Signal Like Its 1711: James Addison on Partisan Signaling, 18th Century Style

Portrait of Joseph Addison (1672-1719), by Godfrey Kneller, c. 1712

Image source: Wikimedia

I sometimes complain  that 21st century American political culture has been hijacked by hyper-partisan signaling. It is easy to forget that this is not a new complaint. You can find political signaling spirals rearing their ugly head many times in humanity’s past–at the height of the antebellum republic’s Second Party system, during the intense debates of the Four Colors of Joseon Korea, and of course, in Early Modern England:

My worthy Friend Sir Roger, when we are talking of the Malice of Parties, very frequently tells us an Accident that happened to him when he was a School-boy, which was at a time when the Feuds ran high between the Round-heads and Cavaliers. This worthy Knight being then but a Stripling, had Occasion to enquire which was the Way to St. Ann’s Lane, upon which the Person whom he spoke to, instead of answering his Question, called him a young Popish Cur, and asked him who had made Ann a Saint? The Boy being in some Confusion, enquired of the next he met, which was the way to Ann’s Lane, but was called a Prick-eared Curr for his Pains, and instead of being shown the Way was told, that she had been a Saint before he was born, and would be one after he was hang’d. Upon this, says Sir Roger, I did not think fit to repeat the former Question, but going into every Lane of the Neighbourhood, asked what they called the Name of that Lane. By which ingenious Artifice he found out the Place he enquired after, without giving Offence to any Party. [1]

 That is an excerpt from Joseph Addison’s essay, Spectator 145, published first in a Whig daily named the Spectator on the 14th of July, 1711. Mr. Addison was one of the most talented essayists of the 18th century, praised by his contemporary Samuel Johnson with the words: “whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.” [2]

 But Addison was not just a gifted writer. He was also a bitter enemy to all displays of “Party Spirit” — what today we would call ‘partisanship.’  The noxious influence  hackery has on human life is a constant theme of his works. The “Malice of Parties,” Addison rightly understood, is that in an age where the “Party Spirit” reigns all of life takes on a political cast. Everything we do–what we wear, who we spend our time with, the words we speak–inescapably becomes a political statement. The humorous story Addison relates above shows how tiring it can be navigate a world where every word is politically loaded. Anyone who has tried to draft a press release for today’s politically correct public can relate.  Indeed, what is most striking about Addison’s complaints is how modern they sound. Consider his thoughts on how political signaling deforms good taste:

If this Party Spirit has so ill an Effect on our Morals, it has likewise a very great one upon our Judgments. We often hear a poor insipid Paper or Pamphlet cryed up, and sometimes a noble Piece depretiated by those who are of a different Principle from the Author. One who is actuated by this Spirit is almost under an Incapacity of discerning either real Blemishes or Beauties. A Man of Merit in a different Principle, is like an Object seen in two different Mediums, that appears crooked or broken, however streight and entire it may be in it self. For this Reason there is scarce a Person of any Figure in England who does not go by two contrary Characters, as opposite to one another as Light and Darkness. Knowledge and Learning suffer in a particular manner from this strange Prejudice, which at present prevails amongst all Ranks and Degrees in the British Nation.

As Men formerly became eminent in learned Societies by their Parts and Acquisitions, they now distinguish themselves by the Warmth and Violence with which they espouse their respective Parties. Books are valued upon the like Considerations: An Abusive, Scurrilous Style passes for Satyr, and a dull Scheme of Party Notions is called fine Writing. [3]

An “abusive, scurrilous style passes for satire.”  If that doesn’t describe 21st century America, what does?

Joseph Addison’s full essay can be read online here. It is only a few pages long, but every page has a passage or two whose parallels with modern life pop to your attention. Reading it is worth a few minutes of your time.


[1]  Joseph Addison, Cato: A Tragedy and Selected Essays, ed. Christine Dunn Henderson and Mark E. Yellin (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2004), 123.

[2] Samuel Johnson, “Life of Addison, 1672-1719” in Harvard Classics, vol 27: English Essays, Sidney to Macaulay (New York:, 2001), or. published in Johnson’s Life of the Poets (1783).

[3] Addison, Cato: A Tragedy and Selected Essays, 125

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Just what I needed to read. Thank you.

@ Lex: You have the unique ability to be involved in party politics, and, yet, remain decent and human. I don't do well with partisanship. It brings out the worst in me.

I do better with quiet academic things.

It's a gift you have, Lex.

– Madhu