Daniel Defoe —Page 3

An engraving of Daniel Defoe when he was about 43 years old. It was produced by the Flemish engraver Michael Vandergucht, after a painting by Jeremiah Taverner, and used as the frontispiece of Defoe’s 1703 book ‘A True Collection of the Writings of the Author of the True Born English-man’.

While in Newgate the idea came to Defoe of publishing a newspaper to promote the ideals of William III and the Glorious Revolution, which appeared as the Review from early 1704. He wrote it single-handedly, concentrating on comment about current affairs rather than news. His tone was always moderate rather than the extreme views put forth by some other publications of the time, appealing to middle class Dissenters rather than the more intellectual audience of writers such as Jonathan Swift.

In the employ of Harley, Defoe began to tour the country starting in the summer of 1704, travelling incognito, assessing each location and reporting back on the political state of the nation. During those times people entitled to vote were required to be property owners and, outside of London and the South East, it required only a handful of men to return an MP to Parliament. It was therefore relatively easy for him to gain an understanding of the views of constituents around the country. Information Defoe provided to Harley on public opinion helped to win the General Election of 1705.

United under one monarch for a hundred years, England and Scotland still remained as separate nations, and in the latter years of the reign of William the issue of a union between them came to be hotly debated. Scottish Jacobites also favoured a Stuart king after the death of Queen Anne rather than a Hanoverian. As someone who feared the return of the Stuarts, Defoe wrote enthusiastically of the benefits of union in the Review and was invited to Scotland by local unionists, an offer he gladly accepted. It gave him some escape from his creditors in London but he could carry out secretive work for Harley, providing information and undermining those opposed to union. In January 1707 the Scottish Parliament voted in favour of the union with England, and Great Britain came into being on 1st May of that year. The work and influence of Defoe certainly played some part.

In 1709 Defoe published History of the Union of Great Britain, based on his knowledge of Scotland and the union, dedicated to Queen Anne for which she thanked him. That year he and his family moved to a new house in Stoke Newington, an area to the north of London where Dissenters could live freely, outside of the laws of the City.

Defoe continued to provide reports, paid from a secret fund, and delivering them through the tradesmen’s entrance of Harley’s home. As Scottish Jacobites took heart from the rise in power of their Tory counterparts south of the border Defoe was once again dispatched to Edinburgh. The ever-cunning Harley was in fact simultaneously gathering information from both ends of the political spectrum, also employing the Tory writer Jonathan Swift (later the author of Gulliver’s Travels) as a spy. Swift and Defoe were opposites in every way, detesting each other and often clashing in print. Harley was secretly negotiating with the French and was using Defoe to pen articles to sway public opinion in favour of peace, and Swift against Britain’s former allies. Although Defoe was not against peace he became unhappy at the means by which it was achieved. Always loathed by the Tories, his articles now made him an enemy of the Whigs.

With the ear of the new ‘prime minister’ Harley, Defoe was also thinking about economics on a grand scale and writing articles, pamphlets, and confidential letters to his sponsor. For some years he had had a special interest in the Americas and he considered the possibility of expanding the growing British Empire. His ideas stretched the entire length of the American continent, by winning territories of Canada from the French and enlarging the existing colonies of Virginia and Maryland. Additionally, he proposed the creation of a new company along similar lines to the East India Company, to win parts of South America from the Spanish and prosper from the slave trade with Africa. Harley achieved the latter in 1711 through the creation of the South Sea Company, of which he became its Governor. Fifty years later, Defoe’s prophecy about Canada came true when General Wolfe evicted France from the region.