Daniel Defoe was born in 1660 in Cripplegate, just outside the walls of the City of London. His parents, James and Alice Foe, were Dissenters—Protestants who refused to accept the authority of the Anglican Church (also known as the Church of England).
In 1670 Defoe's mother died and he was sent to boarding school. He attended Charles Morton's academy at Newington Green, where he received an excellent education and developed a taste for political radicalism.
Defoe finished his studies at Morton in 1679 and entered the hosiery business. In 1684 he married Mary Tuffley, a wealthy young woman. He prospered in business and became a member of the Butcher's Company—one of several companies that controlled business in London. He also gained several influential friends in the government.
Unfortunately. Defoe overextended his investments—at one point he owed seventeen thousand pounds—and was sued eight times between 1688 and 1694, ending up in debtor's prison in 1692. However, King William III proved to be a true patron and by the late 1690s Defoe's fortunes were on the mend.
His first important work. An Essay upon Projects (1697), proposed social improvement schemes; his first profitable work was a political poem satirizing xenophobia. The True-Born Englishman (1701).
After the death of William III, Queen Anne succeeded him on the English throne. There was no one to protect Defoe when he was revealed as the author of The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702), A pamphlet which satirically advocated extermination of religious nonconformists. For his work, Defoe suffered three days in the pillory—but he was somewhat vindicated when the crowd threw flowers instead of rotten vegetables. Meanwhile, he went bankrupt.
Robert Harley, the Tory who headed Queen Anne's government, made Defoe a spy and forced him to gather information on his political opponents. Defoe's opinion journal, The Review, became a mouthpiece for Harley's views. While a Tory spy, Defoe toured Britain and invested in Scotland. In 1707, the year that England and Scotland were united in the Act of Union, Defoe owned every newspaper in Edinburgh.
Queen Anne's death in 1714 precipitated the decline of the Tory Party and put Defoe—a Tory spy but a Whig at heart—in an awkward position. When Defoe was imprisoned for slanderous remarks, Lord Chief Justice Parker decided to release Defoe and make him a spy for George I. Defoe became saboteur of the anti-government Tory paper, Weekly Journal.
Meanwhile. Defoe experimented with prose and began to write innovative fiction. His first novel was his 1717 "memoir" chronicling the story of peace negotiations with France.
In 1719 Robinson Crusoe was published to commercial success. It was followed by lour more very popular "biographies," as well as essays on crime, the family, and economics. He died in 1731.
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