One of the earliest English novelists and one of the first best-selling novelists, Daniel Defoe is mainly remembered today as the author of Robinson Crusoe, but he lived a life perhaps just as interesting as the shipwrecked character he is most famous for creating. Defoe is considered one of the pioneers of business and economic journalism. He wrote books, pamphlets, and journals on diverse topics ranging from crime to religion to marriage to the supernatural to early ideas of psychology. He had a career as a spy and his political ideology even earned him a stint in prison. During his career, he also wrote under nearly 200 pen names.
Defoe was born into and shaped by one of the most tumultuous times in English history. He was born sometime prior to the restoration of the English monarch in 1660 after a brief period of Interregnum and anarchy. By the time he was ten, he had witnessed his hometown of London survive a massive plague that killed some 70,000 people, a fire that destroyed his entire neighborhood, the attacking of a nearby city by Dutch pirates, and the more personal death of his mother. His parents rebelled against the Church of England and he himself became part of a rebellion against Queen Mary II and King William III. He began his career as a merchant and eventually became one of the most well-known literary figures of his age.
The exact date of birth for the writer Daniel Defoe is lost to history, perhaps because of the chaos that reigned around the time he was born. It is believed Defoe was born sometime between 1659, when Richard Cromwell had resigned as lord Protector in April after the death of his father Oliver the previous year, and the return of Charles II to the English throne in 1660. Some put his birthdate as late as 1662 though most scholars believe he was born sometime between the late summer or early autumn of 1660.
What is known is that he was not born Daniel Defoe but in fact Daniel Foe, the son of prosperous merchant James Foe, who lived in a home on Fore Street in the parish of St. Giles, Cripplegate, London. James Foe was a tallow chandler or candlemaker by trade and a member of the Worshipful Company of Butchers, a London trade organization based largely around Smithfield Market in nearby Aldgate. Foe's main shop, however, was at his Fore Street home. Fore Street was the most popular shopping Street in Cripplegate into the Victorian era.
The Foe family were part of the major religious issues that still divided England. The returned King Charles II had grown up among the Catholic courts of Europe and married a Catholic wife, but was head of the Church of England, which was the country’s official religion. The Church of England could be a strict one as evidenced by the fact that more than 2,000 clergymen were defrocked in 1662 in what was known as the Great Ejection after refusing to take the oath of conformity required by the new edition of the Book of Common Prayer. The Foe family was neither Catholic nor Anglican but rather part of one of several Protestant fringe groups finding their footing in England.
The Foes were Presbyterians, classified at the time as dissenters because they didn’t prescribe to the Anglican church. Presbyterianism was a movement that began in Scotland during the Protestant Reformation in the late 1500s and was greatly influenced by the teachings of French theologian John Calvin as well as Scotsman and former Catholic priest John Knox. There were various groups of dissenters active at the time including the Anabaptists from whom modern day Mennonites descend, agrarian dissenters known as Diggers, the Puritans who settled Plymouth colony, Quakers, and precursors to groups that would become Congregationalists, Baptists, Unitarians, and other forms of Protestant worship.
Beyond the fact that his family was actively separated from the powerful force that was the Church of England, the 1660s were a dangerous time for anyone to live in London. In March 1665, England found itself at war with the Dutch and the following month, the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in England occurred, possibly started by Dutch prisoners of war carrying the disease who had been moved to the city. The plague killed nearly 70,000 people and led to nearly two-thirds of London evacuating the city, unintentionally spreading the disease to other areas like Derbyshire.
The next year, the Great Fire of London swept through the city and destroyed more than 13,000 buildings and leaving approximately 80,000 people homeless. The Foe family house was one of only three homes in its neighborhood that wasn’t completely destroyed by the fire, which lasted for four days. While only six people died in the fire itself, numerous died from hunger and exposure while foreigners, Catholics, and other scapegoats were beaten to death and lynched in the aftermath, believing they had something to do with the incident. Defoe would have been six at this time.
The following year, a Dutch ship navigated destroyed the British royal naval yard in Chatham, having navigated far enough up the Thames to access the River Medway. The Anglo-Dutch was resolved within the year and it is possibly around this time that Daniel Defoe was sent to attend Rev. James Fisher’s Boarding School in Pixham Lane, Dorking, Surrey. His mother died when he was 10 and around the age of 14 he was sent to a new school in London run by Presbyterian dissenter Charles Morton. His father chose to send his son to this school despite knowing that those caught practicing faiths other than the Church of England could be prosecuted for doing so. It is believed Defoe’s father intended for his son to become a Presbyterian minister, but Defoe instead followed his father into the merchant’s trade.
Merchant, Rebel, Debtor, Spy
The next chapter in Defoe’s life was one of contrast, seeing him both flourish as a merchant and sink into debt, rebel against the crown and turn into a government agent. Defoe began his career as a merchant, selling high ticket items like hosiery, woolen goods, wine, and civets to make perfume. He purchased a country estate as well as a ship to trade with, but he often borrowed more than he could afford and was rarely out of debt despite his spending. He was even forced to declare bankruptcy in 1692. He also added the aristocratic sounding “de” to his surname, occasionally claiming descent from the French noble family De Beau Faux.
It was during his period that he also married wealthy heiress Mary Tuffley at St. Botolph’s Aldgate. The daughter of a London merchant, Tuffley had a dowry of £3,700, about £576,700 ($748,608) in today’s money. While Defoe’s career and constant debt may have put a strain on the marriage, the two were together for 50 years and had eight children, six of whom lived to adulthood. There is little mention of Mary Defoe after their marriage, but from the little of Defoe’s writings that survive, he describes her as a loyal, capable, and devoted wife. However, his marriage didn’t do much to settle Defoe down and the next year, he became involved in a royal rebellion.
In 1685, King Charles II died and his brother James II ascended the throne. James II was much more of an open Catholic than other members of his family, despite having raised both his daughters as Protestants. Prior to Charles II’s death, a group of Catholic supporters had even plotted to kill both Charles II, who had no legitimate heirs, and his illegitimate son James who had been made Duke of Monmouth. Following the attempt, the duke had traveled to the Hague to gain Protestant support. Now, fearful of having a monarch with Catholic sympathies on the throne, many English people gathered under the banner of the Duke of Monmouth, claiming that Charles II had married Monmouth’s mother and therefore Monmouth was the true king of England. Monmouth and the Duke of Argyll conspired to leave Holland and overthrow the king in what would be known as the Monmouth Rebellion, the West Country Rebellion or the Pitchfork Rebellion.
While Presbyterian dissenters like the Defoe family didn’t have it easy under the Church of England, it probably would have been worse for them if England was restored to Catholicism. Defoe may have also thought - perhaps correctly - that James II was a weak figure politically and was creating a crisis of English identity. There is also the fact that Defoe was young and had always been impetuous. He was also rather lucky. He managed to desert from the rebellion before things got too dicey, allegedly finding the name Robinson Crusoe in a cemetery he was hiding in after the rebellion failed. He managed to escape the prosecution of those involved in the rebellion known as the Bloody Assizes. His involvement as a support of the Duke of Monmouth also caught the eye of another powerful figure.
While William of Orange, wife of James II’s daughter Mary and the future William III, didn’t directly contribute to the Monmouth Rebellion he did let the ill-fated Duke out of Holland knowing he had an army that was set for England. After the rebellion was quashed, it was known to William of Orange that William Defoe was a supporter of Protestantism and the duke. Being a merchant who traveled to Spain and Europe, Defoe also had reasons for being abroad. This was probably why Defoe was then recruited as an agent or spy for the future king of England. Defoe would later be a major royalist in support of William III’s reign, even after the death of his wife and the true heir to the throne Mary II. Defoe didn’t have to wait long for a new king with William III and Mary II being crowned in 1688 after the successful overthrow of James II in the Glorious Revolution.
After being imprisoned for his massive debts in 1692, Defoe spent time traveling abroad for his business and possibly to avoid the creditors he had in England. He returned to England in 1695 where he worked as a tax collector as well as ran a tile and brickwork factory in Essex. These were among several civil service positions Defoe was awarded for his loyalty to King William. Defoe would spend the rest of his life working to evade his creditors and toward the end of his life had resorted to suing the royal treasury for money he claimed he was owed from his services to the crown during the reign of William and Mary. It would be his connection to these monarchs that would begin the next and most famous phase of his life.
Politics and Pamphleteering
During his lifetime, Daniel Defoe published between 275 and around 545 titles ranging from novels to poems to philosophical and intellectual treatises and journals to pamphlets, and while he is often thought of today as one of the earliest English-language novelists, he was better known in his own time as a pamphleteer. At a time when pamphlets, newspapers, and journals were becoming more common thanks to advances in printing and a more educated populace meant there were more literate people ready to discuss their opinions, Defoe didn’t shy away from sharing his own views in writing. This pamphlets ranged in nature from his theories on economics and societal improvement to political and religious railings that often got him in trouble.
As early as the 1690s Defoe was contributing to the Athenian Mercury, a twice-weekly journal published by the Athenian Society of which he was a member. One of the first works to gain recognition was 1697’s An essay upon projects in which he proposed several ways England could be improved economically and socially. The pamphlet is famous for laying out Defoe’s idea for a nationwide insurance scheme not totally unlike the one in place today and drew the attention of numerous political leaders. Over the next year, he also published pamphlets in defense of the king’s right to maintain a standing army after the end of the Nine Years’ War
His first big literary success was the satirical poem The True-Born Englishman in 1701, which defended king William who was being criticized for being a Dutch-born man attempting to rule England. In the poem, Defoe ridiculed those who claimed that there was any such notion of English racial purity as most Englishmen claimed descent from Anglo-Saxons of German origins or Normans of French origins. He also criticized xenophobia. That same year, Defoe was selected to present a petition to Robert Harley, Speaker of the House of Commons, demanding the release of Kentish petitioners who had asked to help support the king in wars against France.
The following year, however, Defoe would find himself out of royal favor. When King William III died, the throne was inherited by his sister-in-law Queen Anne, who had felt her brother-in-law had no right to keep the throne after her older sister’s death and was much more strict about her role as the head of the Church of England. She did not like those who had supported her brother-in-law over her and had no tolerance for those practicing any religion outside the church of England. Defoe fell into both categories. The fact that he had printed numerous pamphlets supporting William and the rights of dissenters made him an easy target for her first offensive against Nonconformists.
In 1702, Defoe published a pamphlet aimed at drawing support for those who didn’t follow the Church of England titled The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters. The satirical peace suggested exterminating dissenters and ridiculed high church Tories. While Defoe had published it anonymously, his authorship was soon found out. He was arrested and in 1703 he was placed in a pillory after a trial. He was also placed into prison until he could pay a large fine. Not deterred, Defoe used the inspiration to pen his Hymn to the Pillory suggesting that roses and toasts to his health be made during his three days in the pillory.
Afterwards, he was sent to Newgate until Robert Harley, now Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, brokered his release. Harley also paid some of Defoe’s debts and solicited him to serve as a spy once more, this time for the Tories. While Defoe was actually more of a Whig than a Tory, the fact that Harley had paid off his debts and served as his supporter made it to where he found himself forced to support the Tory platform, even with his prior criticism of the party. He would later find ways to get around this.
Not long after his release from prison, Defoe witnessed another cataclysmic event known as the Great Storm of 1703, which caused damage in London and Bristol and killed more than 8,000 people. The following year, Defoe published The Storm, a collection of witness accounts of the storm that many consider to be one of the first pieces of modern journalism. That same year, he set up a periodical in support of Harley’s government as well as which produced reports on the War of the Spanish Success. The periodical published thrice weekly for nearly ten years, switching to support the Godolphin government after Harley was outstered and then Harley again when he returned to power. Even after the death of Queen Anne, Defoe continued serving as a spy for the Whig government and writing satirical pamphlets that undermined Tory viewpoints.
Defoe also used the paper to promote the Act of Union of 1707 and in 1709 published a lengthy book titled The History of the Union of Great Britain on the subject. After the fall of the Tory government in 1714, Defoe focused much more on his writing career. He wrote The Family Instructor in 1715 that was a conduct manual on religious duty, the satire Minutes of the Negotiations of Monsieur Mesnager in 1717, and a satire of European politics and religions titled Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy in 1718.
He also wrote a conduct book for traders known as The Complete English Tradesman in 1726. Additionally, Defoe wrote numerous books criticizing contemporary English society like The Great Law of Subordination Considered and Everybody's Business is Nobody's Business as well as books that explored the supernatural like The Political History of the Devil, A System of Magick, and An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions. He further published travel works about both foreign countries and an survey of Great Britain just prior to the changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution.
In 1719, Defoe published what is arguably his most famous work was his novel Robinson Crusoe, which became the first English novel and the biggest best-seller of its age. Based on the like of Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk who was shipwrecked on an island off the coast of Chile, the book was written in such a way that many believed the title character was a real person accounting events of his life. The book went through four editions in its first year alone and went on to become one of the best-selling English language books of all time. Its success prompted the publication of a sequel The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe later that same year and a third book titled Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe the following year.The success of this new format of fiction was dubbed the “novel” as it was a “novel” concept at the time.
Beyond sequels to Robinson Crusoe, Defoe produced numerous other examples of the emerging literary genre. After finishing his Robinson Crusoe trilogy, Defoe published Captain Singleton in 1720, an adventure story that covers both travel to Africa, piracy, and the relationship between the title character and his mentor, Quaker William Walters. That same year, he published Memoirs of a Cavalier, which was set during the English Civil War. His 1722 Colonel Jack is the prototype for many rags to riches novels, following the life of an orphaned boy from poverty to prosperity in the colonies.
Outside of Robinson Crusoe, some of the other books he became famous for include A Journal of a Plague Year, Moll Flanders, and Roxana. Often read as non-fiction and believed to be largely based on the account Defoe heard from his uncle, A Journal of a Plague Year was a semi-autobiographical tale about London during the Great Plague of 1665 based on interviews with witnesses and historical research. The book was published in 1721 as a similar plague raged in Europe and was written as a warning to the people of England to remind them of the terrors of the disease.
In 1722, he authored Moll Flanders that was a first-person picaresque novel showing the physical and spiritual redemption of the titular heroine. While often considered borderline erotica today, the book was revolutionary in its time as it portrayed a multi-dimensional female character and challenged many stereotypes surrounding femininity and gender. Defoe followed this up with his final novel Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress which shows the moral and spiritual decline of a high society courtesan and confronts how society often forces women into hopeless situations.
Later Life and Legacy
Defoe returned to writing pamphlets, essays, and non-fiction works toward the end of his life, but by 1728 was so in debt that he had to focus more time on hiding from his creditors to avoid being put back in prison than his writing career. He eventually died of what was labelled as lethargy but today is sometimes believed to be a stroke on April 24, 1731 and was interred in Bunhill Fields, known today as Bunhill Fields and Burial Gardens, in the borough of Islington in London. In 1870, a monument to his memory was finally erected at the cemetery.
Interest in Defoe’s works sprung up again in the late 1800s both with the erection of this monument and the publication of two incomplete manuscripts he had been working on prior to his death. Since then, several other works of his that were previously never printed or that had gone out of print went back into circulation and more serious scholarly study of Defoe as both a writer, tradesman, and political theorist began to take root.
There has also been considerable effort made to determine works written by Defoe under one of his 198 pseudonyms as part of the overall literary canon associated with him. Several biographical and semi-biographical accounts published between 1715 and 1740 either anonymously or under other names have been attributed to Defoe including a 1715 pamphlet on Quakers, three texts offering accounts of pirates, the 1728 book Memoirs of an English Officer said to have been written by a Captain Carleton, and the anonymously published The Life and Adventures of Mrs. Christian Davies, commonly call’d Mother Ross. Scholars continue to debate whether or not these works were actually authored by Defoe or perhaps just imitate his style.