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Donald E. Wilkes, Jr. Collection: Daniel Defoe

The Law Library thanks Research Assistant Savanna Nolan, (J.D. '13) for her assistance with this project.


Daniel Defoe, “a middle sized man of a brown complexion, and dark brown-colored hair, but wears a wig; with a hooked nose, a sharp chin, grey eyes and a large mole near his mouth,” was born either in 1660 or 1661 in parish of St. Giles in City of London (Zaleski). His parents, Alice and James Foe, were Puritans in faith and Cromwellites during the Commonwealth before the Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy (West, 2). Defoe’s childhood years were full of spectacular events: The Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, the Second Anglo-Dutch War of 1664-1667, the great bubonic plague in 1665, and the Great Fire in September of 1666 (Richetti, 2).

Although virtually nothing is known about Defoe’s early childhood, he was educated at dissenting schools from early on in his life. His father James Foe, a prominent businessman in London as an overseas trade merchant, sent Defoe to Dr. James Fisher’s school for Dissenters at Dorking in Surrey in 1670 (West, 8). Thereafter, at age of 16, he was sent to Morton’s Academy, in Newington Green, located in north of London (West, 9). This academy was “one of network of dissenting academies” founded by Charles Morton, who later became the first president of Harvard College (Richetti, 5). These dissenting academies were conceived as an alternative education for the sons of prosperous dissenters who were intended for ministry but barred from attending the Universities at Oxford and Cambridge, for they would not declare their adherence to the (Anglican) Church of England (Richetti, 4). Richetti suggests that Defoe must have felt isolated at school in Newington Green, “cut off from the exciting events unfolding in London such as the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis of 1680 and 1681, when Charles II dissolved parliament as it sought to exclude his brother James from the succession to the throne” and goes so far as to say that Defoe may have found his fascination with the political events of that time and it had diminished his zeal for becoming a clergyman (Richetti 4, 7; citing Maximillian E. Novak, Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions, pp. 52-55).

Thus, Defoe follows his father in trade and becomes a wholesale dealer of hosiery and other goods in 1681. Three years later he married Mary Tuffley and together, had six daughters. (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 15, pp. 681). With an enormous amount of dowry he received from her father, he was able to expand his wholesale trade globally (Richetti, 9). Richetti points out that Defoe’s early commercial experiences thought him the “cut and thrust of commercial wheeling and dealing, the risks and potentially great rewards of speculative ventures, of adventure capitalism” and “a series of spectacular failures as a wholesale merchant and entrepreneur would propel him for sheer physical survival into his life as a political operative and polemical journalist, where his identity as a dissenter would shape his career” (Richetti, 4).

Defoe’s most notable “spectacular failure” started in the early 1690s with one of his many bankruptcies. According to Richetti, the bankruptcy was apparently preceded by a number of lawsuits filed against Defoe, totaling eight documented, between 1688-1694 (Richetti, 16). Some of these lawsuits involved accusations of fraud, sharp dealings, and disagreements among his business associates. One lawsuit stands out as most amusing of all. It involved his mother-in-law, civet cats and their secretions. It was a botched project for Defoe, farming civet cats in Stoke Newington for their secretions, used in making perfumes. “He bought the seventy cats for about 850 pounds, in the hope of making scent from the musk of their anal glands, as the Dutch had been doing for years with great success” (West, 52). Richetti provides details of this legal drama. Defoe was “sued by the person from whom he had borrowed the money to buy the cats, he sold them to his widowed mother-in-law, Mary Tuffley, who in turn sued Defoe when it turned out that he did not really have the title to the cats, having used the money he had borrowed initially to pay a creditor” (Richetti, 16). Eventually he was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1692, to the tune of about $750,000 million dollars (in current purchasing power), and had to spent a few days in Fleet Prison and in the King’s Bench Prison for his debts (Richetti, 16; Oxford D.N.B., 681).

Defoe, in his post-bankruptcy years, received employment from men with connections to King William. He worked with a lottery and as an accountant for the commissioner for the glass duty, and once served as the accountant to Dalby Thomas, who controlled the African slave trade monopoly (Oxford D.N.B., 681). One of his most successful enterprises was brick factory, manufacturing of bricks and Dutch style curved roof tiles, both materials much in demand in those years as London rebuilt after the devastation of the Great Fire (West, 5). Historians seem to agree that the factory provided some of the tiles used in the construction of Greenwich Hospital, one of “Christopher Wren’s masterpieces.” (Richetti, 8).

Defoe’s name changes from Foe to Defoe, for first time in 1695 and at around the same time, Defoe emerges as a prolific writer (Richetti, 18). Defoe not only “invented both modern journalism and the modern novel,” (Zaleski) he seems to have invented the first “self-help” guide prevalent in modern society. It was his first substantial publication, An Essay upon Projects, (1697) which dealt with a set of proposals, or “projects” for improvements in English life and society based on his own experience in the commercial world (Oxford D.N.B., 681). According to Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, these proposals were “kinds of ideas that were making other men rich.”  Some of his notable works merit mentioning. His first best seller, A True Collection of the Writings of the Author of the True-Borne Englishman, was published on July 1703. This was a collected works of poems and political pamphlets, “a poem of high passion and mordant wit defending the reign of the Protestant King William III” (Zaleski). A year later, one of Defoe’s greatest achievements, the Review, started circulation. This work is considered as a “ground-breaking periodical” that “moved English journalism in new directions demonstrating for the first time, the possibilities of using history and news for propaganda purposes” (Oxford D.N.B. 683). And lastly, and most famous of all, Defoe gave the world the first novel, Robinson Crusoe, in 1719. Robinson Crusoe, like Defoe himself, “above all, however, it is the greatest mythic fantasy ever written of the solitary survivor who will never succumb. He will not starve, and he will not give into his paralyzing fear or extended isolation. Physically, mentally, and spiritually he survives and grows stronger” (Oxford D.N.B., 686).

According to Zaleski, “all of his writings, from novels to marriage manuals, from occult studies to political broadsides, stem from the viewpoint of a devout Dissenter fighting for survival in an Anglican nation.” Foes, as dissenters, followed their pastor, Dr. Samuel Annesley, in refusing to conform after the 1660 Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy and the Church of England to the Act of Uniformity, promulgated on St. Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1662 (Richetti, 3). Along with the Conventicle Acts in 1664 and in 1670, Clarendon Code (named after Charles II’s Lord Chancellor, Edward Hyde, Lord Clarendon), started persecution of dissenters in England (Richetti, 3). Soon, a full-scale controversy over occasional conformity broke out, and Defoe’s most revered man, King William, dies unexpectedly (Richetti, 21). Defoe, recognizing the prejudice and extreme oppression the bill presented, began a disastrous print campaign. The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, published in 1702, was “satirical hoax that misfired” (Richetti, 21), “in which [Defoe] suggested that the best way to handling religious nonconformists was to hang them” (Zaleski). The government who found it incendiary as well as seditious, and ordered the arrest for Defoe.

Defoe went into hiding and published a self-exculpatory pamphlet, A Brief Explanation of the Late Pamphlet, entitled Shortest Way with the Dissenters, in which he expressed amazement that people took it seriously. Nonetheless on May 1704, Defoe gets arrested and sent to the Newgate prison. He stood on trial and was convicted of seditious libel and sentenced to stand in pillory three times, pay fines and to be incarcerated again. West suggests that this is the same pillory at the Temple where Titus Oates had stood before Defoe himself. “Indeed, Oates may have seen [Defoe] there, for after the fall of James he was freed from prison, given a state pension and lived until 1705.” (West, 24)

Robert Harley, Speaker of the House of Commons, convinces Defoe to become a spy in exchange for his freedom. “Defoe was set free by edict of Queen Anne and enlisted as a spy for Her Majesty’s Government” (Zaleski). According to Oxford Dictionary of Biography, Defoe “extended the possibilities of counter-insurgency, invented practices that survive to the present day, and earned the reputation of master spy” (Oxford D.N.B., 683). After producing 566 books and pamphlets, Defoe’s life ends with a stroke on April 24, 1731. He died alone, hiding from debtors in lodgings on Rope Maker’s Alley in London (Zaleski). Defoe was buried in Bunhill Fields, the great cemetery for nonconformists, on April 26, 1731 (Oxford D.N.B., 690).

Defoe’s Participation in Monmouth Rebellion

It is important to keep in mind that so much of Defoe’s life is uncertain, including his participation in Monmouth’s rebellion, for all we have is his own words that are reflected in his writings. Defoe had a lifelong reluctance to make public the least information about himself, and sometimes disguised his name, address and even handwriting. According to West, and other historians agree, that “in all the millions of words he wrote, Defoe never once described or even directly acknowledged his presence at Sedgemoor, nor his services to William of Orange” (West 21). “Yet it is in his fiction that Defoe sometimes describes the very events that he had himself experienced in the reign of James II” (West, 21). For instance, when Duke of Monmouth landed at Lyme, on June 11, 1685, Defoe remarked in the Review, dated March 13, 1713, that “I remember, how boldly abundance of men talked for the Duke of Monmouth when he first landed; but if half of them had as boldly joined him sword in hand, he had never been routed” (West 27, citing Review, 13 March 1713). Nonetheless, historians agree at least the following facts about Defoe’s participation in Monmouth Rebellion.

Defoe had joined Monmouth’s revolt in June 1685, somehow managed to escape the capture after the defeat, and was pardoned for taking part in the uprising in May 1687 (Backscheider, 34-40). Paula Backscheider further states that he had fought at Sedgemoor under the banner “Fear nothing but God,” describing themselves as “in arms for the defense and vindication of the Protestant Religion” (Backscheider, at 37, citing Earle, Monmouth’s Rebels, ix, 4-5, 10, 19-25, 142). Author F. Bastian, one of the more skeptical authors, examines Defoe’s participation in a critical perspective. Stating that Defoe’s claim that he had been “in arms under the Duke of Monmouth,” has been doubted by many, and raising questions as to what he perceives as “seemingly irreconcilable events,” goes on to concede that “it would have been possible for him to have joined Monmouth’s forces belatedly and briefly, slipping back home before his absence was generally known or could begin to appear sinister” (Bastian, 114). Backscheider discredits the fact that Defoe might have been at the battle by coincidence, as a merchant doing business in the west country. She supports this argument by stating that “Defoe would have needed to get to a port at least as far west as Brighton to be credible as a merchant on his way to the continent on business” (Backscheider, 39). Furthermore, the she responds to the mysterious and incredible absence of Defoe’s name in the list that was ordered by the lord mayor on July 9, 1685, to “go to every house” to produce names of absent men; stating that “Defoe’s habitual travels, his mother-in-law’s house in nearby Kingsland, where he was known to visit for extended periods, the reputation of the Foe family, and the anti-James City temper keep Defoe’s name off the list” (Backscheider, 39; citing CLRO Journal of Common Council 50, fol. 138, for July 1685; CLRO Misc. MS. 64. 13; Defoe is not on the list). Additionally, three of Defoe’s classmates from Morton school were among those captured after the battle and executed, so “it is likely that Defoe was among the dispersed remnants of the defeated army.” And miraculously, Defoe evaded the Bloody Assizes (Richetti, 10).

Although Defoe never explained how or when he became one of the men who joined Monmouth, the only proof that he did so lies in the royal pardon given to him in 1687, published in the Calendar of State Papers Domestic Series (West, 31; Bastian, 112, cites AH & J, in Boulton, p. 180; Cal. S. P. (Dom), James II, vol II (Jan 1686 – May 1687), item 1833). Referring to Defoe’s own words in Appeal to Honour and Justice (1715), Richetti states that “Defoe claimed that he ‘had been in arms under the Duke of Monmouth,’ and that is borne out by his appearance in 1687 on a list of thirty-three people pardoned for their part in the late rebellion” (Richetti, 10). According to Richetti, this pardon was issued on May 31, 1687 from Windsor to the Justices of Assize and Gaol Delivery for the Western Circuit, naming thirty-three persons, “who were engaged in the late rebellion,” and to whom the King had “extended his grace and mercy,” “for causing the said persons to be inserted in the next General Pardon, without any condition of Transportation” (Richetti, 10). According to Bastian, thirtieth in the list appeared the name of Daniel Foe (Bastian, 122, citing Cal. S. P. (Dom) James II, vol II (Jan 1686-May 1687) item 1833).

Finally, “just as we do not know how he came to be at the Battle of Sedgemoor, we can only surmise how he escaped from the wrath of ...Judge Jeffreys” (West, 31). West suggests that he had a horse, and had a valid reason for traveling in the West Country because Devon and Somerset were among the places he visited in order to buy hosiery (West 31). West states that such silence about his activities during this time was testament to his secretive and mysterious nature; “yet he also had justified fears of political retaliation” (West,22). “As we can see from his novels, Defoe in his sixties still imagined that he was being hunted by grim and implacable enemies, such as Judge Jeffreys” (West. 22). Backscheider notes that Defoe was luckier than other rebels and suggests that he may have carried a pass merchants got from the lord mayor or the secretary of state (Backscheider, 39).

Defoe’s motivation is clear. Bastian states that as soon as James II became the King of England, Defoe soon convinced himself that James had no right to the throne, citing “[f]or by part, I thank God, that when he was King, I never owned him, never swore to him, never prayed for him (as King) never paid any act of homage to him, never so much as drank his health, but looked on him as a person who, being Popish, had no right to rule” (Bastion 112, citing the Review, vii, 308). Defoe, as a dissenter, was facing new religious persecution while “living in a charter less City no longer able to protect Dissenters from the rigors of the Clarendon Code.” This motivated Defoe to join the rebellion (Backscheider, 35). Defoe “took an active and perilous part in the great event that changed forever the course of English history” (West 21).

Defoe’s first known pamphlet, A Letter to a Dissenter from his Friend at the Hague, Concerning the Penal Laws and the Test; showing that the Popular Plea for Liberty of Conscience is not concerned in that Quarter, is one of many examples of his active and perilous participation, in addition to Monmouth Rebellion. According to West, the Seven Bishops’ confinement in the Tower for refusing to support a Declaration of Indulgence, and James’ act of suspending penal laws against both the Nonconformists to obtain their support to weaken the Church of England caused a “crisis of conscience among the Dissenters, inspiring Defoe’s first known pamphlet” (West, 32).

“I suppose you are very busie about the choice of Parliament-Men and all are hard at work to elect such members as may comply with the great design to repeal the Penal Laws and the Test. The pretense I confess is very plausible, for all men are found of liberty of conscience, who dissent from the established religion; but you and I have lived long enough in the world to observe that the most pernicious designs have been carried on under the most plausible pretenses; and that is reason enough to enquire whether there be no danger of it now.”

West explains that Defoe saw James’ offer as an attempt to “wheedle unthinking people and to catch them with a very inviting bait,” the only purpose of the repeal of the Test Act “must be to give a legal qualifications to Papists to possess all places of honour, profit and trust in the nation; that is to put your lives and liberties in their hands” This was Defoe’s attempt to advise his fellow Protestants not to believe in Papists offers of toleration: “For it would be very surprising to find a Roman Catholic prince, whose conscience is directed by a Jesuit” (West 34).

According to Richetti, the dynastic shift from James II to William Orange was the most important political moment in Defoe’s life. Not only Defoe rode out to greet William III when he landed at Brigham on November 5, 1668, Defoe took part in the ceremonies in London that welcomed the new king on October 29, 1689 on Lord Mayor’s Day (West 21). He became the champion of William III’s cause, “whose memory he continued to revere all his life in his writing” (Richetti, 12).  His second most popular work, the January 1701 poem The True-Born Englishman, was written in defense of William III, to counter what he saw as “the pernicious slanders and xenophobic attack” in the Whig journalist John Tutchin’s poem, The Foreigners (Richetti, 12). Although Defoe was clearly a supporter of William and his policies, Richetti states that whether Defoe was actually an intimate counselor of William’s is “like so much else in his life uncertain” (Richetti, 13).


Paula R. Backscheider, Daniel Defoe page cited 1989 The Johns Hopkins University Press.

F. Bastion: Defoe’s Early Life. 1981 Barnes & Noble Books.

John Richetti: The Life of Daniel Defoe. 2005 Blackwell Publishing.

Richard West: Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange, Surprising Adventures. 1998 Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc..

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Volume 15, 2004 Oxford University Press.

Philip Zaleski, Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange, Surprising Adventures, 94 First Things 55-58 (1999).

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