Daniel Foe (his original name) was probably born in Fore Street in the parish of St. Giles Cripplegate, London. Defoe later added the aristocratic-sounding "De" to his name, and on occasion claimed descent from the family of De Beau Faux. His birthdate and birthplace are uncertain, and sources offer dates from 1659–1662, with 1660 considered the most likely. His father James Foe was a prosperous tallow chandler and a member of the Worshipful Company of Butchers. In Defoe's early life, he experienced some of the most unusual occurrences in English history: in 1665, 70,000 were killed by the Great Plague of London, and next year, the Great Fire of London left standing only Defoe's and two other houses in his neighbourhood. In 1667, when he was probably about seven, a Dutch fleet sailed up the Medway via the River Thames and attacked the town of Chatham in the raid on the Medway. His mother Annie had died by the time that he was about ten.
Defoe was educated at the Rev. James Fisher's boarding school in Pixham Lane in Dorking, Surrey. His parents were Presbyterian dissenters, and around the age of 14 he attended a dissenting academy at Newington Green in London run by Charles Morton, and he is believed to have attended the Newington Green Unitarian Church. During this period, the English Government persecuted those who chose to worship outside the Church of England.
Defoe entered the world of business as a general merchant, dealing at different times in hosiery, general woollen goods, and wine. His ambitions were great and he was able to buy a country estate and a ship (as well as civets to make perfume), though he was rarely out of debt. In 1684, Defoe married Mary Tuffley, the daughter of a London merchant, receiving a dowry of £3,700 – a huge amount by the standards of the day. With his debts and political difficulties, the marriage may have been troubled, but it lasted 50 years and produced eight children.
In 1685, Defoe joined the ill-fated Monmouth Rebellion but gained a pardon, by which he escaped the Bloody Assizes of Judge George Jeffreys. Queen Mary and her husband William III were jointly crowned in 1688, and Defoe became one of William's close allies and a secret agent. Some of the new policies led to conflict with France, thus damaging prosperous trade relationships for Defoe, who had established himself as a merchant. In 1692, Defoe was arrested for debts of £700 (and his civets were seized), though his total debts may have amounted to £17,000. His laments were loud and he always defended unfortunate debtors, but there is evidence that his financial dealings were not always honest.
Following his release, he probably travelled in Europe and Scotland, and it may have been at this time that he traded wine to Cadiz, Porto, and Lisbon. By 1695, he was back in England, now formally using the name "Defoe" and serving as a "commissioner of the glass duty", responsible for collecting taxes on bottles. In 1696, he ran a tile and brick factory in what is now Tilbury, Essex and lived in the parish of Chadwell St Mary.
Defoe's first notable publication was An Essay Upon Projects, a series of proposals for social and economic improvement, published in 1697. From 1697 to 1698, he defended the right of King William III to a standing army during disarmament, after the Treaty of Ryswick (1697) had ended the Nine Years' War (1688–97). His most successful poem, The True-Born Englishman (1701), defended the king against the perceived xenophobia of his enemies, satirising the English claim to racial purity. In 1701, Defoe presented the Legion's Memorial to the Speaker of the House of Commons, later his employer Robert Harley, flanked by a guard of sixteen gentlemen of quality. It demanded the release of the Kentish petitioners, who had asked Parliament to support the king in an imminent war against France.
The death of William III in 1702 once again created a political upheaval, as the king was replaced by Queen Anne who immediately began her offensive against Nonconformists. Defoe was a natural target, and his pamphleteering and political activities resulted in his arrest and placement in a pillory on 31 July 1703, principally on account of his December 1702 pamphlet entitled The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters; Or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church, purporting to argue for their extermination. In it, he ruthlessly satirised both the High church Tories and those Dissenters who hypocritically practised so-called "occasional conformity", such as his Stoke Newington neighbour Sir Thomas Abney. It was published anonymously, but the true authorship was quickly discovered and Defoe was arrested. He was charged with seditious libel. Defoe was found guilty after a trial at the Old Bailey in front of the notoriously sadistic judge Salathiel Lovell. Lovell sentenced him to a punitive fine, to public humiliation in a pillory, and to an indeterminate length of imprisonment which would only end upon the discharge of the punitive fine. According to legend, the publication of his poem Hymn to the Pillory caused his audience at the pillory to throw flowers instead of the customary harmful and noxious objects and to drink to his health. The truth of this story is questioned by most scholars, although John Robert Moore later said that "no man in England but Defoe ever stood in the pillory and later rose to eminence among his fellow men".
After his three days in the pillory, Defoe went into Newgate Prison. Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, brokered his release in exchange for Defoe's co-operation as an intelligence agent for the Tories. In exchange for such co-operation with the rival political side, Harley paid some of Defoe's outstanding debts, improving his financial situation considerably. Within a week of his release from prison, Defoe witnessed the Great Storm of 1703, which raged through the night of 26/27 November. It caused severe damage to London and Bristol, uprooted millions of trees, and killed more than 8,000 people, mostly at sea. The event became the subject of Defoe's The Storm (1704), which includes a collection of witness accounts of the tempest. Many regard it as one of the world's first examples of modern journalism. In the same year, he set up his periodical A Review of the Affairs of France which supported the Harley Ministry, chronicling the events of the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–1714). The Review ran three times a week without interruption until 1713. Defoe was amazed that a man as gifted as Harley left vital state papers lying in the open, and warned that he was almost inviting an unscrupulous clerk to commit treason; his warnings were fully justified by the William Gregg affair. When Harley was ousted from the ministry in 1708, Defoe continued writing the Review to support Godolphin, then again to support Harley and the Tories in the Tory ministry of 1710–1714. The Tories fell from power with the death of Queen Anne, but Defoe continued doing intelligence work for the Whig government, writing "Tory" pamphlets that undermined the Tory point of view.
Not all of Defoe's pamphlet writing was political. One pamphlet was originally published anonymously, entitled "A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal the Next Day after her Death to One Mrs. Bargrave at Canterbury the 8th of September, 1705." It deals with interaction between the spiritual realm and the physical realm and was most likely written in support of Charles Drelincourt's The Christian Defense against the Fears of Death (1651). It describes Mrs. Bargrave's encounter with her old friend Mrs. Veal after she had died. It is clear from this piece and other writings that the political portion of Defoe's life was by no means his only focus.
As many as 545 titles have been ascribed to Defoe, ranging from satirical poems, political and religious pamphlets, and volumes. (Furbank and Owens argue for the much smaller number of 276 published items in Critical Bibliography (1998).) His ambitious business ventures saw him bankrupt by 1692, with a wife and seven children to support. In 1703, he published a satirical pamphlet against the High Tories and in favour of religious tolerance entitled The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters; Or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church. This pamphlet was widely misunderstood, as has happened with other ironic writings since, but eventually its author was prosecuted for seditious libel and was sentenced to be pilloried, fined 200 marks, and detained at the Queen's pleasure.
In despair, he wrote to William Paterson, the London Scot and founder of the Bank of England and part instigator of the Darien scheme, who was in the confidence of Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, leading minister and spymaster in the English Government. Harley accepted Defoe's services and released him in 1703. He immediately published The Review, which appeared weekly, then three times a week, written mostly by himself. This was the main mouthpiece of the English Government promoting the Act of Union 1707.
In 1709, Defoe authored a rather lengthy book entitled The History of the Union of Great Britain, an Edinburgh publication printed by the Heirs of Anderson. The book was not published anonymously and cites Defoe twice as being its author. The book attempts to explain the facts leading up to the Act of Union 1707, dating all the way back to 6 December 1604 when King James was presented with a proposal for unification. This so-called "first draft" for unification took place 100 years before the signing of the 1707 accord, which respectively preceded the commencement of Robinson Crusoe' by another ten years.
Defoe began his campaign in The Review and other pamphlets aimed at English opinion, claiming that it would end the threat from the north, gaining for the Treasury an "inexhaustible treasury of men", a valuable new market increasing the power of England. By September 1706, Harley ordered Defoe to Edinburgh as a secret agent to do everything possible to help secure acquiescence in the Treaty of Union. He was conscious of the risk to himself. Thanks to books such as The Letters of Daniel Defoe (edited by G. H. Healey, Oxford 1955), far more is known about his activities than is usual with such agents.
His first reports included vivid descriptions of violent demonstrations against the Union. "A Scots rabble is the worst of its kind", he reported. Years later John Clerk of Penicuik, a leading Unionist, wrote in his memoirs that,
He was a spy among us, but not known as such, otherwise the Mob of Edinburgh would pull him to pieces.
Defoe was a Presbyterian who had suffered in England for his convictions, and as such he was accepted as an adviser to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and committees of the Parliament of Scotland. He told Harley that he was "privy to all their folly" but "Perfectly unsuspected as with corresponding with anybody in England". He was then able to influence the proposals that were put to Parliament and reported,
Having had the honour to be always sent for the committee to whom these amendments were referred,
I have had the good fortune to break their measures in two particulars via the bounty on Corn and
proportion of the Excise.
For Scotland, he used different arguments, even the opposite of those which he used in England, usually ignoring the English doctrine of the Sovereignty of Parliament, for example, telling the Scots that they could have complete confidence in the guarantees in the Treaty. Some of his pamphlets were purported to be written by Scots, misleading even reputable historians into quoting them as evidence of Scottish opinion of the time. The same is true of a massive history of the Union which Defoe published in 1709 and which some historians still treat as a valuable contemporary source for their own works. Defoe took pains to give his history an air of objectivity by giving some space to arguments against the Union but always having the last word for himself.
He disposed of the main Union opponent, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, by ignoring him. Nor does he account for the deviousness of the Duke of Hamilton, the official leader of the various factions opposed to the Union, who seemingly betrayed his former colleagues when he switched to the Unionist/Government side in the decisive final stages of the debate.
Defoe made no attempt to explain why the same Parliament of Scotland which was so vehement for its independence from 1703–1705 became so supine in 1706. He received very little reward from his paymasters and of course no recognition for his services by the government. He made use of his Scottish experience to write his Tour thro' the whole Island of Great Britain, published in 1726, where he admitted that the increase of trade and population in Scotland which he had predicted as a consequence of the Union was "not the case, but rather the contrary".
Defoe's description of Glasgow (Glaschu) as a "Dear Green Place" has often been misquoted as a Gaelic translation for the town's name. The Gaelic Glas could mean grey or green, while chu means dog or hollow. Glaschu probably means "Green Hollow". The "Dear Green Place", like much of Scotland, was a hotbed of unrest against the Union. The local Tron minister urged his congregation "to up and anent for the City of God".
The "Dear Green Place" and "City of God" required government troops to put down the rioters tearing up copies of the Treaty at almost every mercat cross in Scotland. When Defoe visited in the mid-1720s, he claimed that the hostility towards his party was "because they were English and because of the Union, which they were almost universally exclaimed against".
The extent and particulars are widely contested concerning Defoe's writing in the period from the Tory fall in 1714 to the publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719. Defoe comments on the tendency to attribute tracts of uncertain authorship to him in his apologia Appeal to Honour and Justice (1715), a defence of his part in Harley's Tory ministry (1710–14). Other works that anticipate his novelistic career include The Family Instructor (1715), a conduct manual on religious duty; Minutes of the Negotiations of Monsr. Mesnager (1717), in which he impersonates Nicolas Mesnager, the French plenipotentiary who negotiated the Treaty of Utrecht (1713); and A Continuation of the Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy (1718), a satire of European politics and religion, ostensibly written by a Muslim in Paris.
From 1719 to 1724, Defoe published the novels for which he is famous (see below). In the final decade of his life, he also wrote conduct manuals, including Religious Courtship (1722), The Complete English Tradesman (1726) and The New Family Instructor (1727). He published a number of books decrying the breakdown of the social order, such as The Great Law of Subordination Considered (1724) and Everybody's Business is Nobody's Business (1725) and works on the supernatural, like The Political History of the Devil (1726), A System of Magick (1727) and An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions (1727). His works on foreign travel and trade include A General History of Discoveries and Improvements (1727) and Atlas Maritimus and Commercialis (1728). Perhaps his greatest achievement with the novels is the magisterial A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain (1724–27), which provided a panoramic survey of British trade on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.
Published in 1726, The Complete English Tradesman is an example of Defoe's political works. He discusses the role of the tradesman in England in comparison to tradesmen internationally, arguing that the British system of trade is far superior. He also implies that trade is the backbone of the British economy: "estate's a pond, but trade's a spring." He praises the practicality of trade not only within the economy but the social stratification as well. Most of the British gentry, he argues is at one time or another inextricably linked with the institution of trade, either through personal experience, marriage, or genealogy. Oftentimes younger members of noble families entered into trade. Marriage to a tradesmen's daughter by a nobleman was also common. Overall Defoe demonstrated a high respect for tradesmen, being one himself.
Not only does Defoe elevate individual British tradesmen to the level of gentleman, but he praises the entirety of British trade as a superior system. Trade, Defoe argues is a much better catalyst for social and economic change than war. He states the through imperialism and trade expansion the British empire is able to "increase commerce at home" through job creation and increased consumption. He states that increased consumption, by laws of supply and demand, increases production and in turn raises wages for the poor therefore lifting part of British society further out of poverty.Robinson Crusoe (1719)The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719)Serious reflections during the life and surprising adventures of Robinson Crusoe: with his Vision of the angelick world (1720)Memoirs of a Cavalier (1720)Captain Singleton (1720)A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)Colonel Jack (1722)Moll Flanders (1722)Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (1724)
Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe (1719) relates the story of a man's shipwreck on a desert island for thirty years and his subsequent adventures. Usually read as fiction, a coincidence of background geography suggests that this may be non-fiction. In the opening pages of The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, the author describes how Crusoe settled in Bedford, married and produced a family, and that when his wife died, he went off on these further adventures. Bedford is also the place where the brother of "H. F." in A Journal of the Plague Year retired to avoid the danger of the plague, so that by implication, if these works were not fiction, Defoe's family met Crusoe in Bedford, from whence the information in these books was gathered. Defoe went to school in Stoke Newington, London, with a friend named Caruso.
The novel has been assumed to be based in part on the story of the Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk, who spent four years stranded in the Juan Fernandez Islands, but this is inconsistent with the details of the narrative. The island Selkirk lived on was named Mas a Tierra (Closer to Land) at the time and was renamed Robinson Crusoe Island in 1966. It has been supposed that Defoe may have also been inspired by the Latin or English translation of a book by the Andalusian-Arab Muslim polymath Ibn Tufail, who was known as "Abubacer" in Europe. The Latin edition of the book was entitled Philosophus Autodidactus and it was an earlier novel that is also set on a deserted island.
Defoe's next novel was Captain Singleton (1720), an adventure story whose first half covers a traversal of Africa and whose second half taps into the contemporary fascination with piracy. It has been commended for its sensitive depiction of the close relationship between the hero and his religious mentor, Quaker William Walters.
Memoirs of a Cavalier (1720), is set during the Thirty Years' War and the English Civil War.
A novel often read as if it were non-fiction, this is his account of the Great Plague of London in 1665. It is undersigned by the initials "H. F.", suggesting the author's uncle Henry Foe. A Journal of the Plague Year is an historical novel based on extensive research which was published in 1722.
Bring out your dead! The ceaseless chant of doom echoed through a city of emptied streets and filled grave pits. For this was London in the year of 1665, the Year of the Great Plague ... In 1721, when the Black Death again threatened the European Continent, Daniel Defoe wrote "A Journal of the Plague Year" to alert an indifferent populace to the horror that was almost upon them. Through the eyes of a saddler who had chosen to remain while multitudes fled, the master realist vividly depicted a plague-stricken city. He re-enacted the terror of a helpless people caught in a tragedy they could not comprehend: the weak preying on the dying, the strong administering to the sick, the sinful orgies of the cynical, the quiet faith of the pious. With dramatic insight he captured for all time the death throes of a great city.
- Back Cover of the New American Library version of "A Journal of the Plague Year" ; Signet Classic (c) 1960
Colonel Jack (1722) follows an orphaned boy from a life of poverty and crime to colonial prosperity, military and marital imbroglios, and religious conversion, driven by a problematic notion of becoming a "gentleman."
Also in 1722, Defoe wrote Moll Flanders, another first-person picaresque novel of the fall and eventual redemption of a lone woman in 17th-century England. The titular heroine appears as a whore, bigamist, and thief, lives in The Mint, commits adultery and incest, and yet manages to retain the reader's sympathy.
Moll Flanders and Defoe's final novel, Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (1724), are examples of the remarkable way in which Defoe seems to inhabit his fictional characters (yet "drawn from life"), not least in that they are women. Roxanna narrates the moral and spiritual decline of a high society courtesan.
Daniel Defoe died on 24 April 1731, probably while in hiding from his creditors. He was interred in Bunhill Fields, (today Bunhill Fields Burial and Gardens), Borough of Islington, London, where a monument was erected to his memory in 1870.
Defoe is known to have used at least 198 pen names.