If a class of twentieth-century boys were asked "What did Defoe do?" the unanimous shout would answer "He wrote Robinson Crusoe". But if a class of eighteenth-century boys had been asked the same question there would have been many different and some contradictory replies. "He wrote The True Born Englishman", or "He edited the Review", or "He wrote the Essay on Projects", or "He stood in the pillory for three days", or "He helped to make the Union between England and Scotland", or "He was a Whig", or "He was a Tory", or "He was sometimes one and sometimes the other, and sometimes both at once".
The fact is, Defoe could change as quickly as a chameleon. Not even his name remained the same. Sometimes he signed himself D. Foe, sometimes De Foe, and sometimes Daniel Defoe. He covered his traces so adroitly that it is impossible to follow him in all his twists and turns.
He was born just one year after the Restoration, so that his boyhood was passed in these years when the gay court of the Merry Monarch tried to drown in laughter the echoes of the Civil War. In the next reign Defoe joined Monmouth in his ill-fated rising, but fortunately he did not fall into the hands of Judge Jeffries, or we should never have known Robinson Crusoe. Then came the Revolution, and Defoe was one of those who rode out to meet King William and to escort him to the Guildhall.
Through all that reign Defoe remained one of the king's warmest supporters, and was always ready to defend him against the grumblers who complained about his foreign origin.
To silence them he wrote a satirical poem called The True Born Englishman, in which he pointed out that people of such mixed origin as the English had very little right to object to William's descent.
"The Pict and painted Briton, treacherous Scot,
By hunger, theft and rapine hither brought,
Norwegian pirates, bucaneering Danes,
Whose red-haired offspring everywhere remains,
Who joined with Norman French compound the breed,
From whence your true-born Englishmen proceed."
The skit was so vigorous and full of humour that even those who were satirized could not help joining in the laughter, and 80,000 copies were sold in the streets of London.
Hardly had the next reign begun when Defoe raised a hornet's nest about his ears. He had been brought up as a Dissenter, but he had the gift of seeing two sides to most questions, which often proved inconvenient both to his opponents and to himself. Accordingly, when he published a pamphlet The Shortest Way with Dissenters, they were enraged, because he seemed to be giving them over to the enemy, and the High Church Tories were equally angry because he seemed to be caricaturing them. A warrant was made out for his arrest, and its wording gives us a clear idea what the author of Robinson Crusoe was like.
"He is a middle-aged spare man about forty years old, of a brown complexion, and dark- brown coloured hair, but wears a wig, a hooked nose, sharp chin, grey eyes, and a large mole near his mouth."
The sentence he received was that his pamphlet was to be publicly burned by the hangman, he was to stand for three days in the pillory, at the Royal Exchange, at Temple Bar, and in Cheapside. But, to the chagrin of the authorities, what was meant to be a disgrace turned into a triumph. Crowds sat all day round the pillory, garlanding the hero with flowers and drinking to the health of the True Born Englishman in tankards of ale. From the pillory he was conducted to Newgate prison, where he spent a year in the company of forgers, highwaymen, and thieves.
The ups and downs of Defoe's career were worthy of one of his own heroes. At Bristol he was known as "The Sunday Gentleman", because when he was in hiding there he could only venture out on Sundays when the officers of the law were not on duty. Yet shortly after that we find him owning tile works at Tilbury, a coach, and a barge on the Thames.
We have seen that this was a time of great political excitement, and Defoe's restless spirit throve on intrigue. Up and down the streets of London moved the hook-nosed man with the sharp chin and grey eyes, buttonholing this citizen and that, arguing this point or that with characteristic energy. Then when dusk had fallen on the dimly-lit streets, you might see the same figure stealing along, his cloak pulled up to hide his face, bound on some errand whose purpose was the exact opposite of his morning's argument.
The truth was, that although during the reign of William he had acted a straightforward part, for the remainder of his life Defoe was a trimmer. For years he was employed as a spy by two sides at once, while all the time he stoutly maintained that he had no axe to grind, and that his motives were strictly disinterested. He sold his pen to the highest bidder, but he had no hesitation in making it also work in its spare time for the second highest.
But although his methods were deplorably shifty, the causes for which he wrought were often good. He played a really influential part during the negotiations for Union between England and Scotland. Popular feeling in Scotland was strongly against Union. The failure of the Darien scheme and the massacre of Glencoe had embittered the populace against English rule, and it looked as if the long-drawn-out overtures might fail in the end.
While matters were in this critical condition, Defoe proceeded to Scotland and took up his abode in Edinburgh. According to his own account, he did this simply as an independent citizen who wished to study the state of feeling and to do all in his power to promote Union. In reality, he was a paid agent of the Government to collect information and to influence public opinion. This he did through his Review, which he brought out with a Scottish edition with amazing success for these times. Needless to say he was unpopular in Edinburgh, and on one occasion he was attacked by an angry mob.
Again, Defoe did useful work in encouraging trade. "The true-hearted merchant," he wrote, "is the most intelligent man in the world," and he did everything he could to widen the mercantile horizon of Britain. This was a main purpose of the famous newspaper the Review which he began while he was a prisoner in Newgate, and continued for eleven years, publishing it bi-weekly. He did not profess to give news, but he set before his readers in the space of four pages the domestic and foreign affairs of the countries of Europe. As he said, he was writing history sheet by sheet, and in his hands he made history so racy that many read it who would never have opened an official history.
As time went on he edited more journals, such as Applebee's Journal, the Daily Post, Mist's Journal, and the Whitehall Evening Post.
It is interesting to notice how many of the tricks of modern journalism Defoe had discovered for himself and practised. He was an adept at beginning an article with a startling statement to arrest attention; he often led his readers on in mock strain so gravely that they were quite deceived till the very last paragraph, when he seemed to turn round on them with a grin and show them the weakness of the argument. The instant anyone died or became famous Defoe was ready with his biography to be hawked in the streets. He seemed to know by instinct what people were thinking about and wished to hear of, and whenever he made a happy hit he worked hard at it.
Besides editing his periodicals Defoe produced hundreds of broadsides. One of these, called the Essay on Projects, shows us how alert was his mind. In it he advocated such modern developments as the income-tax, Banks and Friendly Societies, the higher education of women, national highways, and a more humane treatment of the insane.
However much he wrote, his pen never seemed to grow tired. Only a short time before, English style had been so weighty and involved that few cared to read, but to read Defoe is to realize what strides it had made. His words are like the sharp, quick taps which drive in the nail straight and firm. Take the issue of his newspaper on the day after the Ministry had resigned in 1708. Defoe had supported the last Government, and the coffee-house readers opened their copies eagerly to see what he would say now. There they read:
"Though I don't like the crew, I won't sink the ship. I'll do my best to save the ship. I'll pump and heave and haul, and do everything I can, though he that pulls with me were my enemy. The reason is plain. We are all in the ship and must sink or swim together."
Was it any wonder that a pen like that made newspaper reading popular?
All this time Defoe was developing another faculty. We must remember how an editor was then placed. Trained reporters and foreign correspondents were then unknown. Only the bones of information were supplied, the inventive faculty of the editor must clothe these bones with flesh. Given the bald fact of a French victory, Defoe sat down to consider why it had occurred and what would be the next step for Marlborough. In the same way, given the fact that a young Scot from Largo called Alexander Selkirk had been marooned for four years on Juan Fernandez, what would he need to do to support life there? Out of the answer to that question Defoe wove his Robinson Crusoe, which appeared in a periodical called the London Post when Defoe was fifty-eight years of age.
This was not the first book in which he had related imaginary happenings with so grave an air and so detailed a method that they seemed to the readers not fiction but fact. In his Diary of the Plague we can hardly believe that the author had not lived through these terrible months in London, and in his Memories of a Cavalier he gave as life-like a picture. For some of his other books, like Moll Flanders and Jack Singleton, Defoe was indebted to his year in Newgate and the queer society he met there.
When he published Robinson Crusoe Defoe was prosperous. His ceaseless activities as a journalist had brought him considerable profit, and we know that he was able to build a large house at Stoke Newington and to keep a coach. There he lived with three daughters who, according to a diarist of the time, were "admired for their beauty, their education and their prudent conduct".
But, by one of those strange somersaults of fortune which were so common in Defoe's life, we next find him in hiding in Ropemaker's Alley, Moorfields. Whether he was hiding for debt or from political enemies we do not know, but there he died in April, 1731.