Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Born Daniel Foe, the son of James Foe, a butcher in Stoke Newington, London. He later added the aristocratic sounding "De" to his name as a nom de plume. He became a famous pamphleteer, journalist and novelist at a time of the birth of the novel in the English language, and thus fairly ranks as one of its progenitors.
Defoe's pamphleteering and political activities resulted in his arrest and placement in a pillory on July 31, 1703, principally on account of a pamphlet entitled "The Shortest Way with Dissenters", in which he ruthlessly satirised the High church Tories, purporting to argue for the extermination of dissenters. The publication of his poem Hymn to the Pillory, however, caused his audience at the pillory to throw flowers instead of the customary harmful and noxious objects, and to drink to his health.
After his three days in the pillory Defoe went into Newgate Prison. Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, brokered his release in exchange for Defoe's co-operation as an intelligence agent. He set up his periodical A Review of the Affairs of France in 1704, supporting the Harley ministry. The Review ran without interruption until 1713. When Harley lost power in 1708 Defoe continued writing it to support Godolphin, then again to support Harley and the Tories in the Tory ministry of 1710 to 1714. After the Tories fell from power with the death of Queen Anne, Defoe continued doing intelligence work for the Whig government.
Defoe's famous novel Robinson Crusoe (1719), tells of a man's shipwreck on a desert island and his subsequent adventures. The author may have based his narrative on the true story of the shipwreck of Alexander Selkirk. (See Robinson Crusoe: Selkirk as the inspiration for Crusoe).
Defoe's next novel was Captain Singleton (1720), amazing for its portrayal of the redemptive power of one man's love for another. Hans Turley has recently shown how Quaker William's love turns Captain Singleton away from the murderous life of a pirate, and the two make a solemn vow to live as a male couple happily ever after in London, disguised as Greeks and never speaking English in public, with Singleton married to William's sister as a ruse.
He also wrote Moll Flanders (1722), a picaresque first-person narration of the fall and eventual redemption of a lone woman in 17th century England. She appears as a whore, bigamist and thief, lives in The Mint, commits adultery and incest, yet manages to keep the reader's sympathy. Both this work and Roxana, The Fortunate Mistress (1724) offer remarkable examples of the way in which Defoe seems to inhabit his fictional (yet "drawn from life") characters, not least in that they are women.
Defoe and the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707
No fewer than 545 titles, ranging from satirical poems, political and religious pamphlets and volumes have been ascribed to Defoe. His ambitious business ventures saw him bankrupt by 1692, with a wife and seven children to support. In 1703 he published an ironic attack on the high Tories, and was prosecuted for seditious libel, sentenced to be pilloried, fined 200 marks, and be detained at the Queen’s pleasure. In despair he wrote to William Paterson, the London Scot, and founder of the Bank of England and part instigator of the Darien Disaster, who was in the confidence of Robert Hartley, leading Minister and spymaster in the English Government. Hartley accepted Defoe’s services and released him in 1703. He immediately published The Review, which appeared weekly, then three times a week, written mostly by himself. This was the main mouthpiece of the Government promoting the Act of Union 1707.
Defoe began his campaign in The Review and other pamphlets aimed at English opinion, claiming correctly that it would end the threat from the North, gaining for the Treasury an “inexhaustible treasury of men” a valuable new market increasing the power of England. By September 1706 Hartley ordered Defoe to Edinburgh as a secret agent, to do everything possible to help secure acquiescence of the Treaty. He was very conscious of the risk to himself. Thanks to books such The Letters of Daniel Defoe, (edited by GH Healey, Oxford 1955) which are readily far more is known about his activities than is usual with such agents.
His first reports were of vivid descriptions of violent demonstrations against the Union. "A Scots rabble is the worst of its kind," he reported. Years later John Clerk of Penicuik, a leading Unionist, wrote in his memoirs that,
- "He was a spy among us, but not known as such, otherwise the Mob of Edinburgh would pull him to pieces."
Defoe being a Presbyterian, who suffered in England for his convictions, was accepted as an adviser to the Assembly of the Church and Parliamentary Committees. He told Hartley that he was "privy to all their folly", but "Perfectly unsuspected as with corresponding with anybody in England." He was then able to influence the proposals that were put to Parliament and reported back:
- "Having had the honour to be always sent for the committee to whom these amendments were referr’d, I have had the good fortune to break their measures in two particulars via the bounty on Corn and proportion of the Excise."
For Scotland he used different arguments, even the opposite of those he used in England, for example, usually ignoring the English doctrine of the Sovereignty of Parliament, telling the Scots that they could have complete confidence in the guarantees in the Treaty. Some of his pamphlets were purported to be written by Scots, misleading even reputable historians into quoting them as evidence of Scottish opinion of the time. The same is true of a massive history of the Union which Defoe published in 1709 and which some historians still treat as a valuable contemporary source for their own works. Defoe took pains to give his history an air of objectivity by giving some space to arguments against the Union, but always having the last word for himself.
He disposed of the main Union opponent, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, by just ignoring him. Nor does he account for the deviousness of the Duke of Hamilton, the official leader of the Squadrone Volante against the Union, who finally acted against his comrades in the decisive stages of the debate. Hamilton was to lead an Anti-Union Rebellion of 1708, where Covenanters had marched from Galloway (and were betrayed at Dumfries) to unite with Jacobites at Edinburgh. A Highland Army camped outside Edinburgh were given the keys by the town guard to let them in. The Illustrious Duke failed to turn up, due to a toothache, and the French frigates in the Forth had to turn back.
Defoe made no attempt to explain why the same Scottish Parliament which was so vehement for its Independence from 1703 to 1705 became so supine in 1706. He received very little reward from his paymasters and, of course, no recognition for his services by the government. He made use of his Scottish experience to write his Tour thro’ the whole Island of Great Britain, published in 1726, where he actually admitted that the increase of trade and population in Scotland, which he had predicted as a consequence of the Union, was “not the case, but rather the contrary.”
Defoe’s description of Glasgow (Glaschu) as a “Dear Green Place” has often been misquoted as a Gaelic translation for the town. The Gaelic Glas could mean grey or green, chu means dog or hollow. Glaschu probably actually means 'Green Hollow'. The "Dear Green Place", like much of Scotland, was a hotbed of unrest against the Union. The local Tron minister urged his congregation "to up and anent for the City of God". The 'Dear Green Place' and “City of God” required government troops to put down the rioters tearing up copies of the Treaty, as at almost every mercat cross in Scotland.
When Defoe revisited in the mid 1720’s he claimed that the hostility towards his party was, “because they were English and because of the Union, which they were almost universally exclaimed against.”
- "One day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man's naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen on the sand." – from Robinson Crusoe
- Wherever God erects a house of prayer
- The Devil always builds a chapel there;
- And 'twill be found, upon examination,
- The latter has the largest congregation.
- – (from The True-Born Englishman, 1701)
These works of Daniel Defoe are freely available in electronic form from Project Gutenberg:
- The Life and Most Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe
- The Consolidator
- Dickory Croncke
- An Essay Upon Projects
- Everybody's Business Is Nobody's Business
- The Fortunes And Misfortunes Of The Famous Moll Flanders
- From London To Land's End
- The Further Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe
- A Journal Of The Plague Year
- The Life, Adventures & Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton
- Of Captain Mission
- Tour through Eastern Counties of England, 1722
- Memoirs of a Cavalier
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