PhD Thesis Overview

‘A Certain Design’: The Partisan Strategy of Joseph Addison’s The Free-Holder

My PhD thesis revisits Joseph Addison’s critically neglected periodical, The Free-Holder, which was originally published twice weekly between the 23rd December 1715 and the 29th June 1716. Prioritising The Free-Holder’s status as a literary text my project reads the paper for the first time a midst early eighteenth-century theories of politeness and alongside contemporaneous partisan print. It argues that Addison pragmatically invents and employs a polite approach which, by disguising acts of re-appropriation as reconciliation, enables him to commit extraordinary acts of political violence on behalf of the Whig ministry; experimenting with a burgeoning form of ‘style politics’ which has subsequently come to characterise the political world of today.

As a Whig paper ostensibly published in defence of George I, The Free-Holder suffered at the hands of the Tory critique, with Samuel Johnson inflicting lasting damage with his summation that the paper contains ‘some strokes less elegant, and less decent’, with a tone that is too ‘savage’ and ‘mean’ for the ‘the delicacy of Addison’. Since the paper demands a high level of political literacy it is often pigeon holed as propaganda and as such is yet to be considered on the grounds of its literary merit. James Lehay’s annotated edition of the papers (the only critical edition of The Free-Holder to appear in the twentieth-century) considers its Whig funding and its appearance in the winter of 1715 and reductively determines that it is primarily composed as ‘anti-Jacobite propaganda’; adding that whilst it might be useful to students of political history it does not ‘deserve a new edition for its literary merit.’

This thesis argues, however, that it is only in appreciating the paper’s literary content that its true strategy can be explored and properly understood.

A detailed stylistic analysis of The Free-Holder immediately reveals a series of striking and unacknowledged facets to Addison’s approach. First, despite its partisan origins it makes very little reference to its own Whig identity and certainly never attacks Tory voters. Secondly, it employs rhetoric that was not only associated with the opposing Tory party but had appeared in their own press, poetry and propaganda. In examining these tendencies this thesis argues that Addison is not only addressing the Whig party faithful, as has previously been assumed, but also any floating voters or inquiring members of the opposition. It suggests that Addison makes The Free-Holder deliberately attractive to Tory readers in order to appropriate and re-figure Tory ideology, ultimately explaining to them that they are ‘Whigs in their heart.’

The project concludes that The Free-Holder’s suggests that the appropriation of oppositional ideas can prove a ‘polite’ means of achieving the ‘harmony’ that Addison claims to strive for. It demonstrates that it is Addison’s ambition to reclaim the act of changing sides from any dubious amoral connotations and instead brand it as an act of politeness, enabling any Tory readers who have been swayed by his arguments to convert from Tory to Whig without any need for guilt, shame or embarrassment. Politeness and harmony are used repeatedly by Addison to reassure his readers that there are no serious moral or ethical implications to siding with the opposition. Despite its poses of partisan disinterestedness The Free-Holder’s true goal is partisan: to facilitate the conversion of the opposition. My thesis as a whole has proved that Addison ultimately precedents political effectiveness above personal integrity in such a way that might be considered now as being far more problematic and ethically dubious than he ever suggests.

That he uses a discourse of politeness to recommend this approach and enact a deeply persuasive act of partisan manipulation through appropriation and ‘friendliness’ is also significant; dirtying what might previously have been considered an amiable discourse, ideology and behaviour and contributing to a suspicion of politicians and political rhetoric which still resonates today.

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2 thoughts on “PhD Thesis Overview

  1. Pingback: Literature of the Country House | Adam James Smith

  2. Pingback: The North in the Long Eighteenth Century: Upcoming Conference | Adam James Smith

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