| September 13,
|24 April 1731 (aged 70)
| London, England,
Does Daniel Defoe Dead or Alive?
As per our current Database, Daniel Defoe died on 24 April 1731 (aged 70)
Daniel Foe (his original name) was probably born in Fore Street in the parish of St Giles Cripplegate, London. Defoe later added the aristocratic-sounding “De” to his name, and on occasion claimed descent from the family of De Beau Faux. His birthdate and birthplace are uncertain, and sources offer dates from 1659 to 1662, with the summer or early autumn of 1660 considered the most likely. His father, James Foe, was a prosperous tallow chandler and a member of the Worshipful Company of Butchers. In Defoe’s early childhood, he experienced some of the most unusual occurrences in English history: in 1665, 70,000 were killed by the Great Plague of London, and the next year, the Great Fire of London left standing only Defoe’s and two other houses in his neighbourhood. In 1667, when he was probably about seven, a Dutch fleet sailed up the Medway via the River Thames and attacked the town of Chatham in the raid on the Medway. His mother, Alice, had died by the time he was about ten.
A Journal of the Plague Year can be read both as novel and as non-fiction. It is an account of the Great Plague of London in 1665, which is undersigned by the initials “H. F.”, suggesting the author’s uncle Henry Foe as its primary source. It is a historical account of the events based on extensive research and seen through an eyewitness experience, published in 1722.
In 1685, Defoe joined the ill-fated Monmouth Rebellion but gained a pardon, by which he escaped the Bloody Assizes of Judge George Jeffreys. Queen Mary and her husband William III were jointly crowned in 1689, and Defoe became one of William’s close allies and a secret agent. Some of the new policies led to conflict with France, thus damaging prosperous trade relationships for Defoe, who had established himself as a merchant. In 1692, Defoe was arrested for debts of £700, though his total debts may have amounted to £17,000. He died with little wealth and evidence of lawsuits with the royal treasury.
Defoe entered the world of business as a general merchant, dealing at different times in hosiery, general woollen goods, and wine. His ambitions were great and he was able to buy a country estate and a ship (as well as civets to make perfume), though he was rarely out of debt. He was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1692. On 1 January 1684, Defoe married Mary Tuffley at St Botolph’s Aldgate. She was the daughter of a London merchant, receiving a dowry of £3,700—a huge amount by the standards of the day. With his debts and political difficulties, the marriage may have been troubled, but it lasted 47 years and produced eight children.
Following his release from debtors’ prison, he probably travelled in Europe and Scotland, and it may have been at this time that he traded wine to Cadiz, Porto and Lisbon. By 1695, he was back in England, now formally using the name “Defoe” and serving as a “commissioner of the glass duty”, responsible for collecting taxes on bottles. In 1696, he ran a tile and brick factory in what is now Tilbury in Essex and lived in the parish of Chadwell St Mary.
Defoe’s first notable publication was An Essay Upon Projects, a series of proposals for social and economic improvement, published in 1697. From 1697 to 1698, he defended the right of King William III to a standing army during disarmament, after the Treaty of Ryswick (1697) had ended the Nine Years’ War (1688–1697). His most successful poem, The True-Born Englishman (1701), defended the king against the perceived xenophobia of his enemies, satirising the English claim to racial purity. In 1701, Defoe presented the Legion’s Memorial to Robert Harley, then Speaker of the House of Commons—and his subsequent employer—while flanked by a guard of sixteen gentlemen of quality. It demanded the release of the Kentish petitioners, who had asked Parliament to support the king in an imminent war against France.
The death of William III in 1702 once again created a political upheaval, as the king was replaced by Queen Anne who immediately began her offensive against Nonconformists. Defoe was a natural target, and his pamphleteering and political activities resulted in his arrest and placement in a pillory on 31 July 1703, principally on account of his December 1702 pamphlet entitled The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters; Or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church, purporting to argue for their extermination. In it, he ruthlessly satirised both the High church Tories and those Dissenters who hypocritically practised so-called “occasional conformity”, such as his Stoke Newington neighbour Sir Thomas Abney. It was published anonymously, but the true authorship was quickly discovered and Defoe was arrested. He was charged with seditious libel and found guilty in a trial at the Old Bailey in front of the notoriously sadistic judge Salathiel Lovell. Lovell sentenced him to a punitive fine of 200 marks, to public humiliation in a pillory, and to an indeterminate length of imprisonment which would only end upon the discharge of the punitive fine. According to legend, the publication of his poem Hymn to the Pillory caused his audience at the pillory to throw flowers instead of the customary harmful and noxious objects and to drink to his health. The truth of this story is questioned by most scholars, although John Robert Moore later said that “no man in England but Defoe ever stood in the pillory and later rose to eminence among his fellow men”.
In despair during his imprisonment for the seditious libel case, Defoe wrote to William Paterson, the London Scot and founder of the Bank of England and part instigator of the Darien scheme, who was in the confidence of Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, leading minister and spymaster in the English Government. Harley accepted Defoe’s services and released him in 1703. He immediately published The Review, which appeared weekly, then three times a week, written mostly by himself. This was the main mouthpiece of the English Government promoting the Act of Union 1707.
Defoe made no attempt to explain why the same Parliament of Scotland which was so vehement for its independence from 1703 to 1705 became so supine in 1706. He received very little reward from his paymasters and of course no recognition for his services by the government. He made use of his Scottish experience to write his Tour thro’ the whole Island of Great Britain, published in 1726, where he admitted that the increase of trade and population in Scotland which he had predicted as a consequence of the Union was “not the case, but rather the contrary”.
When Harley was ousted from the ministry in 1708, Defoe continued writing the Review to support Godolphin, then again to support Harley and the Tories in the Tory ministry of 1710–1714. The Tories fell from power with the death of Queen Anne, but Defoe continued doing intelligence work for the Whig government, writing “Tory” pamphlets that undermined the Tory point of view.
The novel has been assumed to be based in part on the story of the Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk, who spent four years stranded in the Juan Fernández Islands, but this experience is inconsistent with the details of the narrative. (The island Selkirk lived on was named Más a Tierra (Closer to Land) at the time and was renamed Robinson Crusoe Island in 1966.) It has been supposed that Defoe may have also been inspired by a translation of a book by the Andalusian-Arab Muslim polymath Ibn Tufail, who was known as “Abubacer” in Europe. The Latin edition was entitled Philosophus Autodidactus; Simon Ockley published an English translation in 1708, entitled The improvement of human reason, exhibited in the life of Hai ebn Yokdhan.
For Scotland, he used different arguments, even the opposite of those which he used in England, usually ignoring the English doctrine of the Sovereignty of Parliament, for example, telling the Scots that they could have complete confidence in the guarantees in the Treaty. Some of his pamphlets were purported to be written by Scots, misleading even reputable historians into quoting them as evidence of Scottish opinion of the time. The same is true of a massive history of the Union which Defoe published in 1709 and which some historians still treat as a valuable contemporary source for their own works. Defoe took pains to give his history an air of objectivity by giving some space to arguments against the Union but always having the last word for himself.
In 1709, Defoe authored a rather lengthy book entitled The History of the Union of Great Britain, an Edinburgh publication printed by the Heirs of Anderson. The book was not published anonymously and cites Defoe twice as being its author. The book attempts to explain the facts leading up to the Act of Union 1707, dating all the way back to 6 December 1604 when King James I was presented with a proposal for unification. This so-called “first draft” for unification took place 100 years before the signing of the 1707 accord, which respectively preceded the commencement of Robinson Crusoe by another ten years.
The extent and particulars are widely contested concerning Defoe’s writing in the period from the Tory fall in 1714 to the publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719. Defoe comments on the tendency to attribute tracts of uncertain authorship to him in his apologia Appeal to Honour and Justice (1715), a defence of his part in Harley’s Tory ministry (1710–1714). Other works that anticipate his novelistic career include The Family Instructor (1715), a conduct manual on religious duty; Minutes of the Negotiations of Monsr. Mesnager (1717), in which he impersonates Nicolas Mesnager, the French plenipotentiary who negotiated the Treaty of Utrecht (1713); and A Continuation of the Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy (1718), a satire of European politics and religion, ostensibly written by a Muslim in Paris.
From 1719 to 1724, Defoe published the novels for which he is famous (see below). In the final decade of his life, he also wrote conduct manuals, including Religious Courtship (1722), The Complete English Tradesman (1726) and The New Family Instructor (1727). He published a number of books decrying the breakdown of the social order, such as The Great Law of Subordination Considered (1724) and Everybody’s Business is Nobody’s Business (1725) and works on the supernatural, like The Political History of the Devil (1726), A System of Magick (1727) and An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions (1727). His works on foreign travel and trade include A General History of Discoveries and Improvements (1727) and Atlas Maritimus and Commercialis (1728). Perhaps his greatest achievement, apart from the novels, is the magisterial A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain (1724–1727), which provided a panoramic survey of British trade on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.
Also in 1722, Defoe wrote Moll Flanders, another first-person picaresque novel of the fall and eventual redemption, both material and spiritual, of a lone woman in 17th-century England. The titular heroine appears as a whore, bigamist, and thief, lives in The Mint, commits adultery and incest, and yet manages to retain the reader’s sympathy. Her savvy manipulation of both men and wealth earns her a life of trials but ultimately an ending in reward. Although Moll struggles with the morality of some of her actions and decisions, religion seems to be far from her concerns throughout most of her story. However, like Robinson Crusoe, she finally repents. Moll Flanders is an important work in the development of the novel, as it challenged the common perception of femininity and gender roles in 18th-century British society. More recently it has come to be misunderstood as an example of erotica.
Published in 1726, The Complete English Tradesman is an example of Defoe’s political works. He discusses the role of the tradesman in England in comparison to tradesmen internationally, arguing that the British system of trade is far superior. He also implies that trade is the backbone of the British economy: “estate’s a pond, but trade’s a spring.” He praises the practicality of trade not only within the economy but the social stratification as well. Most of the British gentry, he argues is at one time or another inextricably linked with the institution of trade, either through personal experience, marriage or genealogy. Oftentimes younger members of noble families entered into trade. Marriage to a tradesman’s daughter by a nobleman was also common. Overall Defoe demonstrated a high respect for tradesmen, being one himself.
Defoe died on 24 April 1731, probably while in hiding from his creditors. He was often in debtors’ prison. The cause of his death was labelled as lethargy, but he probably experienced a stroke. He was interred in Bunhill Fields (today Bunhill Fields Burial and Gardens), just outside the medieval boundaries of the City of London, in what is now the Borough of Islington, where a monument was erected to his memory in 1870.
Currently, Daniel Defoe is 362 years, 2 months and 20 days old. Daniel Defoe will celebrate 363rd birthday on a Wednesday 13th of September 2023.
Find out about Daniel Defoe birthday activities in timeline view here.