Daniel Defoe, an English novelist and political writer, born in London in 1661, died there, April 24, 1731. He was the son of a butcher of the parish of St. Giles, Cripplegate, and was admitted by right of birth to the freedom of the city in 1688, under the name of Daniel Foe, but afterward assumed that of Defoe. He was educated in a dissenting academy at Newington Green, near London, and in 1680 was nominated a Presbyterian minister, but never followed that vocation. He published in 1682 a pamphlet entitled "Speculum Crape-Gownorum, or a Looking-Glass for the Young Academics," a lampoon on prevalent high-church notions. In 1683, when the Ottomans advanced into Austria, he issued his "Treatise against the Turks," combating the general sentiment in favor of the latter, and arguing that it was "better that the popish house of Austria should ruin the Protestants in Hungary, than that the infidel house of Ottoman should ruin both Protestants and Papists." In 1685 he enlisted, under the duke of Monmouth, in the rebellion against James II., and afterward went to London, where he became a hose factor. In 1687 he published a tract assailing the proclamation of King James for the repeal of the penal laws.
He hailed the revolution of 1688 as the salvation of Protestantism, and was one of the volunteers who escorted William and Mary from Whitehall to the mansion house, Oct. 29, 1689. In 1692 he was declared bankrupt and was obliged to abscond, but compounded with his creditors, they accepting his personal bonds, which he punctually paid. Subsequently he discharged his full liabilities to such of his creditors as had themselves fallen into distress. In 1695 he was appointed accountant to the commissioners of the glass duties, in which service he continued till the suppression of the tax in 1699. He published in 1697 an "Essay on Projects," which proposed the establishment of a society for making a general reformation in manners and language; and in 1701 "The True-born Englishman," a poetical satire commencing with the well known couplet:
Wherever God erects a house of prayer, The devil always builds a chapel there.
It was designed to vindicate King William from the odium which had been thrown upon him in a poem entitled "The Foreigners," had an almost unexampled sale, 80,000 pirated copies being sold on the street, and obtained for the author direct personal intercourse with the king. In 1701, when the bearers of the famous Kentish petition were imprisoned by order of the house of commons, Defoe is said to have been the man who composed and presented a threatening remonstrance, signed "Legion," claiming to be sent by 200,000 Englishmen, which produced immense commotion, and for a time deterred several members from attending the house. Two other tracts speedily followed, in one of which he eloquently maintained the original rights of the collective body of the people, and in the other declared the reasons against a war with France. The latter, though adverse to the favorite policy of William, did not excite his displeasure, and he was till his death the patron and friend of Defoe. In 1702 he published "The Shortest Way with Dissenters," a satire in which he assumed the tone of a high churchman, and gravely proposed to establish the church and rid the land of dissenters by hanging their ministers and banishing their people.
His satires had already mortified and offended many of the tory leaders, through whose influence his pamphlet was now voted a libel on the house of commons and was ordered to be burned by the common hangman. An order was issued offering £50 reward for his arrest, in which he is described as "a middle-sized, spare man, about 40 years old, of a brown complexion, and dark brown colored hair, but wears a wig; a hooked nose, sharp chin, gray eyes, and a large mole near his mouth." He was at this time owner of some brick and pantile works near Tilbury fort, from which he absconded; but he gave himself up when a prosecution was again begun against his publisher, and was condemned to be fined, pilloried, and imprisoned. During his two years' imprisonment in Newgate he began a semi-weekly paper, entitled "The Review," which was continued till 1713. His liberation was due to the solicitation of Harley, afterward earl of Oxford. Though occasionally employed in the service of the queen, and once upon a secret mission in a foreign country, he continued his literary labors, and published in 1705 "The Consolidator, or Memoirs of Sundry Transactions in the Moon," in which he developed a lunar language, and made the lunar politicians discuss the wars of Charles XII. of Sweden; in 1706, the satire Be Jure Divino, in which he attacked the doctrines of passive obedience and divine right; and also several treatises relating to the union with Scotland, which he was efficient in promoting, being sent by the cabinet of Queen Anne on an important mission to Edinburgh; in 1709, a "History of the Union," which is the most authentic on the subject; and from 1711 to 1713, a series of pamphlets against the insinuations of the Jacobites and the schemes of the pretender.
The most notable of these were " What if the Queen should die?" and "What if the Pretender should come? "The irony of the titles was misapprehended, and he was again fined and for four months committed to Newgate in 1713, where he finished his "Review." After the death of the queen his enemies so assailed him from every quarter, that in 1715 he published a general defence of his conduct under the title of "An Appeal to Honor and Justice." He had not finished this when he was struck with apoplexy, and after languishing for six weeks recovered. He now determined to abandon political satire, and write works for the promotion of religion and virtue. Such were his "Family Instructor" (1715) and "Religious Courtship" (1722). In 1719 appeared "The Life and strange surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, who lived eight and twenty years all alone in an uninhabited island on the coast of America, near the mouth of the great river Orinoco," the most popular of all his works. The publisher, who purchased the MS. after all others had refused it, is said to have cleared £1,000 by it.
He was accused by his enemies, who were numerous and bitter, of having stolen the idea and even the materials of "Robinson Crusoe" from the narrative of Alexander Selkirk; but the charge was wholly without foundation. Selkirk was not wrecked at all, but voluntarily went ashore on Juan Fernandez, which at that time was as well known and more frequented by ships than now. Crusoe's island, as the title of his narrative states, was in the northern hemisphere, in the Caribbean sea, near the mouth of the Orinoco; and the most probable prototype of Defoe's hero was Peter Serrano, who in the 16th century was shipwrecked and lived alone for several years on an island in the Caribbean sea near the mouth of the Orinoco. His story is told at full length in Garcilaso's "History of Peru," a translation of which was published in London 20 years before "Robinson Crusoe" was written, and could hardly have escaped Defoe's notice, as the book attracted great attention, and Serrano's story is in the first chapter. After "Robinson Crusoe" his best known work is "The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders, written from her own Memorandums" (1721), the history of a woman of the town transported to Virginia. Among his other works are "The Life and Piracies of Captain Singleton " (1720), "The Life of Colonel Jack " and "Journal of the Plague in 1665 " (1722), "The Adventures of Roxana" (1724), "A New Voyage round the World, by a Course never sailed before" (1725), "The Memoirs of a Cavalier," and " The Political History of the Devil." He also wrote important economic and commercial treatises, entitled "The Complete English Tradesman," "An Essay on the Treaty of Commerce with France," "A Plan of the English Commerce," and "Giving Alms no Charity." The most prominent characteristic of. his fictions is the distinctness of reality which he gives to them by the elaborate and precise statement of details; which was turned to practical account in a curious way in his "Apparition of Mrs. Veal," written to create a demand for an unsalable book. (See Drelin-court.) The "Memoirs of a Cavalier" and "Journal of the Plague " have been mistaken for real history.
After an indefatigable and checkered life, Defoe died in the parish of his birth, insolvent, and the author of 210 books and pamphlets. He thus summed up the scenes of his career:
No man has tasted different fortunes more; And thirteen times I have been rich and poor.
Though remembered chiefly as a novelist, he was during 30 years a leader in the fierce partisan strife by which, under William of Orange, constitutional liberty was realized in England, and has been pronounced "the most thorough Englishman and writer of his day, a model of integrity, and as consistent, sincere, and brave as he was gifted." The best editions of his works, though incomplete, are that of London (3 vols., 1840-'43), with a memoir by William Hazlitt, and that of Oxford (20 vols., 1840-'41), with memoirs and notes by Sir Walter Scott and others. In September, 1870, a monument was erected to his memory in the cemetery of Bunhill Fields, where he was buried. It bears this inscription: " Daniel De Foe, born 1G61, died 1731; author of Robinson Crusoe." His life has been written by George Chalmers (4to, London, 1785) and Walter Wilson (3 vols. 8vo, London, 1830).