Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731)

Today Daniel Defoe is known as the author of great novels--Robinson Crusoe (1719), Moll Flanders (1721), A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Roxana (1724), and others less well known. In his own time, however, his reputation was based on his nonfiction prose. The undisputed premier journalist of the early eighteenth century, he earned the title given him by the Moderator, "The Goliath of a party." At his death, his obituaries paid tribute to "Mr. Daniel Defoe, sen. a person well known for his numerous and various writings. He had a great natural genius; and understood very well the trade and interest of this Kingdom." None mentioned Robinson Crusoe, but his sacrifices for "civil and religious liberty" attracted notice.


Nineteenth-century writers consistently paid tribute to the man who was among the first to write "the doctrine on which ... all free political constitutions rest." They acknowledged "the debt which the people ... owe, not simply for the pleasure afforded by his incomparable works of imagination, but because of the long years of suffering which he endured on account of the ... heroic efforts that he made to place our religious and political freedom upon a true and lasting basis." We may have forgotten pamphlets like The Original Power of the Collective Body of the People of England (1702), but they were enthusiastically and frequently quoted for two centuries and echoes of them exist in, for instance, the United States Constitution.

Probably born in 1660, Defoe was the son of a City of London tallow chandler, James Foe, and his wife, Alice. Educated for the Nonconformist ministry at Charles Morton's respected Newington Green Academy, he decided to enter trade and became a hose factor. On 1 January 1684, he married the daughter of a wealthy cooper, Mary Tuffley, who brought him a ¬£3,700 dowry. The next year, he fought with James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, in the unsuccessful rebellion to establish a Protestant monarchy. Back in London, he expanded his business interests, which included investments in a diving bell, civet cats, international shipping, and land in Essex. By 1691 he was bankrupt. He settled with his creditors and slowly established a successful brick and tile works. In 1700 he published The True-Born Englishman , a poem that ridiculed those who rejected King William because he was Dutch. Defoe described the English as a mongrel race, the product of wave after wave of immigrants. He concluded, "A True Born Englishman's a Contradiction, / In Speech an Irony, in Fact a Fiction" and " 'Tis Personal Virtue only makes us great." The most popular poem of the Restoration and early eighteenth century, it went through ten authorized and at least twelve pirated editions in the first year and appeared in fifty editions by midcentury.

Defoe continued to write poetry and began to write political pamphlets. In 1702 he published The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, the pamphlet that led to his conviction for seditious libel and his pillory sentence. Because of his continued weaknesses as a businessman and the year (1703) he spent as a fugitive and then a prisoner in Newgate, he went bankrupt again. Robert Harley, secretary of state for the Northern Department, effected his release from prison in November 1703, and Defoe expected to become one of his agents. Employment from Harley was slow in coming, and, in order to support himself, his wife, and seven children, he began to write for money. His major effort was the Review, a periodical he wrote alone for nine years (19 February 1704-11 June 1713). Soon he reached an agreement with Harley. He traveled as a propagandist and opinion sampler for Harley in 1704 and 1705 and, in 1706, went to Scotland to work for the proposed union of England and Scotland.

He spent most of the next four years there and part of 1710-1712. During this time, he became the most prolific and feared propagandist of the century. With the accession of George I in 1714 and the more tranquil Hanoverian years, he largely turned from controversy to other kinds of writing. In April of 1719 he published Robinson Crusoe, and four editions of it sold before The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was published that August. In 1722 he produced Moll Flanders, A Journal of the Plague Year, and Col. Jack. His last novel, The Fortunate Mistress, the novel we call Roxana, came out in 1724. In the last fifteen years of his life, he published millions of words: histories, travel books, biographies, and proposals for improving society, morals, and the economy. He died on 24 April 1731 in his lodgings on Rope Maker's Alley, in the heart of the city he loved.

Exactly how much nonfiction prose Defoe wrote, we shall probably never know. Some of what has been attributed to him is disputed, and other things are surely skillful compilations rather than entirely original compositions. In 1981 Frank Bastian made a case for adding twenty-nine pieces, some long rejected by other Defoe experts, and, beginning in 1986, P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens have pointed out the inadequately argued attributions of other works. Careful cases for the exclusion of individual items have been made by J. A. Downie, Rodney Baine, Henry Snyder, and Pat Rogers. During the same years, others, most notably Maximillian E. Novak, have attributed or identified substantial works by Defoe. Novak, for instance, located the manuscript for the 1682 Historical Collections in the William Andrews Clark Library at the University of California, Los Angeles.

What it is safe to say is that Defoe, whose entry is the longest in the New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature , is surely a contender for the distinction of having been the most prolific nonfiction prose writer in all of British and American literature. Although few can name any of these pieces except, perhaps, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, during his entire life Defoe was more famous for his nonfiction than he was for his novels. Reputedly, his nonfiction writings are characteristically brief and journalistic. His periodical the Review and his political propaganda, much of it written in the years during which Jonathan Swift wrote The Examiner (1710-1711) and The Conduct of the Allies (1711), come to mind. This conception is wrong. Defoe's nonfiction pieces average nearly two hundred pages, and it would be as accurate to think of him as the writer of history, economics, and practical divinity as of political journalism.

It was Defoe's religion that drew him into writing. He was a Nonconformist, a Protestant "Dissenter" who refused the sacraments and membership in the Church of England. His earliest known pamphlet and his first published poem championed what he saw as the "Protestant interest." The pamphlet, A Letter to a Dissenter from his Friend at the Hague (1688), was part of the literature warning Dissenters that James II's Declaration of Indulgence was hypocritically manipulative and coercive. Defoe insisted that the true beneficiaries of the declaration would be Catholics and used insinuation to raise suspicion. He wrote, "There are many things which would make a wise man suspect that there is some farther Design than Liberty of Conscience in all this zeal for repealing the Penal Laws and Test."

From this time on, Defoe wrote numerous pamphlets each time significant legislation regarding the Dissenters came before Parliament. The majority of these pamphlets, then, cluster around 1702 (the time of the introduction of the Occasional Conformity Bill), 1710 (the time before its passage), 1714 (the passage of the Schism Bill), and 1717 (when Parliament considered restoring full rights to Dissenters).

Defoe's first criminal arrest resulted from these writings. Queen Anne began her reign in 1702 with several speeches asserting her desire to strengthen the Church of England. Commons responded with the Occasional Conformity Bill, and Defoe quickly published three pamphlets on the subject. An Enquiry into Occasional Conformity and The Opinion of a Known Dissenter on the Bill for Preventing Occasional Conformity argue that the bill is a matter of indifference to Dissenters because no true Dissenter is an Occasional Conformist. Defoe bluntly calls Occasional Conformity a sin, accuses those who practice it of "prostituting" their religion, and asks, "And how can you take it as a Civil Action in one place and a Religious Act in another? This is playing Bo peep with God Almighty...."

Defoe published the notorious pamphlet, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, to coincide with the House of Lords' debate on the Occasional Conformity Bill in December. The Shortest Way with the Dissenters imitated the immoderate language of High Church sermons and pamphlets. In this mock-sermon, the High Church persona argued that England should eliminate the Dissenters for the good of posterity and that the time was right; the metaphors, again taken from High Church rhetoric, described the Dissenters as butchers, rats, snakes, poison, weeds, and wounds. Unfortunately for Defoe the pamphlet was taken at face value by many people and acclaimed and quoted by the High Church. Soon the Tories who had approved so enthusiastically of The Shortest Way with the Dissenters learned that they had been tricked; they had been lured into revealing their fanaticism, and, as Defoe said later, "these Gentlemen are satyrs on themselves, by fixing the Characters, as things which must be suitable, since the likeness was such they could not know themselves from a Stranger."

The House of Commons ordered the pamphlet burned, and, in a separate criminal action, Defoe was indicted for seditious libel. As soon as he realized the effect of his satire, he tried to pacify the angry parties. A Brief Explanation of a late Pamphlet appeared in the first week of January 1703, and he wrote eight more essays and poems on the subject in the next year. One of these pamphlets pointed explicitly to his sources: The Shortest Way With the Dissenters. [Taken from Dr. Sach[evere]ll's Sermon, and Others.] These pamphlets of 1703 usefully explain many of Defoe's opinions about Nonconformity and show him developing sensitivity to the complex relationships between government and press, politics and journalism.

Each time the Bill for Preventing Occasional Conformity came up for debate, Defoe contributed to the paper wars. Although these tracts continued to defend his own character and to explain The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, they were quite different from his pre-pillory ones. Now Defoe described the loyalty of the Dissenters in detail and argued the advantages of "peace and union" between the Protestant sects. For instance, A Serious Inquiry into This Grand Question; Whether a Law to prevent the Occasional Conformity of Dissenters, Would not be Inconsistent with the Act of Toleration (1704) contradicted the earlier pamphlets by admitting that Dissenters had "publickly declar'd" that "Occasional Communion [was] Lawful in it self" and insisted that the Bill was unjust and unreasonable, that it would deprive the Dissenters of their civil rights, and would have seriously deletorious effects on his people. These pamphlets showed increasing control of argument and diction and the development of a subtle range of tones and points of view. At this time, too, he began to experiment with more elaborate fictions. The Consolidator (1705), written in the form of an imaginary lunar voyage, developed some of the ideas he no longer expressed openly. Through an allegorical history of England, he presented his views on, for example, parliamentary monarchy, standing armies, occasional conformity, and the War of Spanish Succession. In a typical section Defoe dramatized the conflict between the Crolians (Dissenters) and the Solunarians (High Church). The Crolians formed a federation with considerable political and economic power.

Defoe was an early participant in almost every religious controversy, political or doctrinal. Large numbers of his pamphlets defend the civil rights of Dissenters. Others attack the Jacobites, those Englishmen who supported the Stuarts and hoped for the return of James or his son, and yet others are part of the Sacheverell, Bangorian, and Salters' Hall controversies. Some of Defoe's most creative work can be found in these writings, and some serve as apprentice pieces for his fiction. During the Jacobite agitation and rebellion that occurred after Queen Anne's death in 1714, for instance, Defoe published extensively. In some of these works, such as A True Account of the Proceedings at Perth (1716), he tried to reduce the resentment against the Scots in the hope of fostering harmony and unity within the nation as a whole. He depicted the ordinary Scot as brave but deluded and betrayed by a few powerful leaders. In other works, including Hanover or Rome (1715), he urged his countrymen to support the king's efforts to end the Jacobite threat permanently.

Defoe also discouraged the increase of Jacobitism by describing the human and financial losses the Jacobites suffered and by depicting them as objects of satire or contemptuous pity. The Memoirs of Major Alexander Ramkins (published in late 1718 but dated 1719), an important precursor to his novels, for instance, tells the story of a Jacobite who repeatedly gave up promising opportunities only to end up destitute and imprisoned. Ramkins's disillusioned reflections are the vehicle for the exposure of French duplicity. He asks, "Were not 300000 Men driven like Sheep from the Banks of the Boyne [in Ireland] for want of Arms, while what would have furnish'd a Million of Men, were Rusting in the Magazines of France?" Defoe, the master propagandist, reduces thirty years of Jacobite invasions into the history of France's need for diversionary attacks on the English coast.

Before Defoe died, he had written more than sixty-five individual works on issues affecting the Dissenters and another fifty or so on the recurrent threat of the Jacobites. The other large group of pamphlets he wrote was in the service of three monarchs, and his religion influenced them as well. These pamphlets commented on almost every political issue. For William, he wrote on the succession, standing armies, and the war with France. During Anne's reign, he advocated such policies as moderation, union with Scotland, support of public credit, and peace with France. A firm supporter of the Protestant succession, he condemned the Jacobite riots and praised George I, then wrote about the measures Walpole took to stabilize the government and hasten economic recovery.

It was common in the nineteenth century to see Defoe as a great spokesman for the branch of the Whig party most clearly associated with what had come to be called "revolution principles." These "principles," based on an interpretation of the Revolution Settlement that had brought William to the throne in 1688, vested supreme power in the people. Defoe's great statement of this position is The Original Power of the Collective Body of the People of England (1702). Addressed to the Houses of Lords and Commons, it was, in Defoe's opinion, "The Vindication of the Original Right of all Men to the Government of themselves." He told the members of Parliament, "You may Die, but the People remain; you may be Dissolved ... Power may have its Intervals, and Crowns their Interregnum; but Original Power endures to the same Eternity the World endures to.... Nor have I advanced any new Doctrine, nothing but what is as ancient as Nature, and born into the World with our Reason...."

This ringing statement grew out of the pamphlets such as Reflections upon the Late Great Revolution (1689) written to defend William's accession to the throne after James II fled to France and especially out of the incident involving the "Kentish petitioners" in 1701. Five men from Kent, the county closest to France, brought a petition from the justices, grand jury, and other leading citizens to Commons. In it, they asked that English military forces be increased for their protection; as they said, they had begun to fear "That they had sow'd their Corn, and the French were a coming to Reap it." Commons invoked the 1664 Act against Tumultuous Petitionings, declared the petition "Insolent" and "Seditious," and imprisoned the five men. Their petition had been moderate and respectful; Defoe's response, Legion's Memorial (1701), was not. He addressed it to the speaker of the House of Commons, Robert Harley, and "commanded" him to deliver it to the House. In it, he insisted upon "the unquestion'd Right of the People of England" to "Require" and even "Compel" Parliament to protect the country's interests. He included seven demands, including the recognition of the French threat and the immediate release of "all Persons illegally imprison'd." He signed it "Legion, and we are Many."

Throughout his career, Defoe explained and defended "revolution principles." At the time when others were declaring Queen Anne's right to the throne hereditary, Defoe wrote in the Review (May 1709):

The present government stands upon the foot of the Revolution; every act of government her Majesty exerts, every step the present ministry takes ... everything done in the state, whether it be Parliament, Council or Convocation, all recognise the Revolution; all set their seal ... to this principle established by the Revolution, that the people of Britain have an original right to limit the succession of the crown.

As Edmund Burke would do later, Defoe was quick to recognize that the Sacheverell trial came about because a group of men hoped "by a judicial sentence of the highest authority to confirm and fix whig principles as they had operated both in the resistance to King James and in the subsequent settlement." The Reverend Henry Sacheverell had preached and immediately published an inflammatory sermon in which he attacked the bishops, the Dissenters, religious toleration, and, by implication, the legality of the Act of Settlement. At first, almost everyone hoped that the sermon would soon be forgotten, but sixty thousand copies of it sold within two months. The House of Commons voted to impeach Sacheverell. During this trial, Defoe ridiculed Sacheverell, often by allying him with the Pope, in pamphlets like Instructions from Rome (1710) and continued to argue the legality and benefits of the revolution. In A Speech without Doors (1710), for instance, he ridiculed the principle of nonresistance just as he had in Jure Divino (1706) and other earlier works. Throughout this trial and its aftermath and again upon George I's accession, Defoe affirmed what he believed to be the intention of the Revolution Settlement and the primacy of people's "birthright."


It was during Anne's reign that Defoe came to be known as England's premier controversialist and as a "mercenary hack." His contemporaries paid tribute to his ability and effectiveness even as they heaped the most rancorous abuse on him. Because he was a Whig writing for what had become a Tory ministry and a Dissenter supporting the government at a time when High Churchmen dominated Parliament, he found himself insisting fruitlessly that his own principles had not changed and he was a moderate, not a party, man. Political parties in his time were associated with factions, special interests, and competition for appointed offices. Even one of the most partisan politicians of his time, Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, said, "Faction hath no Regard to national interests," and Robert Harley had attempted to maintain power without strong party alliance. In the charged and polarized England that existed after the Sacheverell trial, Defoe could not avoid the party label.

A major issue during this period was the continuation of the War of Spanish Succession. England and her allies had been attempting to prevent the accession of Louis XIV's grandson Philip to the Spanish throne. War broke out in 1702 when Louis recognized the Pretender (James Francis Edward Stuart) as the legitimate heir to the British throne. Brief hopes for peace in 1709 came to nothing, and neither side seemed close to victory. By 1711 the ministry's--and Defoe's--position was complex. The situation had changed drastically with the death of Joseph I, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, in April of that year; he had been the person the Allies hoped to put on the Spanish throne, because he would not unite Spain with France or the Empire (because of a treaty of renunciation). With his death his throne would go to Charles VI, who had already proclaimed himself king of Spain; that would unite Spain with the Empire, a coalition perhaps as much to be feared as a close alliance between the weakened France and Spain. England's reason for fighting and the mostfrequent battle cry in Parliament, "No Peace without Spain," had become a travesty. Moreover, England was experiencing serious economic problems, and the people were definitely war weary.

Defoe's writing reflects the subtle, nearly contradictory line the ministry had to take. The country had to support the war and its commanding general, Charles Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, vigorously enough to make the French believe they would continue to fight until they got the peace they wanted. Yet the ministry had to appear eager enough to make peace to satisfy the voters. Marlborough, adamantly against making any peace without the full participation of the allies, had to be discredited in order for the queen to replace him with a man willing to cooperate if the Dutch and the German states continued to hinder negotiations.

In this, one of his most prolific periods, Defoe continued to use the Review and wrote dozens of pamphlets. Reasons Why This Nation Ought to Put a Speedy End to this Expensive War (1711), Reasons Why a Party among Us, and also among the Confederates, are Obstinately Bent against a Treaty of Peace (1711), An Essay at a Plain Exposition of that Difficult Phrase a Good Peace (1711), No Queen; Or, No General (1712), Peace, or Poverty (1712)--tracts with titles like these--poured from his pen, and he worked to appeal to all segments of the British population. He reminded the merchants that peace would make sea trade safe, he sympathized with the landowners paying heavy taxes to finance the war, he summarized the small gains in "barrier" towns along the Dutch-French border--gains purchased at such loss of British life--and he reviewed England's ancient rivalry with the Dutch and the advantages of trade with France.

When the "separate peace" became public knowledge, Defoe defended England's right to negotiate without her allies, drew upon Parliamentary documents demonstrating that the allies had consistently failed to meet their quotas of men, ships, and supplies, and defended the clauses in the treaty, including the notorious Treaty of Commerce and Navigation that Parliament would ultimately reject. In truth England had reason to be disappointed. After years of successful campaigns, they gained little, and France emerged as a trading partner with most-favored-nation status. Modern scholars have established that Defoe remained loyal to several basic principles but have found contradictions and significant silences.

Apparent contradictions can be found in Defoe's work. He could call the Dutch "the best Friends that England had" and General Marlborough a "glorious," unequaled leader in one pamphlet and accuse the Dutch of "cunning" and Marlborough of ambition and shortsightedness in another. Close reading usually reveals an artistic use of point of view rather than substantive differences in his basic positions. That he could argue, for instance, that Queen Anne had the right to negotiate with France separately even as he said she ought and would not made him vulnerable to misunderstandings. Like so many of his contemporaries, he believed that events in Europe and the economic situation of England made some of the initial reasons for the war irrelevant and peace an urgent concern. That his position in 1712 differed in some ways from his opinions in 1708 was not apostasy but largely response to change.

As a master propagandist, Defoe had to reach a number of different audiences, and, to do so, he needed to adopt different perspectives. In the last few years before Anne's death, he learned to write from points of view ranging from opposition Whig to moderate Tory. He brought diction, tone, anecdotes, and metaphors into harmony for each type of narrator. Carefully appealing to the interests and prejudices of each group, he would, for example, describe the advantages peace would have for trade in pamphlets such as An Enquiry into the Danger and Consequences of a War with the Dutch (1712), which was directed to the Whigs, or he could rehearse the ways the Dutch had gained at British expense in order to justify separate negotiations to the Tories in tracts like Peace, or Poverty (1712). He could portray Marlborough as a victim of the Junto struggle for power and his relatives' greed, or he could remind the nation of the enormous casualties at Malplaquet, site of one of the last battles where Marlborough was in command, and of the nature of Marlborough's personal demands.

A typical pamphlet of this period would begin with a statement of the issue to be discussed, definitions, and an anecdote or, at least, a witty saying. He would insist that his motive was to open the eyes of his countrymen, to undeceive the misguided. Defoe liked to use history to explain how the problem or disagreement arose or to offer instructive parallels, and he often included statistics, quotations from treaties, or references to recent, familiar events to make his case seem irrefutable. His conclusions tended to be exhortations; were they to accept his point of view and follow his advice, they and the entire country would prosper. The Present State of the Parties in Great Britain (1712), for instance, begins with one of Defoe's favorite metaphors: "Satyr, like Incision, becomes necessary when the Humour rankles, and the Wound threatens Mortification: When Advice ceases to work...." He explains that this book will give the "present state of the Nation," describe the "divisions" parties have caused, provide a history of parties, and end with special attention to the Dissenters. He carries out this plan and concludes in the manner of a sermon--they will be tested and must be prudent and steadfast.

Although he never gave up political pamphlet writing entirely, after the death of Queen Anne, Defoe wrote far fewer. Realizing that periodicals and more fictional forms reached a broader audience, he chose to address the English people in other ways. The diminution of political-party strife reduced the payment and market for the kind of ephemeral pamphlets that Parliamentary debates, elections, and diplomatic developments had called forth. To compare the subjects and numbers of pamphlets written before and after 1714 shows a more selective Defoe. His opposition to the Jacobites motivated pamphlets that praised King George and his policies (such as An Account of the Proceedings of the Government against the Rebels, compared with the Persecutions of the Late Reigns, 1716). His desire for the continuation of moderate Whig power and government stability led to pamphlets in support of the Triennial Act, and his hopes for an end to the legal restrictions on the Dissenters produced a group of pamphlets including the optimistic The Question Fairly Stated, Whether Now is not the Time to do Justice to the Friends of the Government (1717). Somewhat later, he wrote pamphlets to support the domestic wool trade (A Brief State of the Question, between the Printed and Painted Callicoes and the Woollen and Silk Manufacture, 1719) and to encourage international trade (An Humble Proposal to the People of England, for the Encrease of their Trade, 1729). At age sixty-seven he could be aroused to argue the advantages of a war with Spain, and he traced the origins and implications of the conflict as cogently as he had that with France when he was forty-five.

Since boyhood Defoe had read history avidly. He once said that he had read "all the Histories of Europe, that are Extant in our Language, and some in other Languages." The methods and purposes of historiography attracted him early. The Storm (1704) is a combination of what Francis Bacon would call the history of an event and a collection of "remarkable provinces," God's actions in the world or proofs of God's presence in the world. He called the Review "history writing by inches" and initially designed it as the explanation of how the War of Spanish Succession began and an exploration of the characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses of the participating nations. In 1709 he published The History of the Union of Great Britain, an account of the event he considered the greatest achievement of Queen Anne's reign. About the same time he began the Memoirs of the Church of Scotland , which he did not publish until 1717. A book of more than four hundred pages, it came out in April to support the Parliamentary presentation of a delegation from the Commission of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland who hoped for the repeal of the imposition of the Oath of Abjuration, the oath that required them to aid in barring all members of their own Church from the throne of Great Britain. His earlier histories were written from the point of view of an objective eyewitness; in this one, he characterized himself as "an officious Stranger" and called the Church's history a revelation to him, a "Terra incognita, a vast Continent of hidden, undiscovered Novelties." Defoe began with the Reformation and characterized the Church of Scotland's history as one of dedicated resistance to Roman Catholicism. He hoped that with a sympathetic understanding of the Church of Scotland, M.P.'s might heed the arguments that the Oath of Abjuration should not be required of Scots or should even be revised in their favor.

Late in his life, he began an ambitious universal history, A General History of Discoveries and Improvements (1725-1726), and wrote three historical accounts of the preternatural: The Political History of the Devil (1726), An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions (1727), and A System of Magick (1727). A General History of Discoveries and Improvements , like other universal histories, began in biblical times and encompassed the entire earth. Promising to absorb all useful knowledge, the histories collected whatever the writer believed worth knowing and preserved it for the benefit of new generations. Defoe's history was part of his elaborate campaign to persuade his countrymen of the benefits of exploration and colonial expansion, and he explained that he intended to give a "view of what may yet be undertaken." The history was originally published in four installments, and, by the second, Defoe had established a parallel between the British and the Phoenicians, the great "Improvers of what others invented" who had been great merchants and traders. He surveyed the great discoveries (like the Americas) and inventions (like the uses of the lodestone in navigation) and suggested ways that the British could increase their wealth.

In The Political History of the Devil, Defoe collects stories and legends about Satan including those from the Bible and Milton's Paradise Lost (1667). He concludes that the Devil exists but that many representations of him are ridiculous. Defoe promises that A System of Magick will provide a profitable and diverting history of magic beginning with the Chaldeans. He describes the Chaldeans as mathematicians and, like all of the earliest magicians, men of learning and observation. As they were made to serve governments and turned to more and more arcane studies, their reputations suffered, he concludes, and magicians came to take dishonest advantage of the superstitions and curiosities of people. An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions is intended to support religion by giving what evidence he can for good spirits, angels, and other divine manifestations and to discourage superstition by ridiculing delusions and naive credulity. In this book, too, he collects many examples of apparitions, including material from such sources as the Bible and John Aubrey's Miscellanies (1696).

Historical examples and anecdotes are everywhere in his writing. He offers biblical and secular examples as proof of the principles and general truths in almost everything he wrote. Jure Divino (1706), a twelve-book verse essay, includes books of summaries of the actions and miserable ends of tyrants, and he can refer to Second Samuel, Hugo Grotius, and Abraham Cowley with equal ease and familiarity. In ordinary pamphlets such as An Essay on the Treaty of Commerce with France (1713), he habitually draws upon history as he does here when he summarizes the history of trade agreements, quotes them, and then insists that the Treaty of Commerce is more to Britain's advantage than France's. He is capable of including such detailed information as the reasons for the trade restrictions imposed after the Treaty of Ryswick. One of his earliest manuscripts, the Historical Collections, brings together anecdotes from sources as diverse as Richard Knolles's Generall Historie of the Turkes (1603), Plutarch's Lives, and Bede's History of the English Church and People (completed in 1731). A Tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724, 1725, 1727) uses historical anecdotes to bring English towns and places to life and to characterize the British people. For instance, Defoe describes the chapel built on the stone bridge over the Calder in Yorkshire. It was built, he says, by Edward IV in memory of the Battle of Wakefield, where his father, Richard, Duke of York, died in 1460. He finds this memorial no less remarkable than a small fenced square of ground between two nearby towns where the common people had erected a stone cross on the spot where the Duke of York actually fell. In another place, he records the way the Hadley residents maintain a stone to mark the spot where the Protestant martyr Rowland Taylor died at the stake.

A Tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain , a twelve-hundred-page travel book, is the only one of Defoe's books that has been accorded the status of belles lettres without change from its publication to our own day. It appeared serially; the first volume (May 1724) described eastern and southern England, the second ( June 1725) the West Country, Midlands, Wales, and London, and volume three (August 1726 but dated 1727) Scotland and the northern counties. For almost every county, Defoe would describe the topography, towns, rivers, harbors, population, occupations, notable families, major buildings, and evaluate the agriculture, manufacture, and transportation. He would include accounts of important historical events that took place there and of interesting facts about the place, such as the fact that all the ships that go to sea from London depart from Gravesend. He would also include amusing personal memories and sights; in a village in Sussex, for instance, he had seen a woman go to church in an ox-drawn carriage.

Defoe said in 1711 that he had been in every county in England except one, and, in 1724, he told his readers: "As ... I made myself Master of the History, and ancient State of England, I resolv'd in the next Place, to make my self Master of its Present State also; and to this Purpose, I travell'd in three or four several Tours, over the whole Island, critically observing, and carefully informing myself of every thing worth observing in all the Towns and Countries through which I pass'd." Above all, A Tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain reflects Defoe's love for travel and his insatiable curiosity about the economy and how all manner of people live. So valuable has this book been to economic and social historians that Defoe as its author has been called "a special correspondent for posterity." In his classic introduction to it, G. D. H. Cole wrote that A Tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain "is by far the most graphic contemporary account of the state of the economic and social affairs near the beginning of the eighteenth century." A recent critic called the book "a vision of nationhood."

Also concerned with the state of the British economy are The Royal Progress (1724), The Complete English Tradesman (1726, 1727), A General History of Discoveries and Improvements (1725-1726), A Plan of the English Commerce (1728), Atlas Maritimus & Commercialis (1728), and several shorter works such as An Humble Proposal to the People of England, For the Encrease of their Trade, and Encouragement of their Manufactures (1729). In these books, Defoe characterizes the English people, identifies their strengths and advantages, and charts their course to greatness. Typically, he begins with surveys--of the present state of England (A Tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain) and of their place in worldwide commercial history (A General History of Discoveries and Improvements )--and with guides for the most basic cogs in the machine (The Great Law of Subordination Consider'd [1724] and The Complete English Tradesman).

Defoe's plan for his country is nothing less than world domination. Trade, not military might, would make this conquest. In A Plan of the English Commerce, he writes, "Trade is the Foundation of Wealth, and Wealth of Power," and, in The Advantages of Peace and Commerce (1729), he says, "if any one Nation could govern Trade, that Nation would govern the World." In book after book he catalogues what England had to sell and enumerates the luxuries she bought. In contrast to her substantial exports of wool, corn, minerals, and manufactured goods, he lists imports of wine, brandy, raisins, currants, oranges, coffee, tea, chocolate, olives, nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper.

Books such as A Plan of the English Commerce and Atlas Maritimus target countries and products and challenge Englishmen to develop trade with them. In them, Defoe surveys the globe and determines what each part of the world has to offer. Besides improving territory already held, he urges the establishment of new settlements and colonies. In the aftermath of the disappointing Treaty of Utrecht, Defoe's countrymen can hardly disagree. He returns to the arguments of his 1712 pamphlets and reminds people how necessary peace is for a flourishing trade and that the longest purse, not the longest sword, wins wars. Conquest, he reminds them, is a "Thing attended with Difficulty, Hazard, Expence, and a Possibility of Miscarriage."

Defoe had once said that a conduct book could be written for each stage of life, and The Complete English Tradesman, published in 1726 and 1727 is part of the economic series written late in his life but also related to a group of his books that rivaled his novels in popularity. As early as 1715, Defoe had published The Family Instructor, and he followed this book, which outsold everything else he wrote except Robinson Crusoe for the next century, with a second Family Instructor (1718), Religious Courtship (1722), Conjugal Lewdness (1727), A New Family Instructor (1727), and the posthumously published Compleat English Gentleman (1890). Defoe's readers would have instantly recognized these books as additions to a widely popular kind of literature. The domestic conduct book had grown up beside the courtesy book and, by the early eighteenth century, held a secure place in the personal libraries of all social classes. Courtesy books were largely directed at the upper classes and chapters included "Of Friendship," "Of Temperance," and "Of Diversions," while those in conduct books more often read "Of the Duty of Parents in Educating their Children" and "Of Duty to Parents; Magistrates, Pastors." Conduct books, or works of "practical divinity," addressed a broader audience, emphasized moral relationships, and concentrated upon marriage and household governance.

Defoe divides The Family Instructor , his first conduct book, into three parts: "I: Relating to Fathers and Children. II. To Masters and Servants. III. To Husbands and Wives." These categories are standard, but his book is unusual in that it is highly narrative, made up of realistic dialogues, and addressed to the parents of older children. Parts one and three describe the efforts of parents who had been shamed by their youngest child to recall the family to sober piety. Part two concerns two apprentices, and their contrasting situations. The second Family Instructor has two parts. The first portrays two couples who argue and nearly destroy their marriages over religious differences. The rancor between the couples that grows almost to the point of violence prefigures material in his novel Col. Jack. Always ready to draw the broadest conclusions possible, Defoe has one character say that their quarrels "put me in mind of the Divisions among the People of this Nation about Religion; methinks the Church and the Dissenters act a little as you and I did, one goes this way and another that ..., but all meet, I hope in Heaven at last...." The second part illustrates the correct discipline of children. In a series of dialogues, Defoe tells the story of a good but hot-tempered London tradesman, of two other fathers (one too lenient and the other brutal), and of a sea captain who marries a religious servant named Margy.

Religious Courtship, the most narrative and unified conduct book yet, follows the lives of three daughters commanded by their dying mother to marry pious men. The youngest, exemplary in her obedience to her mother, brings her suitor to religion, but the second marries for money and is horrified to discover that she has married a Catholic. This book, too, has lengthy sections on the obligations of masters to servants and on the wisdom of choosing religious servants. In Conjugal Lewdness Defoe analyzes the reasons for unhappiness in marriage and illustrates the mutual respect he believes necessary. He discusses many intimate aspects of marriage such as having intercourse during pregnancy. Here he combines essays with lively dialogues. A New Family Instructor offers an exemplary family with a father who has made his chief business to instruct his children in "the most Essential Points of the Christian Religion." He explains how to instruct children, how to adapt material appropriately for each age group, and what the result will be. As part of its strongly anti-Catholic theme, the book shows one of the brothers becoming Catholic and the object of pity from his family, who often laugh at his "ignorance" and mistaken opinions. A New Family Instructor includes one of Defoe's longest discussions of reading fiction and of the most effective means of education. Written after the publication of his last novel, Roxana, his statements, even though made to a conservative audience, have considerable interest. He says,

the End and Use of every Fable was in the Moral....

.... where the Moral of the Tale is duly annex'd, and the End directed right ... making just and solid Impressions on the Mind; recommending great and good Actions, raising Sentiments of Virtue in the Soul ... in such Cases, Fables, feigned Histories, invented Tales, and even such as we call Romances, have always been allow'd as the most pungent Way of writing or speaking; the most apt to make Impressions upon the Mind .... for some Ages, it was the most usual, if not the only Way of Teaching in the World....


Somewhat related to the conduct books are others like The Great Law of Subordination Consider'd . As he had in the conduct books, he discusses the proper duties and obligations of masters to servants and servants to masters. He gives instructive illustrations and didactic admonitions, but he also offers "projects." In the eighteenth century "projects" meant plans or schemes designed to improve something and often to attract investors or patrons. People often satirized projectors as impractical, officious dreamers or even busybodies. Defoe's first full-length book had been An Essay upon Projects (1697), and the last work published in his lifetime was An Effectual Scheme for the Immediate Preventing of Street Robberies (1731). An Essay upon Projects includes plans for improving roads, teaching military arts, building an academy for women, and establishing a Merchant Court similar to the Admiralty Court. He continued to suggest such schemes in his periodicals and novels and returned openly to projecting in the last six years of his life. He said that he hoped to produce a "useful kind" of writing, and at one point he described such books as "Testimony of my good Will to my Fellow Creatures." Every-body's Business, Is No-body's Business (1725), The Protestant Monastery (1727), Parochial Tyranny (1727), Augusta Triumphans (1728), and Second Thoughts are Best (1729) belong in this category. These books, with The Great Law of Subordination Consider'd, return to some of his 1697 concerns--gambling, education, the treatment of seamen--and all show a keen awareness of injustice.

Every Man ought ... to contribute in his Station, to the publick Welfare, and not be afraid or ashamed of doing or at least, meaning well.

I hope therefore the Reader will excuse the Vanity of an over officious Old Man, if like Cato, I enquire whether or no before I go hence and be no more, I can yet do anything for the Service of my Country.

Tempered by a hint of self-deprecating humor, these works cast in gentler form the Defoe of An Essay upon Projects and even of the Queen Anne propaganda, but here individual and domestic concerns take precedence. In Augusta Triumphans, for instance, he rails against the treatment of foundling children and the use of private madhouses to confine unwanted wives. In Parochial Tyranny, he condemns the results of the policy that the parish in which an indigent child is born must care for it and asks, "How many poor Women in Labour have been lost, while two Parishes are contending to throw her on each other...?" Here, too, he proposes a home for old people where they can live healthful, dignified lives.


Yet another group of substantial works are part of the crime literature of the period. Defoe wrote them during the 1720s, the time when the popularity of such works was at its height. Readers could choose broadsides, ballads, chapbooks, newspapers, pamphlets, "anatomies," Old Bailey Sessions Papers, Accounts by the Ordinary of Newgate, and collections such as A Compleat Collection of Remarkable Tryals. Moll Flanders is, of course, Defoe's best-known book about crime. Moll's multitude of adventures and resilient, lively personality, even as the book addresses serious moral, economic, and social issues, assure its well-deserved, lasting appeal. Before he wrote Moll Flanders, however, Defoe had written about the Scottish rebels imprisoned after the 1715 rebellion and may have written about the famous Scottish outlaw Rob Roy, highwaymen, and housebreakings for periodicals such as Mist's Weekly Journal and Applebee's Journal. Some of these reports have been interpreted as sources or sketches for Moll Flanders. An Applebee's for 16 July 1720 is a "letter" from a woman who went from pickpocket to shop thief, was caught, tried, transported, and has returned to England just as Moll did. The writer, "Moll" of Rag-Fair, mentions that her adventures are too long for the letter.

In 1724, Defoe wrote two entertaining pamphlets on John Sheppard, the thief who achieved his greatest fame from his astonishing escapes from prison. His History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard and A Narrative of all the Robberies, Escapes, &c. of John Sheppard portray Sheppard as a clever Jester who exchanges jokes, "[I] made the door my humble servant." It was Sheppard's violent attack on one of the most famous criminals in English history as he was led to prison that helped bring about Jonathan Wild's downfall. Wild had come to the public's attention first as the proprietor of his "Office for the Recovery of Lost and Stolen Property" and then as the thief taker chiefly responsible for the destruction of London's four largest gangs. Two years later, Wild was exposed as the man who received thieves' plunder and sold it back to their victims. In 1724 Defoe wrote at least one life of Wild, and Wild was the model for John Gay's Peachum in The Beggar's Opera (1728). Defoe's A Brief Historical Account of the Lives of the Six Notorious Street-Robbers, Executed at Kingston was published in 1726. From then until his death, Defoe published proposals for reducing crime, especially in London. He wrote Some Considerations upon Street-Walkers (1726), Second Thoughts are Best (1729), An Effectual Scheme for the Immediate Preventing of Street-Robberies (1731), and periodical essays on subjects such as the current opinion that soldiers and sailors were brutal men who turned criminal in peacetime. Defoe's sense of justice and respect for humankind shows in lines such as these from a 5 March 1726 Applebee's:

Though there is a kind of Poverty and Distress necessary to bring a poor Man to take Arms ... and run the risk of Life and Limb, for so mean a Consideration as a red Coat and 3s. a Week. Yet those poorest of Men may have principles of Honour and Justice in them, at least it should be supposed they have, till something appears to the Contrary....


Some of Defoe's nonfiction can still be read with pleasure. Some--A Tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain, The History of the Union of Great Britain, groups of his pamphlets--are essential sources for political and economic historians. Others, such as A History of Apparitions, offer the folklorist unmined treasures. All have some interest for those who would understand Defoe and his time. In a 1731 proposal to reprint the best pamphlets of the last century, William Oldys called them "the liveliest Pictures of their Times" and "The truest Images of their Authors" because they are written hastily and, therefore, show the mind "in the most natural Form and Symmetry." He continues to say that in them we can "discover the genuine Abilities of an Author." Oldys intended to reprint several of Defoe's works, and the modern reader of Defoe's nonfiction can certainly recognize the truth of Oldys's statement.

Defoe's greatest legacy, however, is surely his contribution to journalism. During his lifetime the power of the press as we know it was established, and Defoe deserves a considerable share of the credit. When he began his Review, nothing like the modern newspaper existed. Newspapers printed a sentence or two, or at most a few paragraphs, on even the most important events. These items came from the official London Gazette or the best French or Dutch newspapers. A few special-interest periodicals like John Dunton's question-answer paper The Athenian Gazette existed. The Review, published first as a kind of serial history intended to explain the causes and implications of the War of Spanish Succession and to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, quickly became an essay periodical with timely comment on current events, controversies, and topics of discussion. Although it began and remained primarily political, it included some poetry, letters from readers, and articles on bankrupts, education, and city happenings. Especially in The Little Review, Miscellanea, and the Scandal Club, the Review resembled the later Tatler and Spectator. Here Defoe satirized rival journalists, foolish young men, and bickering married couples.

The Review became increasingly political, and Defoe demonstrated the potential papers had to interpret events and shape opinion. He wrote the Review almost alone for nine years and, during that time, covered nearly every political and religious issue that arose, was a tireless champion of England's emerging credit economy, served as apologist for most of Robert Harley's policies and positions, and intelligently explained foreign events as remote from the ordinary Englishman's knowledge as the Great Northern War, the changes made in Russia by Peter the Great, and the African trade.

Defoe well understood the power of the press; at one time he owned every newspaper in Edinburgh and, during the reign of George I, infiltrated Tory periodicals in order to diminish their effectiveness. One of these, Mist's Weekly Journal, he transformed by filling the paper with entertaining, nonpolitical material. The Weekly Journal became a magazine filled with lively anecdotes and letters on every subject under the sun. The novel, even bizarre, nature of reported incidents, the variety of strong personalities displayed in the letters, and the "letters introductory" invented by Defoe became the paper's most distinctive features. It soon had a circulation of eleven thousand copies a week, remained the most popular journal in England for years, and set the standard for this increasingly popular kind of periodical.

He wrote several papers, including the Mercator (26 June 1713-20 July 1714) and the Manufacturer (30 October 1719-17 February 1720), to support individual causes (the Treaty of Commerce and the weavers' campaign for protective legislature in these cases). Among his other papers were The White-Hall Evening Post (18 September 1718-circa 14 October 1720), a good, standard newspaper; The Daily Post (3 October 1719-circa 27 April 1725), one of the rare early eighteenth-century dailies and a lucrative paper because of its large number of advertisements; and The Commentator (1 January-16 September 1720), an amusing and informative essay periodical that he wrote "to pry into the Faults and Follies of Mankind." Articles on superstition, freak shows, medicine, education, human foibles break up an important, lively eyewitness account of the South Sea mania.

Perhaps no writer in human history has written so knowledgeably and sympathetically on so many subjects. Whatever kind of writing he took up, he transformed. He combined genres, he invented new arts of persuasion, and he brought his country and his time to life. He felt his audience to be the English people in the broadest sense, and his sturdy, confident prose cajoled, admonished, teased, exhorted, prophesied, explained and--occasionally--ridiculed. He told them stories endlessly and, above all, caught them up in his enthusiasm, his wonder, his vision for the future, and his imaginative vigor. Defoe will always be remembered for Robinson Crusoe, but the broad knowledge, strong opinions, and amazingly diverse interests found in the nonfiction stand behind the great novel.


From: Backscheider, Paula R. "Daniel Defoe." British Prose Writers, 1660-1800First Series, edited by Donald T. Siebert, Gale, 1991. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 101.


  • Further Reading


    • John Robert Moore, A Checklist of the Writings of Daniel Defoe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1960).
    • John A. Stoler, Daniel Defoe: An Annotated Bibliography of Modern Criticism, 1900-1980 (New York: Garland, 1984).
    • Spiro Peterson, Daniel Defoe: A Reference Guide 1731-1924 (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987).



    • James Sutherland, Defoe (London: Methuen, 1937; revised, 1950).
    • John Robert Moore, Daniel Defoe: Citizen of the Modern World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1958).
    • Frank Bastian, The Early Life of Daniel Defoe (London: Macmillan, 1981).
    • Paula R. Backscheider, Daniel Defoe: His Life (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).



    • Paul Alkon, Defoe and Fictional Time (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1979).
    • Hans Anderson, "The Paradox of Trade and Morality in Defoe," Modern Philology, 39 (August 1941): 23-46.
    • Paula R. Backscheider, "Cross-Purposes: Defoe's History of the Union," CLIO, 11 (Winter 1982): 165-186.
    • Backscheider, Daniel Defoe: Ambition and Innovation (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1986).
    • Backscheider, "Defoe's Prodigal Sons," Studies in the Literary Imagination, 15 (Fall 1982): 3-18.
    • Rodney Baine, Daniel Defoe and the Supernatural (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1979).
    • G. D. H. Cole, Introduction to A Tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain, 2 volumes (New York: Kelley, 1968).
    • J. Alan Downie, Robert Harley and the Press (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).
    • Alistair Duckworth, "'Whig' Landscapes in Defoe's Tour," Philological Quarterly, 61 (Fall 1982): 453-465.
    • Peter Earle, The World of Defoe (New York: Atheneum, 1977).
    • John Forster, Daniel De Foe and Charles Churchill (London, 1855).
    • Maximillian E. Novak, Defoe and the Nature of Man (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963).
    • Novak, Economics and the Fiction of Daniel Defoe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).
    • Novak, Realism, Myth, and History in Defoe's Fiction (Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 1983).
    • William Payne, Mr. Review: Daniel Defoe as the Author of the Review (New York: King's Crown Press, 1961).
    • John Richetti, Defoe's Narratives (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975).
    • Pat Rogers, "Defoe at Work: The Making of A Tour thro' Great Britain, Volume I," Bulletin of the New York Public Library, 78 (Summer 1975): 431-450.
    • Rogers, Eighteenth-Century Encounters (Sussex: Harvester, 1985).
    • Rogers, ed., Defoe: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge, 1972).
    • Lois Schwoerer, No Standing Armies! (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974).
    • Arthur Secord, Studies in the Narrative Method of Defoe (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1968).
    • Secord, ed., Defoe's Review, Reproduced from the Original Editions, 22 volumes (New York: Published by the Facsimile Text Society for Columbia University Press, 1933).
    • Geoffrey Sill, Defoe and the Idea of Fiction (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983).
    • G. A. Starr, Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965).