Daniel Defoe Biography


Early Life

One of three children, Daniel Defoe was born to James Foe, a butcher, and his wife Alice, in the parish of St. Giles, Cripplegate, London about 1660. It seems that Defoe's name went through various spellings: Foe, Faugh, DuFoo, Du'Foe, DeFoe, DeFooe, Dukow (a sexton's error) and Daniel Defoe, Esq. Often Defoe signed himself D.F., D.D.F. or D.Foe.

James Foe was of middle-class stock, although his mother was apparently higher-born. Despite this, Defoe lived his early years in poverty and hardship because of the political and religious views of his father, a pious Dissenter from the Church of England and follower of Oliver Cromwell.

When Defoe was five or six years old, two appalling events occurred which deeply affected him: the Plague and the Great Fire of London. In his later writings he vividly describes both events and presents a particularly unforgettable picture of them in his Journal of the Plague Year (1722).

Because his father was a Dissenter, Daniel was denied the privilege of attending either Oxford or Cambridge. Nevertheless, dissenting academies had been established in various parts of the country. It was to one of these, Stoke Newington Academy, kept by Charles Morton, that Defoe was sent when he was ten years old to prepare for the Presbyterian ministry. He attended the academy from 1674 to 1679 and learned there science and the humanities. Latin, however, was not taught, an omission which Daniel regretted all his life for he felt every learned man should have a command of that language. Morton lectured in English and required his boys to write in their native language. It was under Mr. Morton's tutelage that Daniel learned to write in the clear colloquial style he is known for.

Introduction to Business

After four years at the academy, Daniel decided against becoming a minister and turned his attention to the business world. This was a time when the tempo of business was quickening. In two or three years fortunes were being made on the Exchange which would take forty years to amass in a small business. The London merchant was gaining a foothold in the economy of the country because of the rapid increase of trade. It was during the 1680's that the modern business world was born. Defoe became an apprentice to a hosiery merchant and two years later he became a haberdasher with a shop in a high-rent district in the heart of London.

The Pamphleteer

In 1683 he published his first political pamphlet. One year later on January 1, 1684, he married Mary Tuffley, who brought him a dowry of £3,700. The couple had seven children during their forty-seven years of married life.

In 1685, Defoe became involved in the Duke of Monmouth's fight to take the throne of England from his uncle, James Stuart. James, a Catholic, not only opposed religious freedom for Protestants, but tried to establish the precept of divine right of kings over his fellow Roman Catholics.

Between 1687–88 several tracts of protest against the King are attributed to Defoe. Shortly thereafter, Defoe spent some time traveling on the Continent where he won the favor of William of Orange who subsequently invaded England in 1688 and forced James Stuart into exile in France. He held several minor offices under William and served as his confidant and advisor. Most of the thirty-six books and tracts he published during William's reign supported the King's policies.


Business now became Defoe's main interest. In January, 1688, he was admitted as a liveryman to the City of London. He became a merchant and was beginning to prosper when war broke out with France in 1692 and trade was severely interrupted. Defoe was forced into bankruptcy and it took him ten years to pay off all but £5,000 of the original £17,000 debt incurred.

More Political Maneuverings

His first book, An Essay Upon Projects, was published in 1698. It set forth his views on road building and maintenance, labor, banks, insurance, income tax, friendly societies, asylums for idiots, academies, and schools for women.

William of Orange was not a popular ruler among the English because he was Dutch. Defoe, however, admired the King who, like Defoe, believed in ideas like religious tolerance, union between England and Scotland, and expansion of English trade. As an outgrowth of his admiration for William, who was foreign-born, Defoe wrote a satirical poem, "The True-Born Englishman." It showed how the English population was actually composed of many different races and nationalities. This poem won favor among the populace but was viewed with disfavor by the Tories.

When William died in 1702, Defoe fell from favor. During the reign of William, the Dissenters had enjoyed a period of relative peace, but with the accession of Anne, they were again persecuted. Matters for Defoe were not improved when he anonymously published The Shortest Way With the Dissenters, a satirical piece which inflamed Tories and Whigs alike because both misinterpreted it. His authorship was soon discovered and a warrant for his arrest was issued charging him with high crimes and misdemeanors. Defoe absconded but soon surrendered and was convicted. He was put into Newgate Prison where he remained for three months gathering impressions, many of which he later used in his books. After three months, Defoe was put in the pillory for three days where he fared quite well at the hands of the mob, who might have at last understood the true meaning of his satiric piece. An outcome of this experience in the pillory was a poem titled Hymn to the Pillory.

With Defoe's imprisonment, business at his tile factory at Tilbury declined and his family became destitute. Seemingly a bargain was struck up between Defoe and Robert Harley, a rising Tory politician who was Speaker of the House of Parliament. By forcing Defoe to remain in prison for several months after his experience on the pillory and then securing his release at a strategic moment of despair, he bought Defoe's loyalty for Queen Anne.

With Harley's backing, Defoe began publishing a newspaper entitled The Review in 1704. It continued to be published for seven years, much of the time as an organ for the Tory Government.

In 1706 Defoe went to Scotland as a secret-service agent for Harley in an effort to cement relations between England and Scotland. His protracted stay in Scotland was explained as a means for him to further his business interests and later as a means to research facts in order to write a history of the union, which he did finally publish in 1709. About two years after he left, when the union between Scotland and England was accomplished, he returned to England.

Harley fell from power in 1708, shortly after Defoe's return from Scotland. Defoe then switched his loyalty to Sidney Godolphin, Harley's successor, and tried to switch back when Harley returned to power as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1710. During this time there was some strain between the two men, which became apparent when Defoe lost favor in 1713 and was replaced by Jonathan Swift, another pamphleteer.

An unhappy man with waning fortunes, Defoe moved his family to a home in Stoke Newington, where he continued to publish The Review, in which he expressed his horror at the suggestion of bringing back the exiled Stuarts after the anticipated death of the ailing Queen Anne. His quick publication of three pamphlets dealing with the Succession led to his arrest on April 11, 1713 at his house in Newington and subsequent imprisonment in Newgate. He was freed shortly thereafter when he paid his bail. On November 20th he received a pardon signed by Bolingbroke on behalf of the Queen.

June 11, 1713, saw the end of The Review which had outlived its usefulness because of Defoe's constant switches from the Whigs to the Tories. He now began writing for the Mercator which appeared regularly until July 20, 1714.

After Queen Anne's death in July, 1714, George I became King of England. On August 28th Defoe was again arrested because of a libelous letter which he had supposedly written for the Flying Post. This situation revealed his shady involvement with the printer of the Flying Post, William Hurt, who continued to print the paper in conjunction with Defoe even though the owner fired him and hired another printer. Thus readers found themselves confronted with two papers of the same name. In 1715 Defoe was brought to trial and found guilty. Sentence was deferred until the following term and seemingly it was completely withheld, for in September of the same year Defoe became more active than ever before in political journalism, writing numerous tracts and contributing to numerous newspapers and other periodicals. He was also secretly in the service of the Whigs while openly known as a Tory.

On July 12, 1715, Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, was impeached and brought to the Tower. In this same year Defoe published The Family Instructor, a series of moral dialogues of instruction between parents and children, husband and wives, masters and servants.

Harley was in prison for two years before a date was set for his trial. On a petition from Harley himself, his trial date was set for June 24, 1717. Just one day prior to the trial, a volume was published titled, Minutes of the Negociations of Mons. Mesnager at the Court of England, Towards the Close of the Last Reign, which, if a true account, would prove Harley not guilty of the charges on which he was about to stand trial. Many believed the Minutes were written by Defoe in an effort to save Harley, but Defoe repeatedly denied this. Shortly after this episode, Defoe wrote for Nathaniel Mist's Journal in support of the Tories while secretly writing for the opposition Whig Journal, Mercurius Britannicus. It was not until 1724 that his political deception was discovered by Mist, at which time the two men had a fight. Neither was seriously hurt but their collaboration was at an end.

The Novelist

In 1719 Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe, which opened the way for a new literary form which was able to reach a new reading public consisting of the middle and lower classes. The novel was supposedly based on the adventures of Alexander Selkirk, whom Defoe had met personally.

After Robinson Crusoe came other narratives, among them Captain Singleton in 1720, Moll Flanders in 1722, Colonel Jack in 1722, Memoirs of a Cavalier in 1724 and Roxana in 1724. Meanwhile, Defoe continued writing his pamphlets and news articles while also engaging himself in numerous business ventures.

Defoe continued writing until 1728. During that same year he was harassed by Mary Brooke for a debt that he had long since thought settled. To escape this harassment and possible loss of property and fortune, he took lodging in a rooming house in Ropemaker's Alley, where he died at age 70 on April 26, 1731. Defoe was subsequently buried in Bunhill Fields under the name "Mr. Dubow," a misspelling by the gravedigger.