Daniel Defoe Biography

Daniel Defoe Biography

Daniel Defoe was a survivor—and that's an understatement. He was young and vulnerable when an outbreak of the bubonic plague attacked England, killing hundreds of thousands of people all around him, but he survived. Then in 1666, when Defoe was not yet a teen, the Great Fire of London burned down a large portion of the city, including his entire neighborhood, leaving only his family’s and one neighbor’s houses standing. It’s no wonder, then, that his most famous book, Robinson Crusoe, is filled with taut adventure. Defoe’s novel is a fictional autobiography of Crusoe, who survived twenty-eight years on an island before he was rescued. The novel has remained so popular there is now a real island that bears the hero’s name.

Facts and Trivia

  • Daniel Defoe is sometimes credited with being the “father” of the English novel. Though that title is endlessly debated by scholars, Defoe undoubtedly did popularize the form with his Robinson Crusoe.
  • Defoe must have written every day of his life in order to publish almost four hundred works (books, pamphlets, and journals) on topics that ranged from crime to spiritualism.
  • Defoe was criticized in his time for selling his writing talents to any politician who would pay him. In other words, no one trusted him because he would take any side of an issue for the right price. His critics said he lacked integrity.
  • Defoe was a merchant by trade but was bad with money—so bad that he ended up in debtors’ prison. And in 1703, Defoe was also a political prisoner for criticizing the government. People in the streets drank and cheered as he read poetry from his cell.
  • Defoe often mocked people in power with his writing, so he often resorted to publishing under pseudonyms. The most outlandish pen name he ever used was “Heliostrapolis, secretary to the Emperor of the Moon.”


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
0111201539-Defoe.jpg Daniel Defoe (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Because of his inventiveness, his eye for detail, and his stylistic adeptness, Defoe was a great journalist and the creator of fiction that set the standard for the English novel.

Early Life

Daniel Defoe was born in St. Giles Cripplegate, London, the son of James Foe, a tallow chandler who later acted as an auditor for the Butchers’ Company (Daniel changed his name to Defoe in 1695). Little is known about Daniel’s mother, Alice, except that she came from Dissenting stock and, like her husband, was a Presbyterian. She died when Daniel was eight.

Daniel’s formal education began at the Reverend James Fisher’s school at Dorking, Surrey. Since Dissenters were refused admission to the universities at Oxford and Cambridge, Defoe then went to the Reverend Charles Morton’s small college at Newington Green—which, Defoe later commented, lacked the intellectual stimulus of the great universities.

Unlike his classmates, most of whom entered the ministry, when he left school in 1680 Daniel went into trade as a hose-factor, seeking out and distributing various sorts of goods. The business necessitated extensive travel in Europe. Since he was a keen observer, he thus gained knowledge of people and places that would be useful in his writing. In 1684, he married Mary Tuffley, the daughter of a prosperous wine-cooper, who provided her with a considerable dowry. Mary was to bear her husband eight children.

The young merchant then became increasingly active on the political scene. In 1683, he published his first journalistic effort, a political tract. Two years later, he joined the army of Charles II’s illegitimate son, the Protestant duke of Monmouth, who was attempting to seize the throne from Catholic James II. When the rebellion failed, Daniel may have fled the country; in any case, two years later a Daniel Foe was pardoned for taking part in the uprising. In 1688, when William of Orange and his wife Mary, both staunch Protestants, became England’s monarchs, Daniel Foe was a highly visible supporter of the new regime.

His political contacts served him well, for his business affairs were in dire straits, in part because of imprudent ventures, in part because of heavy shipping losses incurred during a war with France. In 1692, Foe declared bankruptcy, and for a time only his income from appointments in the Whig government enabled him to support his family. He added the prefix to his name in 1695, perhaps to suggest to his new associates that he had an aristocratic background. During this period, Defoe also became a secret agent for William III; at the same time, he was again involved in a business venture, a brick and roof-tile factory near London. When it prospered, Defoe was able to pay off most of his debts, to buy a new house, and even to keep a coach. However, like the characters in his novels, he was soon to discover how abruptly Providence could change the direction of one’s life. At thirty-seven, Defoe became a writer.

Life’s Work

Defoe’s new life began in 1697 with the publication of his first signed work, An Essay upon Projects. In it, he suggested that the nation would benefit by educating women, providing care for the mentally retarded, setting up insurance, and instituting an income tax. The book is still of interest, demonstrating as it does Defoe’s original mind, his attention to detail, and the clarity of his prose. There is also much of lasting value to be found among the propaganda pieces that Defoe now began turning out, for example, the long doggerel poem The True-Born Englishman (1701), a brilliant work that countered attacks on William as a foreigner by pointing out that the English themselves were of mixed ancestry. The poem was extremely popular; according to the author, the first edition alone sold more than eighty thousand copies.

After William died in 1702 and the Tories rose to power, the Dissenters found themselves threatened by Tory extremists, and Defoe responded by writing The Shortest Way with Dissenters. Though the pamphlet appeared to urge the Tories to further action against nonconformists, it was actually a parody of the Tories at their most intolerant. When his intent became clear, Defoe was arrested, convicted of seditious libel, and sentenced to stand three times in the pillory, pay a large fine, and remain in jail for an indeterminate period. Defoe’s response was to write a poem in praise of liberty called “A Hymn to the Pillory.” Although Defoe was roundly cheered by the populace while he was in the pillory, he was deserted by the Whig leadership. It was the Tory leader Robert Harley who obtained a pardon for Defoe and also found him financial aid, for during his six months in prison the factory had failed, and Defoe was once again bankrupt.

Defoe now became a full-time professional journalist in the service of the Tories. It is difficult to believe that a single person could write so much, and so...

(The entire section is 2059 words.)

Daniel Defoe Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

The author of 547 publications, Defoe was a ministerial student, a merchant, an importer, and a political agent for the English monarchs William and Mary. He was representative of the English intellectual revolution that denounced traditional authority and questioned even sacrosanct subjects, making him too radical for both Whigs and Tories. In 1685 he participated in Monmouth’s Rebellion against King James II, narrowly escaping Judge Jeffrey’s Bloody Assizes. As part of William and Mary’s triumphal procession into London (1689), Defoe wrote pamphlets advocating William’s policies.

Defoe’s best-known novels, Robinson Crusoe (1719), A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), and Moll Flanders (1722), examine contemporary social problems but avoid politics. He was censored in England for his controversial political pamphlets about religious minorities, the Jacobite threat, the Scottish Union, the standing army, the Act of Settlement, and King George’s accession. When Defoe’s mentor, King William, died in 1702, Tories attacked Defoe as a Whig radical.

Defoe’s most famous pamphlet, The Shortest Way with Dissenters (1702), ridiculed church bigotry, outraging both non-Anglican “dissenters” and Anglican officials. Defoe was tried for seditious libel in early 1703, under a law that defined libel as any criticism of government that reduced “the affection of the people for the king or his ministers...

(The entire section is 505 words.)

Daniel Defoe Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Daniel Defoe was born Daniel Foe in the parish of St. Giles, London, the son of James Foe, a Dissenter and a tallow chandler. (Only after the age of forty did Defoe change his last name, perhaps to seem more aristocratic.) The date of his birth is conjectural: In 1683, he listed his age on his marriage license as twenty-four, but since his sister, Elizabeth, was born in 1659, it is probable that Defoe was born the next year. Not much is known of his early childhood, but his education was certainly important in molding his interests. Being a Dissenter, Defoe was not allowed to attend Oxford or Cambridge; instead, he went to a dissenting academy presided over by the Reverend Charles Morton. While offering a study of the classics, the academy also stressed modern languages, geography, and mathematics, practical subjects neglected at the universities. This interest in the practical seems to have stayed with Defoe all his life: When his library was sold after his death, the advertisements listed “several hundred Curious, Scarce Tracts onHusbandry, Trade, Voyages, Natural History, Mines, Minerals, etc.” Defoe’s appreciation of the objects and processes by which one is enabled to live in the world is obvious: After making a table and chair, Crusoe reflects that “by stating and squaring everything by reason and by making the most rational judgment of things, every man may be in time master of every mechanic art.”

Although his father intended him for the ministry, Defoe became a merchant after leaving school and probably traveled on the Continent as part of his business. In 1684, he married the daughter of another dissenting merchant, and she brought him a considerable dowry. Defoe’s fortunes seemed to be rising, but in 1685, he was briefly involved in the duke of Monmouth’s rebellion, a Protestant uprising. Although he escaped the king’s soldiers, this event illustrates Defoe’s willingness to espouse dangerous political causes: Three former schoolmates who joined the rebellion were caught and hanged. While his affairs seemed to prosper during this time, there were disquieting lawsuits—eight between 1688 and 1694, one by his mother-in-law, whom he seems to have swindled—that cast doubt on both Defoe’s economic stability and his moral character. In fact, by 1692 he was bankrupt, a victim of losses at sea and his own speculations. Defoe’s character is always difficult to label; while the lawsuits show his unsavory side, he did make arrangements after his ruin to repay his creditors, which he seems to have done with surprising thoroughness.

Defoe then began building a brick factory on some land that he owned in Tilbury. This enterprise went well and, with William and Mary on the throne, Defoe could praise the government with a clear conscience. He admired William’s religious toleration, foreign policy, and encouragement of English trade. He wrote several pamphlets supporting William’s policy of containing Louis XIV’s political aspirations, a policy not always popular in England. When William’s followers from Holland were harassed by the English, Defoe wrote The True-Born Englishman: A Satyr (1701), a long poem arguing that the English are themselves a mixed race who cannot afford to deride other nationalities.

With the accession of Queen Anne of England in 1702, the Dissenters—and Defoe—suffered serious political grievances. Fiercely loyal to the Church of England, Anne looked with disfavor on other religious groups, and bills were introduced to limit the freedom of Dissenters. While both houses of Parliament debated the Occasional Conformity Bill in 1702—a bill that would have effectually prevented Dissenters from holding political office—Defoe published “The Shortest Way with the Dissenters,” an ironic pamphlet urging the government to annihilate this group entirely. At first it was taken at face value and applauded by the High Church party, but when its irony was perceived, a warrant was issued for Defoe’s arrest, and he went into hiding.

Fearful of imprisonment and the pillory, Defoe sent letters to Daniel Finch, second earl of Nottingham, the secretary of state, trying to negotiate a pardon: He would raise a troop of horses for the government at his own expense; he would volunteer to fight—and possibly die—in the Netherlands. Nottingham was inflexible, however, and...

(The entire section is 1783 words.)

Daniel Defoe Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Daniel Defoe (dih-FOH) was born Daniel Foe in the parish of St. Giles Cripplegate, London, England, in 1660, the son of James Foe, a tallow chandler and butcher who later held several positions of authority in the city of London, and Alice Foe. (Defoe changed his name to its more aristocratic form sometime around the age of forty.) Because there are no surviving records of Defoe’s birth, biographers have surmised, on the basis of two of his offhand statements, that he was born sometime in the autumn. Defoe’s early years were eventful: When he was five, the Great Plague ravaged London and his family fled to the country; the next year, the Great Fire of London leveled thousands of houses and eighty-seven churches, including St....

(The entire section is 1117 words.)

Daniel Defoe Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Daniel Defoe’s narratives—in particular, Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and Roxana—are widely regarded as ancestors of the novel The first two have each, at one time or another, been declared “the first novel,” although the consensus is that both books lack two essential characteristics of the novel: character development and a well-structured plot.

There is more agreement on Defoe’s contribution to the development of the new genre. From Defoe’s work, the novel acquired realism, moral complexity, plain language, and a focus on everyday human life. He may not be the father of the English novel, but that genre owes much of its character to the fiction he produced.

(The entire section is 112 words.)

Daniel Defoe Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Daniel Defoe (dih-FOH), best known as the author of Robinson Crusoe, is a writer whose journalistic writing still has an appeal because of its assertion of commonsensical principles and whose works of fiction are convincing because of the same common sense and esteem for fact.

Few writers have written more voluminously and continuously than Defoe. Though there is uncertainty about the authorship of some works attributed to him, he has been credited with 570 separate works—newspapers, pamphlets, treatises, biographies, poems, guidebooks, and novels. It was in the midst of such abundant and ceaseless journalism that Defoe produced his works that are remembered. Like the works that are now forgotten, his...

(The entire section is 1008 words.)

Daniel Defoe Biography

(eNotes Publishing)

Although Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) is typically referred to as an “English novelist,” he was also a pamphleteer, journalist, and an excellent storyteller who overnight became famous for writing Robinson Crusoe (1719), a story of a man shipwrecked alone on an island. Some literary historians have placed him along with Samuel Richardson as the founder of the English novel, but, according to the definition of the novel, Defoe is not a novelist. And although this is meant to be a biography of Defoe, it is important to briefly explain why he should not be thought of as a novelist, though some of his works, including Robinson Crusoe and Roxana, may certainly be...

(The entire section is 1009 words.)

Daniel Defoe Biography

(Novels for Students)
Daniel Defoe Published by Gale Cengage

Daniel Defoe was born in 1660 in Cripplegate, just outside the walls of the City of London. His parents, James and Alice Foe, were...

(The entire section is 448 words.)

Daniel Defoe Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Born in London sometime in 1660 to James Foe, a chandler, and his wife, Daniel Defoe was originally educated for the Presbyterian ministry at...

(The entire section is 411 words.)

Daniel Defoe Biography

(Novels for Students)

Looking over the full life of Daniel Defoe, there seems to be little that the Englishman did not attempt or experience. He was a trainee for...

(The entire section is 537 words.)