A Political Biography of Daniel Defoe

A Political Biography of Daniel Defoe

A Political Biography of Daniel Defoe

A Political Biography of Daniel Defoe

Synopsis

Furbank and Owens attempt to disentangle the story of Daniel Defoe's political career, as journalist, polemicist, political theorist and secret agent. They argue that this remarkable career calls for a good deal of rethinking, not least because biography and bibliography are here inextricably intertwined.

Excerpt

Our book is about Daniel Defoe’s political career, but this phrase may be thought to call for some defining. Evidently, someone who functions mainly by means of his pen does not have a political career in the same sense as a statesman, whose daily and nightly preoccupation is power. There was indeed a brief and extraordinary moment in 1701 when Defoe might be said to have wielded power and have become a man of action: the time when he presented himself at Westminster, guarded by sixteen ‘gentlemen of quality’, to deliver a paper of grievances and demands (Legion’s Memorial) on behalf of ‘two hundred thousand Englishmen’. No doubt, too, by his advice to his patron Robert Harley, he exercised influence, but influence is not the same as power. By Defoe’s ‘political career’, therefore, we are meaning his influence, or attempts at influence, as a purveyor of ideas and opinions, and also the influence, sometimes very unnerving, of political events on him. In consequence – the fact might seem like an irony but of course is not – we know a great deal more about Defoe’s political ideas than we do about Harley’s. Whatever ideas Harley had, and sometimes one wonders whether he actually had any, as distinct from instincts or schemes, he would have been inclined to keep to himself.

We must be clear, also, about another distinction. Defoe wrote voluminously on very many different topics, and one of them, from early on, was social reform. In 1697 he published a book-length Essay upon Projects, in which he made proposals for the development of banking and highroads, friendly societies and insurance; for setting up academies (and in particular an academy for women); and for improvement of the system for employing seamen and the law regarding bankruptcy.1 He claimed to have been working on these ideas for five years, and there is no doubt that ‘improvement’ of this kind was a lasting interest on his part. He would pursue it, or anyway economic . . .

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