William Minto.

Daniel Defoe online

. (page 4 of 13)
Online LibraryWilliam MintoDaniel Defoe → online text (page 4 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

between his arrest and his conviction he carried on a vigorous warfare
with both hands, - with one hand seeking to propitiate the Government,
with the other attracting support outside among the people. He proved to
the Government incontestably, by a collection of his writings, that he
was a man of moderate views, who had no aversion in principle even to
the proposals of the _New Association_. He proved the same thing to the
people at large by publishing this _Collection of the writings of the
author of the True-Born Englishman_, but he accompanied the proof by a
lively appeal to their sympathy under the title of _More Reformation, a
Satire on himself_, a lament over his own folly which was calculated to
bring pressure on the Government against prosecuting a man so innocent
of public wrong. When, in spite of his efforts, a conviction was
recorded against him, he adopted a more defiant tone towards the
Government. He wrote the _Hymn to the Pillory_. This daring effusion was
hawked in the streets among the crowd that had assembled to witness his
penance in the

"hieroglyphic State-machine,
Contrived to punish Fancy in."

"Come," he cried, in the concluding lines -

"Tell 'em the M - - that placed him here
Are Sc - - ls to the times,
Are at a loss to find his guilt,
And can't commit his crimes."

"M - - " stands for Men, and "Sc - - ls" for Scandals. Defoe delighted
in this odd use of methods of reserve, more common in his time than in

The dauntless courage of Defoe's _Hymn to the Pillory_ can only be
properly appreciated when we remember with what savage outrage it was
the custom of the mob to treat those who were thus exposed to make a
London holiday. From the pillory he was taken back to Newgate, there to
be imprisoned during her Majesty's pleasure. His confinement must have
been much less disagreeable to him than it would have been to one of
less hardy temperament. Defoe was not the man to shrink with loathing
from the companionship of thieves, highwaymen, forgers, coiners, and
pirates. Curiosity was a much stronger power with him than disgust.
Newgate had something of the charm for Defoe that a hospital full of
hideous diseases has for an enthusiastic surgeon. He spent many pleasant
hours in listening to the tales of his adventurous fellow-prisoners.
Besides, the Government did not dare to deprive him of the liberty of
writing and publishing. This privilege enabled him to appeal to the
public, whose ear he had gained in the character of an undismayed
martyr, an enjoyment which to so buoyant a man must have compensated for
a great deal of irksome suffering, he attributed the failure of his
pantile works at Tilbury to his removal from the management of them; but
bearing in mind the amount of success that had attended his efforts when
he was free, it is fair to suppose that he was not altogether sorry for
the excuse. It was by no means the intention of his High-Church
persecutors that Defoe should enjoy himself in Newgate, and he himself
lamented loudly the strange reverse by which he had passed within a few
months from the closet of a king to a prisoner's cell; but on the whole
he was probably as happy in Newgate as he had been at Whitehall. His
wife and six children were most to be commiserated, and their distress
was his heaviest trial.

The first use which Defoe made of his pen after his exhibition in the
pillory was to reply to a Dissenting minister who had justified the
practice of occasional conformity. He thereby marked once more his
separation from the extreme Dissenters, who were struggling against
having their religion made a disqualification for offices of public
trust. But in the changes of parties at Court he soon found a reason for
marking his separation from the opposite extreme, and facing the other
way. Under the influence of the moderate Tories, Marlborough, Godolphin,
and their invaluable ally, the Duchess, the Queen was gradually losing
faith in the violent Tories. According to Swift, she began to dislike
her bosom friend, Mrs. Freeman, from the moment of her accession, but
though she may have chafed under the yoke of her favourite, she could
not at once shake off the domination of that imperious will. The
Duchess, finding the extreme Tories unfavourable to the war in which her
husband's honour and interests were deeply engaged, became a hot
partisan against them, and used all their blunders to break down their
power at Court. Day by day she impressed upon the Queen the necessity
of peace and union at home in the face of the troubles abroad. The
moderate men of both parties must be rallied round the throne. Extremes
on both sides must be discouraged. Spies were set to work to take note
of such rash expressions among "the hot and angry men" as would be
likely to damage them in the Queen's favour. Queen Anne had not a little
of the quiet tenacity and spitefulness of enfeebled constitutions, but
in the end reason prevailed, resentment at importunity was overcome, and
the hold of the High-Churchmen on her affections gave way.

Nobody, Swift has told us, could better disguise her feelings than the
Queen. The first intimation which the High-Church party had of her
change of views was her opening speech to Parliament on the 9th
November, 1703, in which she earnestly desired parties in both Houses to
avoid heats and divisions. Defoe at once threw himself in front of the
rising tide. Whether he divined for himself that the influence of the
Earl of Nottingham, the Secretary of State, to whom he owed his
prosecution and imprisonment, was waning, or obtained a hint to that
effect from his Whig friends, we do not know, but he lost no time in
issuing from his prison a bold attack upon the High-Churchmen. In his
_Challenge, of Peace, addressed to the whole Nation_, he denounced them
as Church Vultures and Ecclesiastical Harpies. It was they and not the
Dissenters that were the prime movers of strife and dissension. How are
peace and union to be obtained, he asks. He will show people first how
peace and union cannot be obtained.

"First, Sacheverell's Bloody Flag of Defiance is not the way to Peace
and Union. _The shortest way to destroy is not the shortest way to
unite_. Persecution, Laws to Compel, Restrain or force the Conscience of
one another, is not the way to this Union, which her Majesty has so
earnestly recommended."

"Secondly, to repeal or contract the late Act of Toleration is not the
way for this so much wished-for happiness; to have laws revived that
should set one party a plundering, excommunicating and unchurching
another, that should renew the oppressions and devastations of late
reigns, this will not by any means contribute to this Peace, which all
good men desire."

"New Associations and proposals to divest men of their freehold right
for differences in opinion, and take away the right of Dissenters voting
in elections of Members; this is not the way to Peace and Union."

"Railing pamphlets, buffooning our brethren as a party to be suppressed,
and dressing them up in the Bear's skin for all the dogs in the street
to bait them, is not the way to Peace and Union."

"Railing sermons, exciting people to hatred and contempt of their
brethren, because they differ in opinions, is not the way to Peace and

"Shutting all people out of employment and the service of their Prince
and Country, unless they can comply with indifferent ceremonies of
religion, is far from the way to Peace and Union."

"Reproaching the Succession settled by Parliament, and reviving the
abdicated title of the late King James, and his supposed family, cannot
tend to this Peace and Union."

"Laws against Occasional Conformity, and compelling people who bear
offices to a total conformity, and yet force them to take and serve in
those public employments, cannot contribute to this Peace and Union."

* * * * *

In this passage Defoe seems to ally himself more closely with his
Dissenting brethren than he had done before. It was difficult for him,
with his published views on the objectionableness of occasional
conformity, and the propriety of Dissenters leaving the magistracy in
the hands of the Church, to maintain his new position, without incurring
the charge of inconsistency. The charge was freely made, and his own
writings were collected as a testimony against him, but he met the
charge boldly. The Dissenters ought not to practise occasional
conformity, but if they could reconcile it with their consciences, they
ought not to receive temporal punishment for practising it. The
Dissenters ought to withdraw from the magistracy, but it was persecution
to exclude them. In tract after tract of brilliant and trenchant
argument, he upheld these views, with his usual courage attacking most
fiercely those antagonists who went most nearly on the lines of his own
previous writings. Ignoring what he had said before, he now proved
clearly that the Occasional Conformity Bill was a breach of the Act of
Toleration. There was little difference between his own _Shortest Way to
Peace and Union_, and Sir Humphrey Mackworth's _Peace at Home_, but he
assailed the latter pamphlet vigorously, and showed that it had been the
practice in all countries for Dissenters from the established religion
to have a share in the business of the State. At the same time he never
departed so far from the "moderate" point of view, as to insist that
Dissenters ought to be admitted to a share in the business of the State.
Let the High-Church ministers be dismissed, and moderate men summoned to
the Queen's councils, and the Dissenters would have every reason to be
content. They would acquiesce with pleasure in a ministry and magistracy
of Low-Churchmen.

Defoe's assaults upon the High-Church Tories were neither interdicted
nor resented by the Government, though he lay in prison at their mercy.
Throughout the winter of 1703-4 the extreme members of the Ministry,
though they had still a majority in the House of Commons, felt the
Queen's coldness increase. Their former high place in her regard and
their continued hold upon Parliament tempted them to assume airs of
independence which gave deeper offence than her unruffled courtesy led
either them or their rivals to suspect. At last the crisis came. The
Earl of Nottingham took the rash step of threatening to resign unless
the Whig Dukes of Somerset and Devonshire were dismissed from the
Cabinet. To his surprise and chagrin, his resignation was accepted
(1704), and two more of his party were dismissed from office at the same

The successor of Nottingham was Robert Harley, afterwards created Earl
of Oxford and Mortimer. He gave evidence late in life of his love for
literature by forming the collection of manuscripts known as the
Harleian, and we know from Swift that he was deeply impressed with the
importance of having allies in the Press. He entered upon office in May,
1704, and one of his first acts was to convey to Defoe the message,
"Pray, ask that gentleman what I can do for him." Defoe replied by
likening himself to the blind man in the parable, and paraphrasing his
prayer, "Lord, that I may receive my sight!" He would not seem to have
obtained his liberty immediately, but, through Harley's influence, he
was set free towards the end of July or the beginning of August. The
Queen also, he afterwards said, "was pleased particularly to inquire
into his circumstances and family, and by Lord Treasurer Godolphin to
send a considerable supply to his wife and family, and to send him to
the prison money to pay his fine and the expenses of his discharge."

On what condition was Defoe released? On condition, according to the
_Elegy on the Author of the True-Born Englishman_, which he published
immediately after his discharge, that he should keep silence for seven
years, or at least "not write what some people might not like." To the
public he represented himself as a martyr grudgingly released by the
Government, and restrained from attacking them only by his own bond and
the fear of legal penalties.

"Memento Mori here I stand,
With silent lips but speaking hand;
A walking shadow of a Poet,
But bound to hold my tongue and never show it.
A monument of injury,
A sacrifice to legal t(yrann)y."

"For shame, gentlemen," he humorously cries to his enemies, "do not
strike a dead man; beware, scribblers, of fathering your pasquinades
against authority upon me; for seven years the True-Born Englishman is
tied under sureties and penalties not to write."

"To seven long years of silence I betake,
Perhaps by then I may forget to speak."

This elegy he has been permitted to publish as his last speech and dying
confession -

"When malefactors come to die
They claim uncommon liberty:
Freedom of speech gives no distaste,
They let them talk at large, because they talk their last."

The public could hardly have supposed from this what Defoe afterwards
admitted to have been the true state of the case, namely, that on
leaving prison he was taken into the service of the Government. He
obtained an appointment, that is to say a pension, from the Queen, and
was employed on secret services. When charged afterwards with having
written by Harley's instructions, he denied this, but admitted the
existence of certain "capitulations," in which he stipulated for liberty
to write according to his own judgment, guided only by a sense of
gratitude to his benefactor. There is reason to believe that even this
is not the whole truth. Documents which Mr. Lee recently brought to
light make one suspect that Defoe was all the time in private relations
with the leaders of the Whig party. Of this more falls to be said in
another place. The True-Born Englishman was, indeed, dead. Defoe was no
longer the straightforward advocate of King William's policy. He was
engaged henceforward in serving two masters, persuading each that he
served him alone, and persuading the public, in spite of numberless
insinuations, that he served nobody but them and himself, and wrote
simply as a free lance under the jealous sufferance of the Government of
the day.

I must reserve for a separate chapter some account of Defoe's greatest
political work, which he began while he still lay in Newgate, the
_Review_. Another work which he wrote and published at the same period
deserves attention on different grounds. His history of the great storm
of November, 1703, _A Collection of the most remarkable Casualties and
Disasters which happened in the late Dreadfal Tempest, both by Sea and
Land_, may be set down as the first of his works of invention. It is a
most minute and circumstantial record, containing many letters from
eye-witnesses of what happened in their immediate neighbourhood. Defoe
could have seen little of the storm himself from the interior of
Newgate, but it is possible that the letters are genuine, and that he
compiled other details from published accounts. Still, we are justified
in suspecting that his annals of the storm are no more authentic history
than his _Journal of the Plague_, or his _Memoirs of a Cavalier_, and
that for many of the incidents he is equally indebted to his



It was a bold undertaking for a prisoner in Newgate to engage to furnish
a newspaper written wholly by himself, "purged from the errors and
partiality of news-writers and petty statesmen of all sides." It would,
of course, have been an impossible undertaking if the _Review_ had been,
either in size or in contents, like a newspaper of the present time. The
_Review_ was, in its first stage, a sheet of eight small quarto pages.
After the first two numbers, it was reduced in size to four pages, but a
smaller type was used, so that the amount of matter remained nearly the
same - about equal in bulk to two modern leading articles. At first the
issue was weekly; after four numbers it became bi-weekly, and so
remained for a year.

For the character of the _Review_ it is difficult to find a parallel.
There was nothing like it at the time, and nothing exactly like it has
been attempted since. The nearest approach to it among its predecessors
was the _Observator_, a small weekly journal written by the erratic John
Tutchin, in which passing topics, political and social, were discussed
in dialogues. Personal scandals were a prominent feature in the
_Observator_. Defoe was not insensible to the value of this element to a
popular journal. He knew, he said, that people liked to be amused; and
he supplied this want in a section of his paper entitled "Mercure
Scandale; or, Advice from the Scandalous Club, being a weekly history of
Nonsense, Impertinence, Vice, and Debauchery." Under this attractive
heading, Defoe noticed current scandals, his club being represented as a
tribunal before which offenders were brought, their cases heard, and
sentence passed upon them. Slanderers of the True-Born Englishman
frequently figure in its proceedings. It was in this section also that
Defoe exposed the errors of contemporary news-writers, the _Post-man_,
the _Post-Boy_, the _London Post_, the _Flying Post_, and the _Daily
Courant_. He could not in his prison pretend to superior information
regarding the events of the day; the errors which he exposed were
chiefly blunders in geography and history. The Mercure Scandale was
avowedly intended to amuse the frivolous. The lapse of time has made its
artificial sprightliness dreary. It was in the serious portion of the
_Review_, the Review proper, that Defoe showed most of his genius. The
design of this was nothing less than to give a true picture, drawn with
"an impartial and exact historical pen," of the domestic and foreign
affairs of all the States of Europe. It was essential, he thought, that
at such a time of commotion Englishmen should be thoroughly informed of
the strength and the political interests and proclivities of the various
European Powers. He could not undertake to tell his readers what was
passing from day to day, but he could explain to them the policy of the
Continental Courts; he could show how that policy was affected by their
past history and present interests; he could calculate the forces at
their disposal, set forth the grounds of their alliances, and generally
put people in a position to follow the great game that was being played
on the European chess-board. In the _Review_, in fact, as he himself
described his task, he was writing a history sheet by sheet, and letting
the world see it as it went on.

This excellent plan of instruction was carried out with incomparable
brilliancy of method, and vivacity of style. Defoe was thoroughly master
of his subject; he had read every history that he could lay his hands
on, and his connexion with King William had guided him to the
mainsprings of political action, and fixed in his mind clear principles
for England's foreign policy. Such a mass of facts and such a maze of
interests would have encumbered and perplexed a more commonplace
intellect, but Defoe handled them with experienced and buoyant ease. He
had many arts for exciting attention. His confinement in Newgate, from
which the first number of the _Review_ was issued on the 19th February,
1704, had in no way impaired his clear-sighted daring and self-confident
skill. There was a sparkle of paradox and a significant lesson in the
very title of his journal - _A Review of the Affairs of France_. When, by
and by, he digressed to the affairs of Sweden and Poland, and filled
number after number with the history of Hungary, people kept asking,
"What has this to do with France?" "How little you understand my
design," was Defoe's retort. "Patience till my work is completed, and
then you will see that, however much I may seem to have been digressing,
I have always kept strictly to the point. Do not judge me as you judged
St. Paul's before the roof was put on. It is not affairs _in_ France
that I have undertaken to explain, but the affairs _of_ France; and the
affairs of France are the affairs of Europe. So great is the power of
the French money, the artifice of their conduct, the terror of their
arms, that they can bring the greatest kings in Europe to promote their
interest and grandeur at the expense of their own."

Defoe delighted to brave common prejudice by throwing full in its face
paradoxes expressed in the most unqualified language. While we were at
war with France, and commonplace hunters after popularity were doing
their utmost to flatter the national vanity, Defoe boldly announced his
intention of setting forth the wonderful greatness of the French nation,
the enormous numbers of their armies, the immense wealth of their
treasury, the marvellous vigour of their administration. He ridiculed
loudly those writers who pretended that we should have no difficulty in
beating them, and filled their papers with dismal stories about the
poverty and depopulation of the country. "Consider the armies that the
French King has raised," cried Defoe, "and the reinforcements and
subsidies he has sent to the King of Spain; does that look like a
depopulated, country and an impoverished exchequer?" It was perhaps a
melancholy fact, but what need to apologise for telling the truth? At
once, of course, a shout was raised against him for want of patriotism;
he was a French pensioner, a Jacobite, a hireling of the Peace-party.
This was the opportunity on which the chuckling paradox-monger had
counted. He protested that he was not drawing a map of the French power
to terrify the English. But, he said, "there are two cheats equally
hurtful to us; the first to terrify us, the last to make us too easy and
consequently too secure; 'tis equally dangerous for us to be terrified
into despair and bullied into more terror of our enemies than we need,
or to be so exalted in conceit of our own force as to undervalue and
contemn the power which we cannot reduce." To blame him for making clear
the greatness of the French power, was to act as if the Romans had
killed the geese in the Capitol for frightening them out of their sleep.
"If I, like an honest Protestant goose, have gaggled too loud of the
French power, and raised the country, the French indeed may have reason
to cut my throat if they could; but 'tis hard my own countrymen, to whom
I have shown their danger, and whom I have endeavoured to wake out of
their sleep, should take offence at the timely discovery."

If we open the first volume, or indeed any volume of the _Review_, at
random, we are almost certain to meet with some electric shock of
paradox designed to arouse the attention of the torpid. In one number we
find the writer, ever daring and alert, setting out with an eulogium on
"the wonderful benefit of arbitrary power" in France. He runs on in this
vein for some time, accumulating examples of the wonderful benefit, till
the patience of his liberty-loving readers is sufficiently exasperated,
and then he turns round with a grin of mockery and explains that he
means benefit to the monarch, not to the subject. "If any man ask me
what are the benefits of arbitrary power to the subject, I answer these
two, _poverty_ and _subjection"_ But to an ambitious monarch unlimited
power is a necessity; unless he can count upon instant obedience to his
will, he only courts defeat if he embarks in schemes of aggression and

"When a Prince must court his subjects to give him leave
to raise an army, and when that's done, tell him when he
must disband them; that if he wants money, he must assemble
the States of his country, and not only give them good
words to get it, and tell them what 'tis for, but give them an
account how it is expended before he asks for more. The
subjects in such a government are certainly happy in having
their property and privileges secured, but if I were of his
Privy Council, I would advise such a Prince to content himself
within the compass of his own government, and never
think of invading his neighbours or increasing his dominions,
for subjects who stipulate with their Princes, and make
conditions of government, who claim to be governed by laws
and make those laws themselves, who need not pay their
money but when they see cause, and may refuse to pay it
when demanded without their consent; such subjects will
never empty their purses upon foreign wars for enlarging the
glory of their sovereign."

This glory he describes as "the leaf-gold which the devil has laid over
the backside of ambition, to make it glitter to the world."

1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

Online LibraryWilliam MintoDaniel Defoe → online text (page 4 of 13)