Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Addison's play inspired American Revolution

Joseph Addison
It is the birthday of English essayist and playwright Joseph Addison (1672), whose play, Cato (1712), is believed to be a literary inspiration for the American Revolution. The play, which concerns the Roman statesman's final days, was popular in Britain, Ireland, and the American colonies. George Washington is said to have performed it for the Continental Army at Valley Forge. Scholars note that Patrick Henry's famous proclamation, "Give me liberty or give me death" is certainly a reference to a line in the play as is Nathan Hale's vow "I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." Indeed, George Washington wrote in a letter praising Benedict Arnold (an act he no doubt later regretted) that "It is not in the power of any man to command success; but you have done more—you have deserved it," which scholars believe is a reference to "Tis not in mortals to command success; but we'll do more, Sempronius, we'll deserve it." The play is set at Utica as Cato the Younger awaits the arrival of Julius Caesar after Caesar's victory at Thapsus. Cato struggles with his personal beliefs in individual liberty and republicanism in the face of Caesar's tyrannical rule. In the end, Cato kills himself rather than live under Caesar's despotism. Addison also was known as an essayist. He helped his childhood friend Richard Steele start The Spectator, a daily sheet intended to make the discussion of philosophical issues accessible to the educated public in coffeehouses, clubs and at tea. The publication had a press run of about 3,000 copies but Addison estimated that the readership was far greater—about 60,000—because readers devoured them in subscribing coffeehouses. Maybe they also found Addison's work accessible because of his relaxed conversational writing style. Indeed, he earned the censure of renowned writers of the day for consistently ending a sentence with a preposition.

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