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.)