Daniel Defoe was born in London in 1660, probably in September, third
child and first son of James and Mary Defoe. Daniel received a very good
education, as his father hoped he would become a minister, but Daniel
wasn't interested. His family were Dissenters, Presbyterians to be
precise, and those sects were being persecuted a bit at this time, so
maybe Daniel had the right idea. He was always very tolerant of others'
religious ideas himself.
His mother died when he was ten, and his father sent him to a
boarding school, after which he attended Morton's Academy, as he could
not graduate from Oxford or Cambridge without taking an oath of loyalty
to the Church of England. He was a very good student, and his teacher,
the Reverend Mr. Norton himself, would later show up as a character in
some of Daniel's fiction. Daniel graduated in 1679, and by then he'd
pretty much decided against the ministry, though he wrote and spoke in
favor of the Dissenters all his life.
By 1683, Daniel was a successful young merchant, with a storefront in
an upscale part of London and no real ideas of becoming a writer at all.
On New Year's Day, 1684, he married Mary Tuffley, an heiress whose dowry
amounted to £3,700. Later that year, he joined the army of the rebel
Duke of Monmouth, who was attempting to take the throne from James II5.
When the rebellion failed, Daniel and many other troops were forced into
semi-exile. He traveled around the continent for three years, off and
on, as both tourist and merchant, and wrote very dangerous, very
anti-James II pamphlets. Daniel was very pleased when William and Mary
took charge, and wrote in favor of William in particular, but he was in
the minority there.
Daniel went bankrupt in 1692. He ended up owing over £17,000, and
though he paid off all but £5,000 within ten years, he was never again
free of debt. Though he still considered himself a merchant, first and
foremost, writing suddenly became a more prominent part of his life. In
1701, he wrote a poem called The True-Born Englishman which
became the best-selling poem ever at that time. It was so well-known
that he signed several of his later works as The True-Born Englishman,
and everyone knew exactly what that meant. Still, it was only a
pamphlet, which made Daniel the lowest form of writer as far as his
contemporaries were concerned. He also started taking on a few
"unofficial" government jobs8, most notably an
assignment to Scotland. There was at that time a movement to finally
unify England and Scotland, a movement which was very misunderstood by
the average Scotsman. So Daniel tried to explain things to them calmly.
There's really no way of telling how well the Scotland thing worked.
The next real event in his life was when he was pillioried in July 17039.
His crime, posted on a sign above his head, was that he wrote a pamphlet
called The Shortest Way with the Dissenters. You may recall that
Daniel himself had been labelled a Dissenter. This pamphlet, in true
Jonathan Swift-style, made several outrageous suggestions for dealing
with Dissenters, particularly those who practiced "occasional
conformity". It sold well, and the High Flyers (the group which
persecuted the Dissenters the most) in particular loved it, until
someone told them it was satirical. Then they had Daniel pillioried. It
wasn't quite as nasty of a punishment as it could have been, though--the
crowd respected their True-Born Englishman too much to throw rotten
tomatoes at him, the usual custom. He was the only person ever
pillioried who later went on to become a national hero.
He'd also gotten another prison term, though, and that was a problem.
His business failed while he was in Newgate. Desparate to get back on
his feet to support his wife and six children, he contacted Robert
Harley, Speaker of Parliament, whom Daniel probably knew from his spying
days. Robert appreciated Daniel's usefulness as a writer and manipulator
of popular opinion. From then on, Daniel had a steady job as a
pamphleteer for all kinds of ministries, Tory and Whig alike.
In 1706, he returned to Scotland and started up a newspaper in
Edinburgh called the Post-Man, which of course tried to put the
still-under-construction unification plans in the best possible light.
But Daniel, in his eternal quest for truth, actually bothered to learn
about Scotland and its people, a rather unusual thing for that time. He
also set up a really impressive intelligence-gathering network. The Act
of Union was made official on 1 May 1707, and Daniel was out of one job.
But he still had his pamphlets to fall back on, so things were all
The first volume of Robinson Crusoe was published on 25 April
1719, and it was a big hit, especially with the lower and middle
classes. Since that one worked so well, Daniel published Moll
Flanders in 1722, drawing heavily on his experiences in Newgate
prison to add realism. This novel got him the label of a social
historian, much, much later, of course. The point was, the public ate up
this kind of thing, and Daniel wrote lots of it. He also worked for a
publisher named Mr. Applebee between 1720 and 1726, who liked to publish
lives of condemned criminals. Daniel used to go to prison cells and even
the scaffold to receive manuscripts for these lives from the criminals
themselves. He sometimes goofed up on dates and numbers, but all of
these lives are wonderful studies of character and society, though often
a bit too heavy on the moral lessons by today's standards.
Daniel wrote on various economic issues of the day, as well as on the
problems of long-term colonization and exploration, showing that he
really was paying a lot of attention to everything. He even wrote a
travel book, A Tour Thro' the whole Island of Great Britain,
which was highly unusual for the time in that he'd actually travelled to
the places he wrote about. He was really kind of a Renaissance man, I
suppose, though he didn't quite live in the right time period for that.
He died in Cripplegate on 24 April 1731, of a lethargy.