Daniel 'The True-Born Englishman' Defoe (1660-1731)

Daniel Defoe was born in London in 1660, probably in September, third child and first son of James and Mary Defoe1. Daniel received a very good education, as his father hoped he would become a minister2, but Daniel wasn't interested. His family were Dissenters, Presbyterians to be precise, and those sects were being persecuted a bit at this time, so maybe Daniel had the right idea. He was always very tolerant of others' religious ideas himself.

His mother died when he was ten, and his father sent him to a boarding school, after which he attended Morton's Academy, as he could not graduate from Oxford or Cambridge without taking an oath of loyalty to the Church of England. He was a very good student, and his teacher, the Reverend Mr. Norton himself, would later show up as a character in some of Daniel's fiction. Daniel graduated in 1679, and by then he'd pretty much decided against the ministry, though he wrote and spoke in favor of the Dissenters all his life3.

By 1683, Daniel was a successful young merchant, with a storefront in an upscale part of London and no real ideas of becoming a writer at all. On New Year's Day, 1684, he married Mary Tuffley, an heiress whose dowry amounted to £3,7004. Later that year, he joined the army of the rebel Duke of Monmouth, who was attempting to take the throne from James II5. When the rebellion failed, Daniel and many other troops were forced into semi-exile. He traveled around the continent for three years, off and on, as both tourist and merchant, and wrote very dangerous, very anti-James II pamphlets. Daniel was very pleased when William and Mary took charge, and wrote in favor of William in particular, but he was in the minority there.

Daniel went bankrupt in 1692. He ended up owing over £17,000, and though he paid off all but £5,000 within ten years, he was never again free of debt6. Though he still considered himself a merchant, first and foremost, writing suddenly became a more prominent part of his life. In 1701, he wrote a poem7 called The True-Born Englishman which became the best-selling poem ever at that time. It was so well-known that he signed several of his later works as The True-Born Englishman, and everyone knew exactly what that meant. Still, it was only a pamphlet, which made Daniel the lowest form of writer as far as his contemporaries were concerned. He also started taking on a few "unofficial" government jobs8, most notably an assignment to Scotland. There was at that time a movement to finally unify England and Scotland, a movement which was very misunderstood by the average Scotsman. So Daniel tried to explain things to them calmly.

There's really no way of telling how well the Scotland thing worked. The next real event in his life was when he was pillioried in July 17039. His crime, posted on a sign above his head, was that he wrote a pamphlet called The Shortest Way with the Dissenters. You may recall that Daniel himself had been labelled a Dissenter. This pamphlet, in true Jonathan Swift-style, made several outrageous suggestions for dealing with Dissenters, particularly those who practiced "occasional conformity"10. It sold well, and the High Flyers (the group which persecuted the Dissenters the most) in particular loved it, until someone told them it was satirical. Then they had Daniel pillioried11. It wasn't quite as nasty of a punishment as it could have been, though--the crowd respected their True-Born Englishman too much to throw rotten tomatoes at him, the usual custom. He was the only person ever pillioried who later went on to become a national hero.

He'd also gotten another prison term, though, and that was a problem. His business failed while he was in Newgate. Desparate to get back on his feet to support his wife and six children12, he contacted Robert Harley, Speaker of Parliament, whom Daniel probably knew from his spying days. Robert appreciated Daniel's usefulness as a writer and manipulator of popular opinion. From then on, Daniel had a steady job as a pamphleteer for all kinds of ministries, Tory and Whig alike.

In 1706, he returned to Scotland and started up a newspaper in Edinburgh called the Post-Man13, which of course tried to put the still-under-construction unification plans in the best possible light. But Daniel, in his eternal quest for truth, actually bothered to learn about Scotland and its people, a rather unusual thing for that time. He also set up a really impressive intelligence-gathering network. The Act of Union was made official on 1 May 1707, and Daniel was out of one job. But he still had his pamphlets to fall back on, so things were all right.

The first volume of Robinson Crusoe was published on 25 April 171914, and it was a big hit, especially with the lower and middle classes. Since that one worked so well, Daniel published Moll Flanders in 1722, drawing heavily on his experiences in Newgate prison to add realism15. This novel got him the label of a social historian, much, much later, of course. The point was, the public ate up this kind of thing, and Daniel wrote lots of it. He also worked for a publisher named Mr. Applebee between 1720 and 1726, who liked to publish lives of condemned criminals. Daniel used to go to prison cells and even the scaffold to receive manuscripts for these lives from the criminals themselves16. He sometimes goofed up on dates and numbers, but all of these lives are wonderful studies of character and society, though often a bit too heavy on the moral lessons by today's standards.

Daniel wrote on various economic issues of the day, as well as on the problems of long-term colonization and exploration, showing that he really was paying a lot of attention to everything. He even wrote a travel book, A Tour Thro' the whole Island of Great Britain, which was highly unusual for the time in that he'd actually travelled to the places he wrote about. He was really kind of a Renaissance man, I suppose, though he didn't quite live in the right time period for that. He died in Cripplegate on 24 April 1731, of a lethargy17.

Moore, John Robert. Daniel Defoe: Citizen of the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

  1. Also known as Foe, Fooe, De Fooe, etc., etc.

  2. This is an extremely common pattern, parents wanting a minister and getting a writer instead. I'm not really sure what it might mean.

  3. This was both a very magnanimous and very foolish thing for him to do. Daniel had a nasty habit of always trying to stick closely to the truth, which was not looked at favorably at this time.

  4. It was a love match. Everyone said so.

  5. Being Scottish, James was rather unpopular. Unfortunately for the Duke of Monmouth, he wasn't so unpopular that people were willing to risk their necks fighting him.

  6. He was jailed at least seven times for debt, once for four months. Debtors' prison was a terrible place. If you wanted luxuries like bedding, candles, or food, you had to pay the guards for them. After a while, the guards started charging so much that no one could afford to pay them anymore, so the guards started letting prisoners go overnight so they could get more money however they could. Kinda like Dukakis.

  7. I know, I know, no one ever thinks of poetry when they think of Daniel. At least, you shouldn't, because he always freely admitted that he wasn't a very good poet. This was really his only published verse.

  8. The kind where if you're caught, the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.

  9. You know, where your neck and wrists get clamped between two pieces of wood. This form of punishment is best remembered today from various entertainment industry depictions of the Salem Witch Trials and stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

  10. This meant they were Dissenters who became good members of the Church of England whenever anybody was looking. Daniel didn't think much of that practice.

  11. Actually, it took them a good six months just to catch him . After that thing with the Duke of Monmouth, he'd gotten pretty good at hiding.

  12. He wasn't in prison all the time.

  13. He's often called the father of modern journalism. He once used interviews and his own observations to print a journalistic account of a huge tempest which hit England in November 1703, also making him the father of the modern disaster movie.

  14. It's been argued that this was the first true English novel, though some vote for Pilgrim's Progress, by Bunyan. I prefer to stay out of discussions like that.

  15. He figured he might as well get some use out of that frightful experience.

  16. These were manuscripts which Daniel himself wrote and smuggled to the prisoners so that they could hand them back to him while everyone was watching. I know, I know, that doesn't sound at all like Daniel's usual honest self, but maybe he just needed the money.

  17. No clue.

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