Daniel Defoe--Dissenter, polemicist, pen for hire, secret Crown agent, and novelist.
Daniel Defoe is best remembered as one of the inventors of the English novel. Robinson Crusoe was once a must read adventure for any boy back in the quaint days when boys read books instead of slaying zombies on electronic devices and smart phones.
But the English writer had a long career before turning to fiction, dabbling in religious dissent, politics, court intrigues, and what occasionally passed as sedition.
He was born in St Giles-without-Cripplegate parish in London about 1660. The exact date is unknown because parish records were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. That exciting event had the upside of ending the Great Plague of the year before by killing or chasing away the rats that caused it. Defoe survived both calamities, as he would the attack of the Dutch fleet on Chatham in 1667. His mother died when he was about ten, so his childhood was marked with unusual drama.
As a child Defoe survived the death of his mother, the Black Death, the Great Fire of London, and the attack of the Dutch fleet on Chatham.
He was groomed by his father as a Dissenter destined for the Presbyterian Ministry. Despite his interest in religion and his support for the plight of his persecuted co-religionists, Defoe opted for a career as a merchant dealing hosiery, general woolen goods, and wine. He was moderately successful, but often attracted attention for the labors of his pen.
In 1685 he became embroiled in the Monmouth Rebellion against the ascension of Catholic James II to the throne. When that was crushed he was saved from the Bloody Assizes of Judge Jeffreys in which 320 people were condemned to death and around 800 sentenced to be transported to the West Indies by obtaining a pardon through some political connections.
Defoe naturally became an eager supporter of William of Orange when he invaded England in 1688 and regained the Crown for the Protestants. He rose in prominence as one of William III most vocal public defenders and was rewarded by a lucrative appointment as a tax collector in addition to being secretly funded out of the King’s private purse for his political pamphleteering.
He went into overdrive in support of the King’s establishment of a standing army in preparation for war with France and for satirical attacks on xenophobic complaints that the King was not really English.
When William died in 1702 the Crown slipped into the hands of Queen Anne, the last of the Stuart dynasty who sided with the emerging Tories in purging William’s “foreign” policies and in supporting the Established Church by the suppression of dissenters. That was Defoe on two counts.
After he published the satirical pamphlet The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters; Or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church in 1703 he was slapped in irons and brought before the notorious Judge Salathiel Lovell at the Old Bailey who sentenced him to a heavy punitive fine, public humiliation in a pillory, and indeterminate imprisonment until the fine was paid. Before he could be put on public display, Defoe managed to smuggle out of prison a poem, Hymn to the Pillory, which was circulated as a broadside and stirred up public sympathy for his plight.
Some scholars doubt the absolute truth of the legend. Others support it. It became widely celebrated anyway. Defoe lived a dream of many dissenting writers and activists of all ages—a mild martyrdom followed by public adulation.
After three days in the Stocks, he was taken to Newgate Prison. It looked like his residency there would be prolonged since he had no way to discharge the heavy fines against him. Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford a leading Tory, however, saw Defoe’s potential usefulness. Not only did he broker his release from prison, but he also helped pay some of Defoe’s substantial personal debts as well. In exchange, the writer went into the private service of Harley, and by extension, the Queen. He became, essentially, a secret agent and paid propagandist.
Defoe's The Storm was a pioneering example of long-form journalism and is still relied on as the most important record of the Great Storm of 1703.
Before taking up his pen for his new employers however, Defoe survived yet another disaster, the Great Storm of 1703 which damaged London and Bristol, uprooted millions of trees, and killed over 8,000 people. His account, The Storm, is sometimes regarded as the mother of modern journalistic reporting encompassing eyewitness accounts, scientific analysis of the event and is causes, and documentation of damage and deaths.
Defoe really proved his value to the Tories when he came to the defense of the Act of Union which consolidated the English and Scottish crowns and essentially created a new, united nation. Defoe published, edited, and wrote most of a new periodical, The Review, which became the unofficial mouthpiece of the government. In 1709 he had a thick tome, The History Of The Union Of Great Britain printed in Edinburgh in defense of the Union to skeptical Scots.
As a well known Presbyterian, he became an emissary to the Calvinist Church of Scotland whose ministers were leery of being supplanted by the established English Church. They, in turn, made him their official emissary to the Crown government. They never suspected that he was a paid double agent.
By now supple in response to shifting politics, when Queen Anne died and the Whigs rose to power in 1714 under George I and the new Hanoverian dynasty, Defoe seamlessly transformed his allegiances back to his former allies and continued to work clandestinely for the new government, often by posing as a Tory with outlandish opinions.
The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was an early English novel and Defoe's most enduring creation.
Defoe drifted away from polemics in the later years of his life. Not only did he turn out novels like Robinson Crusoe and the ribald classic Moll Flanders, but he also published a ground-breaking travelogue that also doubled as an examination of the commerce, trade, and economy of the united realm, A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain and several nonfiction works on a wide variety of topics.
In his lifetime Defoe is thought to have authored more than 300 books and pamphlets and used a known 198 pen names.
Despite his successes he died while hiding from creditors on April 21, 1731 at about 71 years of age. It was pretty long run for a guy with a penchant for disasters and intrigue.