the notice of the king; and his name, to be provided for, was, he says, in the last table-book ever worn by the glorious and immortal William the Third.
He had before this obtained a captain's commission in lord Lucas's regiment of fusileers, by the interest of lord Cutts, to whom he had dedicated his "Christian Hero," and who likewise appointed him his secretary. His next appearance as a writer, as he himself informs us, was in the office of Gazetteer; where he worked faithfully, according to order, without ever erring, he says, against the rule observed by all ministries, to keep that paper very innocent and very insipid. He received this appointment in consequence of being introduced by Addison to the acquaintance of the earls of Halifax and Sunderland. With Addison he had become acquainted at the Charter-house. His next productions were comedies; "The Tender Husband" being acted in 1703, and "The Lying Lover" in 1704. In 1709 he began "The Tatler;" the first number of which was published April 12, 1709, and the last Jan. 2, 1711. This paper greatly increased his reputation and interest; and he was soon after made one of the commissioners of the Stamp-office. Upon laying down "The Tatler," he began, in concert with Addison, "The Spectator," which began to be published March 1, 1711; after that, "The Guardian," the first paper of which came out March 12, 1713; and then, "The Englishman," the first number of which appeared Oct. 6, the same year. Besides these works, he wrote several political pieces, which were afterwards collected, and published under the title of "Political Writings," 1713, 12mo. One of these will require to be mentioned particularly, because it was attended with remarkable consequences relating to himself.
Having a design to serve in the last parliament of queen Anne, he resigned his place of commissioner of the Stamp-office, in June 1713; and was chosen member for the borough of Stockbridge in Hampshire; but he did not sit long in the House of Commons, before he was expelled for writing "The Englishman," being the close of a paper so called, and "The Crisis." This last is one of his political writings, and the title at full length runs thus: "The Crisis, or a Discourse representing, from the most authentic records, the just causes of the late happy Revolution, and the several settlements of the crown of England and Scotland on her majesty; and, on the demise of her majesty without issue, upon the most illustrious princess Sophia, electress and duchess-dowager of Hanover, and the heirs of her body being Protestants, by previous acts of both parliaments of the late kingdoms of England and Scotland, and confirmed by the parliament of Great-Britain. With some seasonable remarks on the danger of a popish successor." He explains in his "Apology for himself," the occasion of his writing this piece, he happened one day to visit Mr. William Moore of the Inner-Temple; where the discourse turning upon politics, Moore took notice of the insinuations daily thrown out, of the danger the Protestant succession was in; and concluded with saying, that he thought Steele, from the kind reception the world gave to what he published, might be more instrumental towards curing that evil, than any private man in England. After much solicitation, Moore observed, that the evil seemed only to flow from mere inattention to the real obligations under which we lie towards the house of Hanover: if, therefore, continued he, the laws to that purpose were reprinted, together with a warm preface, and a well-urged peroration, it is not to be imagined what good effects it would have. Steele was much struck with the thought; and prevailing with Moore to put the law-part of it together, he executed the rest; yet did not venture to publish it, till it had been corrected by Addison, Hoadly, afterwards bishop of Winchester, and others. It was immediately attacked with great severity by Swift, in a pamphlet published in 1712, under the title of "The Public Spirit of the Whigs set forth in their generous encouragement of the author of the Crisis:" but it was not till March 12, 1715, that it fell under the cognizance of the House of Commons. Then Mr. John Hungerford complained to the House of divers scandalous papers, published under the name of Mr. Steele; in which complaint he was seconded by Mr. Auditor Foley, cousin to the earl of Oxford, and Mr. Auditor Harley, the earl's brother. Sir William Wyndham also added, that "some of Mr. Steele's writings contained insolent, injurious reflections on the queen herself, and were dictated by the spirit of rebellion." The next day Mr. Auditor Harley specified some printed pamphlets published by Mr. Steele, "containing several paragraphs tending to sedition, highly reflecting upon her majesty, and arraigning her administration and government." Some proceedings followed between this and the 18th, which was the day appointed for the hearing of Mr. Steele; and this being come, Mr. Auditor Foley moved, that before they proceed farther, Mr. Steele should declare, whether he acknowledged the writings that bore his name? Steele declared, that he "did frankly and ingenuously own those papers to be part of his writings; that he wrote them in behalf of the house of Hanover, and owned them with the same unreservedness with which he abjured the Pretender." Then Mr. Foley proposed, that Mr. Steele should withdraw; but it was carried, without dividing, that he should stay and make his defence. He desired, that he might be allowed to answer what was urged against him paragraph by paragraph; but his accusers insisted, and it was carried, that he should proceed to make his defence generally upon the charge against him. Steele proceeded accordingly, being assisted by his friend Addison, member for Malmsbury, who sat near him to prompt him upon occasion; and spoke for near three hours on the several heads extracted from his pamphlets. After he had withdrawn, Mr. Foley said, that, without amusing the House with long speeches, it is evident the writings complained of were seditious and scandalous, injurious to her majesty's government, the church and the universities;" and then called for the question. This occasioned a very warm debate, which lasted till eleven o'clock at night. The first who spoke for Steele, was Robert Walpole, esq. who was seconded by his brother Horatio Walpole, lord Finch, lord Lumley, and lord Hinchinbrook: it was resolved, however, by a majority of 245 against 152, that "a printed pamphlet, entitled 'The Englishman, being the close of a paper so called,' and one other pamphlet, entitled 'The Crisis,' written by Richard Steele, esq. a member of this House, are scandalous and seditious libels, containing many expressions highly reflecting upon her majesty, and upon the nobility, gentry, clergy, and universities of this kingdom; maliciously insinuating, that the Protestant succession in the house of Hanover is in danger under her majesty's administration; and tending to alienate the good affections of her majesty's good subjects, and to create jealousies and divisions among them:" it was resolved likewise, that Mr. Steele, "for his offence in writing and publishing the said scandalous and seditious libels, be expelled this House." He afterwards wrote "An Apology for himself and his writings, occasioned by his expulsion," which he dedicated to Robert Walpole, esq. This is printed among his "Political Writings," 1715, 12mo.
He had now nothing to do till the death of the queen, but to indulge himself with his pen; and accordingly, in 1714, he published a treatise, entitled "The Romish Ecclesiastical History of late years." This is nothing more than a description of some monstrous and gross popish rites, designed to hurt the cause of the Pretender, which was supposed to be gaining ground in England: and there is an appendix subjoined, consisting of particulars very well calculated for this purpose. In No. I. of the appendix, we have a list of the colleges, monasteries, and convents of men and women of several orders in the Low Countries; with the revenues which they draw from England. No. 11. contains an extract of the "Taxa Camerae," or " Cancellariae Apostolicae," the fees of the pope's chancery; a book, printed by the pope's authority, and setting forth a list of the fees paid him for absolutions, dispensations, indulgencies, faculties, and exemptions. No. III. is a bull of the pope in 1357, given to the then king of France; by which the princes of that nation received an hereditary right to cheat the rest of mankind. No. IV. is a translation of the speech of pope Sixtus V. as it was uttered in the consistory at Rome, Sept. 2, 1589; setting forth the execrable fact of James Clement, a Jacobine friar, upon the person of Henry III. of France, to be commendable, admirable, and meritorious. No. V. is a collection of some popish tracts and positions, destructive of society and all the ends of good government. The same year, 1714, he published two papers: the first of which, called "The Lover;" appeared Feb. 25; the second, "The Reader," April 22. In the sixth number for May 3, we have an account of his design to write the history of the duke of Marlborough, from the date of the duke's commission of captain general and plenipotentiary, to the expiration of those commissions: the materials, as he tells us, were in his custody, but the work was never executed.
Soon after the accession of George I. he was appointed surveyor of the royal stables at Hampton-court, and governor of the royal company of comedians; and was put into the commission of the peace for Middlesex; and, April 1715, was knighted upon the presenting of an address to his majesty by the lieutenancy. In the first parliament, he was chosen member for Boroughbrigg in Yorkshire; and, after the suppression of the rebellion in the North, was appointed one of the commissioners of the forfeited estates in Scotland. The same year, 1715, he published in 8vo, "An Account of the state of the Roman Catholic Religion throughout the world. Written for the use of pope Innocent XI. and now translated from the Italian. To which is added, a Discourse concerning the state of Religion in England: written in French in the time of king Charles I. and now first translated. With a large dedication to the present pope, giving him a very particular account of the state of religion among protestants, and of several other matters of importance relating to Great Britain," 12mo. The dedication is supposed to have been written by Hoadly, bishop of Winchester. The same year still, he published "A Letter from the earl of Mar to the king before his majesty's arrival in England;" and the year following, a second volume of "The Englishman." In 1718, came out "An Account of his Fish-pool:" he had obtained a patent for bringing fish to market alive; for Steele was a projector, and that was one circumstance, among many, which kept him always poor. In 1719, he published "The Spinster," a pamphlet; and "A Letter to the earl of Oxford, concerning the bill of peerage," which bill he opposed in the House of Commons. In 1720, he wrote two pieces against the South Sea scheme; one called "The Crisis of Property," the other "A Nation a Family."
In Jan. 1720, he began a paper under the name of sir John Edgar, called "The Theatre;" which he continued every Tuesday and Saturday, till the 5th of April following. During the course of this paper, viz. on the 23d of January, his patent of governor of the royal company of comedians was revoked by the king: upon which, he drew up and published, "A State of the Case between the lord chamberlain of his majesty's household and the governor of the royal company of comedians." He tells us, in this pamphlet, that a noble lord, without any cause assigned, sends a message, directed to sir Richard Steele, Mr. Wilks, and Mr. Booth, to dismiss Mr. Cibber, who for some time submitted to a disability of appearing on the stage, during the pleasure of one who had nothing to do with it; and that, when this lawless will and pleasure was changed a very frank declaration was made, that all the mortification put upon Mr. Cibber was intended only as a prelude to remote evils, by which the patentee was to be affected. Upon this, sir Richard wrote to two of the ministers of state, and likewise delivered a petition to the king, in the presence of the lord chamberlain but these had no effect, for his patent was revoked, though it does not appear for what reason; and the loss he sustained upon this occasion is computed by himself at almost £10,000. In 1722, his comedy, called "The Conscious Lovers," was acted with great success; and published with a dedication to the king, for which his majesty made him a present of £500.
Some years before his death, he retired to his seat at Llangunnor, near Caermarthen, in Wales, with a view to oeconomise for the benefit of his creditors. Here he was seized with a paralytic disorder, of which he died Sept. 1, 1729, and was privately interred according to his own desire. He had been twice married: his first wife was a lady of Barbadoes, with whom he had a valuable plantation upon the death of her brother; his second was the daughter of Jonathan Scurlock, of Llangunnor, esq. by whom he had one daughter and two sons; the latter both died young, but the daughter, Elizabeth, was in 1732 married to the hon. John Trevor, afterwards baron Trevor of Bromham. Steele was a man of quick and excellent parts, accomplished in all branches of polite literature; and would have passed for a better writer than he does, though he is allowed to be a very good one, if he had not been so connected in literary productions, as well as in friendship, with Addison. He speaks himself of their friendship in the following terms "There never was a more strict friendship than between these gentlemen; nor had they ever any difference, but what proceeded from their different way of pursuing the same thing. The one with patience, foresight, and temperate address, always waited and stemmed the torrent; while the other often plunged himself into it, and was as often taken out by the temper of him who stood weeping on the bank for his safety, whom he could not dissuade from leaping into it. Thus these two men lived for some years last past, shunning each other, but still preserving the most passionate concern for their mutual welfare. But when they met, they were as unreserved as boys, and talked of the greatest affairs; upon which they saw where they differed, without pressing (what they knew impossible) to convert each other."