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1700's London Coffeehouse Culture

1700's London Coffeehouse Culture

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Published by jasper_gregory
Interesting study of print-mediated public sphere in 1700's London Coffeehouse Culture.
Interesting study of print-mediated public sphere in 1700's London Coffeehouse Culture.

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Published by: jasper_gregory on Mar 29, 2012
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 / Mr. Spectator and the Coffeehouse Public Sphere
Eighteenth-Century Studies,
vol. 37, no. 3 (2004) Pp. 345–366.
. S
Brian Cowan
is Assistant Professor of History at Yale University and the author of 
The Social Life of Coffee: Curiosity, Commerce and Civil Society in Early Modern Britain
(New Havenand London: Yale University Press, forthcoming).
 Brian Cowan
Recent critical and historical studies of post-Restoration England havebeen fascinated with the thought that the period saw the emergence of somethingcalled a “public sphere” and that the coffeehouse was a central locus for it. Jür-gen Habermas used the British “model case” as the prototype for his now famousthesis that a novel form of bourgeois public life (
bürgerliche Öffentlichkeit 
) de-veloped in the century preceding the French Revolution, and he used the historyof the coffeehouse in post-Restoration London as his prime example of the pre-cise sort of social form that this public sphere took.
In this influential account,the coffeehouse is portrayed as a social space dedicated to high-minded discourseon a wide range of affairs; it is also assumed to be open to any man who wantedto participate in the discussions conducted therein, regardless of social rank. Morerecent studies have tended to agree and have argued that coffeehouses were actu-ally more accessible than even Habermas assumed at first.
As such, the coffee-house offers the perfect example for what Habermas wanted to call his nascent“bourgeois public sphere.”One of the main sources for Habermas’s concept of the public sphere wasthe ideal image of coffeehouse society presented in the periodical journalism of  Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.
Habermas’s bourgeois public sphere origi-nated in what he thought was an increasing ability to distinguish between theprivate subject and public life. The public sphere constituted the forum in whichprivate subjects came together to exercise their reason: it was an “
Öffentlichkeit von Privatleuten
”—a public of private subjects. One of the most important meansby which this happened was through the development of a variety of new forms
Century Studie
37 / 3of social interchange and communication between these private subjects, coffee-houses, clubs, and the press being among the most prominent examples. For Hab-ermas, the “moral weeklies” (a misnomer since their papers were published asoften as three or six times a week) of Addison and Steele were central to theconstruction of a public sphere in the literary world—an apolitical
in his formulation—and they provided the template in England forwhat would later become a full blown “public sphere in the political realm” (
 poli-tische Öffentlichkeit 
). As such, this process offered the critical foundation for theexpression and legitimacy of a truly democratic, and a truly reasonable, publicopinion.
Habermas bases his judgment on the undeniable popularity of the worksof Addison and Steele. This much is clear. Their journals, the
(1711–14), and the
(1713) were an instant success in aliterary marketplace where periodical publications were by and large commer-cially unsuccessful and could be sustained only through partisan political patron-age.
Addison’s “modest computation” was that he could count on 60,000 to80,000 readers for each issue. The papers attracted avid subscribers among indi-viduals as well as coffeehouses that catered to large numbers of readers; Addisonestimated as many as twenty readers for each copy printed.
Copies of the
papers also circulated well outside metropolitan London. They were oftenenclosed in letters from metropolitan readers to their correspondents in the coun-tryside.
Within the first year of its publication, provincial societies had sprung upin order to encourage the reading of the
. With the approval of bothAddison and Steele, a “Gentleman’s Society” was founded on 3 November 1711in which a group of Spectatorial aficionados would gather together at Younger’sCoffeehouse in Spalding to read the paper and to discuss the moral lessons con-tained in each issue’s essay. Similar endeavors took place in Scotland as well.
The success, influence, and enduring popularity of the
and espe-cially the
papers are well known and indisputable. It is less obvious thatAddison and Steele were the champions of a public sphere as Habermas and hismany admirers would maintain.
This essay builds a case for concluding that theywere not so enthusiastic about the potential for public politics. “The
project,” as I shall call the collaborative periodical prose writing of Addison andSteele in the later years of Queen Anne’s reign, put the reform and the disciplineof public sociability at the heart of its agenda. A crucial aspect of this socialreform project was to close off and restrain, rather than to open up, venues forpublic debate and especially public debate on matters of political concern. Farfrom championing an easily accessible coffeehouse society, unrestrained newspa-per reading, and political debate in the public sphere, the
project aimedto reign in and discipline these practices. The Spectatorial public sphere, such as itwas, did not encourage or even condone Habermas’s “political public-ness” (
 poli-tische Öffentlichkeit 
), it sought to tame it and make it anodyne.This conclusion should be less surprising than it seems. Despite the ap-pearance of numerous recent studies detailing the putative rise of a public spherein post-Restoration England, it is difficult to find many outright and principleddefenders of such an ideal public sphere in the political culture of the time. Thiswas an issue upon which both Whigs and Tories could agree.
While both sides
 / Mr. Spectator and the Coffeehouse Public Spherewere willing to engage in practical political action in the public sphere—actionssuch as petitioning, coffeehouse debate, club organization, and especially the dis-semination of political propaganda—few Whigs or Tories were willing to counte-nance a normative public sphere in the Habermasian sense. The Spectatorial chal-lenge was aimed at precisely those social spaces and discursive practices thatHabermas singled out as the constitutive elements of his public sphere. Properlyunderstood in the mental world of the
project, the coffeehouse was notthe practical realization of the Habermasian public sphere, it was rather the seatof a whole host of anxieties about proper behavior in that public space. Coffee-house activities such as newspaper reading, political discussion, and club social-ization were all objects of the Spectatorial reform project. The object of this refor-mation was not the perpetuation of a rational public sphere. The goal was ratherto construct a social world that was amenable to the survival of Whig politicsduring a time in which the future of Whiggery was unclear.Although the Whiggery of Addison and Steele was well known in theirown day and continues so today, the precise nature of their partisan politics re-mains as opaque as it was when the papers were originally published. Some criticshave emphasized Addison’s and Steele’s nonpartisan moderation in their periodi-cal prose, while others have observed the “flagrantly partisan” Whiggery of theessays.
More recently, the papers have emerged in the work of Lawrence Kleinand others as the product of a new Whig ethic of “politeness.” Klein in particularhas cogently argued that the
project aimed to elevate the social status of the coffeehouse in the course of a Whig “struggle for politeness.”
This essayrefines Klein’s interpretation of Spectatorial Whiggery as part of a more generalculture of politeness by arguing that the
project, and the reform of coffeehouse society that it promoted, was a powerfully effective response to thecrisis of Whig political fortunes in the later years of Queen Anne’s reign. It alsoinsists that the Spectatorial essays of 1709–14 were a specific means of reacting tothe high Tory resurgence of those years.As such, the
project must be seen as distinct from the laterworks of both Addison and Steele and indeed the course of Whig politics in thelater eighteenth century. The argument of this essay does not extend its purviewto the equally contentious early years of George I’s reign, years which saw theindependent emergence of new periodical prose by both Addison and Steele. Theircollaboration came to an end after Addison contributed a couple of desultoryessays to Steeles journal
The Lover
(1714). Addison continued to produce essaysin journals such as the
(1715–16) and the
Old Whig 
(1719), whileSteele worked away at new projects such as
The Englishman
(1714–15), the
(1719), and several other periodicals. After the Hanoverian accession, Addisonand Steele would increasingly find themselves at odds with one another as Addi-son found himself attached to the post-junto Whig ministries of James Stanhopeand Robert Spencer, the second earl of Sunderland, while Steele sided with RobertWalpole’s Whig opposition. Addison profited from his patron first and took theoffice of secretary of state along with Sunderland in 1717. Steele’s allegiance wouldonly pay off after 1721, when Walpole became chancellor of the exchequer andsubsequently rewarded his ally with ministerial patronage.

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