Addison, Joseph (1672–1719), writer and politician, was born 1 May 1672 at Milston, near Amesbury, Wiltshire, England, eldest son of Lancelot Addison (1632–1703), vicar of Milston and chaplain to Charles II and James II (qv), and his wife, Jane (née Gulston). Initially educated at Lichfield Grammar School, he proceeded to Charterhouse, in London (where he first met Irishman Richard Steele (qv)), before entering Oxford in 1687. He received his BA (1691) and MA (1694) before becoming a fellow of Magdalen College from 1697 to 1711.
Addison established his reputation as a Latin poet in the 1690s, while still at Oxford, before going on a six-year grand tour in 1698. On his return to England (1704) he became a member of the whiggish Kit-Kat Club. In 1705 he was rewarded for writing a commemorative poem on Marlborough's (qv) victory at Blenheim, with a position as under-secretary of state in the southern department. In the 1708 election he was returned to Westminster for the constituency of Lostwithiel, through the influence of Charles Spencer, Lord Sunderland. In January 1709 he was appointed as the chief secretary to the newly appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland, Thomas, Lord Wharton (qv). They were regarded as strange partners in the administration of Ireland, considering the contrast between Addison's shy retiring personality and Wharton's licentious behaviour.
On his arrival in Dublin, he was elected to a vacant borough seat at Cavan, probably through the influence of St George Ashe (qv), bishop of Clogher. He did not take a lead role in the management of the Irish house of commons, perhaps because of his quiet manner, and was only nominated to nine committees during the 1709 and 1710 parliamentary sessions. He was, however, an astute observer of the Irish political scene, something that is reflected in his letters to his whig masters Sunderland and Godolphin in London. His unobtrusive personality allowed him to remain on good terms with both the whig and tory factions in the Irish house of commons. He also played a central role in the settlement of 2,000 Palatine refugees in Co. Limerick. He supplemented his £2,000 a year income as chief secretary, with his appointment (1709) as keeper of the records in Bermingham Tower. He was allowed to keep this sinecure, worth £400 a year, following his removal from office as chief secretary in 1710 by the new tory administration. In the same year he was returned for one of Wharton's boroughs, Malmesbury, after he was unseated at Lostwithiel following a successful petition against his election.
Addison's greatest claim to fame are his writings in first the Tatler (1709–10) and then the Spectator (1711–12), which mixed polite philosophy with social satire. The Tatler, written in conjunction with Richard Steele, began during Addison's time in Ireland. It ran to 271 issues, and after its first year was selling approximately 3,000 copies per issue. Addison made his first contribution on 20 May 1709, and contributed about fifty papers on his own, as well as a further twenty in collaboration with Steele. The Spectator ran to 555 issues, and had a circulation of approximately 4,000 copies. It revolutionised periodical writing in England, coming out six times a week. The authorship was shared between Addison and Steele. In 1712 Addison turned to writing plays, producing a politically charged play, ‘Cato’, in that year, which enjoyed both controversy and success. Addison's works were collected after his death, and were published in London and Dublin in four volumes; the latter edition was produced in 1722–3, a testament to his continued popularity in Dublin.
Addison was a staunch whig during the reign of Queen Anne, and following the accession of George I (1714), much to his disappointment, he was appointed Irish chief secretary a second time. This time neither Addison, nor the new lord lieutenant, Charles Spencer (1674–1722), earl of Sunderland, travelled to Ireland. Despite this, together with Sunderland, he played a prominent role in overseeing the purge of tory officeholders in Ireland. His knowledge of Irish affairs and personages, from his time in Dublin, proved invaluable in carrying out this task. In particular, he kept up a lengthy correspondence with William King (qv), archbishop of Dublin, who was acting as a particularly energetic lord justice. Addison also secured the position of under-secretary for Ireland for his cousin Eustace Budgell (1686–1737).
Addison lost his place as chief secretary in 1715, after Sunderland refused to travel to Ireland. He returned to a position of influence when he was appointed secretary of state for the southern department (1717–18). He died 17 June 1719, at the age of 47, and was survived by his wife, Charlotte Rich (née Myddleton), countess of Warwick, whom he had married (1716) in London, and his daughter (also Charlotte). His chief residence was at Bilton Hall near Rugby. While in Ireland, he lodged in Dublin. There is a portrait by Kneller in the National Portrait Gallery, London.