Skip to main content
Select Source:

Defoe, Daniel (1660–1731)

DEFOE, DANIEL (16601731)

DEFOE, DANIEL (16601731), English journalist, economist, and travel writer, often considered to be the first English novelist. Daniel Defoe wrote approximately 560 books, pamphlets, and journal articles, many of which were anonymously or pseudonymously published. Little is known about his early life other than that he was the first son of James Foe, a tallow chandler in the City of London (the family changed its name to Defoe c. 1695). The Foes were Puritans, and, because they were Dissenters (or Nonconformists), the 1662 Act of Uniformity forbade them to practice their religion or educate their children. Nevertheless, Daniel was schooled at Morton's Academy for Dissenters in Newington Green, North London, and considered becoming a Nonconformist minister himself before eventually deciding to follow his father into the City of London. He started his career as a hosiery merchant in 1681. He married Mary Tuffley c. 1683/1684, and in 1685 left London to join the Duke of Monmouth's rebellion, probably fighting in the Battle of Sedgemoor. Defoe produced his first piece of published writing in 1688, a pamphlet denouncing the reigning monarch, James II (ruled 16851688).

With the accession of William of Orange in 1688 (William III; ruled 16881702), Defoe began a career as a political pamphleteer, but he also independently traded wine, spirits, tobacco, and textiles. His enterprises being unsuccessful, however, he was declared bankrupt in 1692, and was subsequently imprisoned in the Fleet and King's Bench Prisons for insolvency. Turning to pamphleteering for a living, in 1700 Defoe published "The True-Born Englishman," a satiric verse defending the Dutch King William III, and detailing England's multicultural past. Defoe was again imprisoned for six months in 1703 for another controversial pamphlet, "The Shortest Way with Dissenters," which ironically demanded the savage suppression of Nonconformists. In 1707 he began publishing the triweekly A Review of the State of the British Nation, which ran until 1713. Enjoying a busy career as a journalist, in 1704 he was employed by the secretary of state, Robert Harley, on a secret mission to tour England and Wales, ostensibly to report on the development of trade, but covertly to monitor and report back on any cells of Jacobite rebellion. During this period of traveling, Defoe gathered material for his extraordinary travel book, A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (3 vols., 1724), which describes the people, places, and trades of the nation in great detail (though sections of the text were plagiarized from earlier travel books). The Tour was supplemented in 1746 with a Tour thro' that Part of Great-Britain called Scotland.

Defoe's first foray into fiction came in 1719 when, at the age of sixty, he anonymously published Robinson Crusoe, which describes the life of a shipwrecked mariner, to some extent based on the real-life experiences of the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk. Robinson Crusoe was an immediate success for Defoe, and its publication initiated a prolific period of fiction writing including Captain Singleton (1720), an adventure story, and, in 1722, Defoe's second success, Moll Flanders, which purported to be an autobiography of a resourceful pick-pocket who lived in London and on the plantations of Virginia. Also in 1722 Defoe published The History of Peter the Great, Colonel Jack, and the historical fiction, A Journal of the Plague Year, which claimed to be an eyewitness account of events during the 16641665 Great Plague in London. In 1724 Defoe published his last, and possibly his darkest, fiction, Roxana, whose eponymous, tragic heroine dies in a debtors' prison after living a life of deception, which Defoe suggests was the result of her marrying a profligate man who abandoned her and their children. Defoe's fiction, which often drew on his own experiences of speculative enterprise, being in debt, and struggling to reconcile real life with a spiritual life, blended spiritual autobiography, journalism, and travel writing, and was original for its realistic subject matter and powerful, plain prose. Often regarded as the first novelist, Defoe certainly set a pattern for similar fiction writing, especially the novels of mid-century writers Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Laurence Sterne.

In his final years, Defoe published two economic texts, The Complete English Tradesman (1725) and Augusta Triumphans: A Plan of the English Commerce (1728). Ironically, despite his personal interest in trade, and his successes as a bestselling pamphleteer and writer of fiction, Defoe died in poverty in his lodgings in Ropemaker's Alley, in Moorfields, London.

See also Dissenters, English ; English Literature and Language ; Fielding, Henry ; Jacobitism ; James II (England) ; Richardson, Samuel ; Smollett, Tobias ; Sterne, Laurence ; William and Mary .


Primary Sources

Defoe, Daniel. The Complete English Tradesman (1725). 2 vols. 2nd ed. New York, 1969.

. The Englishman's Choice, and True Interest. 1694. Ann Arbor, Mich. [On-line.] Available:

. The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders. Edited by G. A. Starr. London, 1981.

. The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Edited by C. H. Irwin. London, 1925.

. The History and Remarkable Life of the Truly Honourable Colonel Jack. Edited by Samuel Holt Monk. London, 1965.

. History of the Union of Great Britain. 1709. In Writings on Travel, Discovery, and History. 2 sets of 4 vols., edited by W. R. Owens and P. N. Furbank. London, 20012002.

. A Journal of the Plague Year: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Contexts, Criticism. Edited by Paula R. Backscheider. New York, 1992.

. The Letters of Daniel Defoe. Edited by George Harris Healy. Oxford, 1955.

. The Life, Adventures, and Pyracies of the Famous Captain Singleton. Edited by Shiv K. Kumar. Oxford, 1969.

. The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Edited by Donald J. Crowley. Oxford, 1972; repr. 1999.

. Romances and Narratives by Daniel Defoe. Edited by George Atherton Aitken. 16 vols. London, 1895.

. Roxana, the Fortunate Mistress. Edited by John Mullan. Oxford, 1996.

. Selected Poetry and Prose of Daniel Defoe. Edited by M. F. Shugrue. New York, 1968.

. The Shortest-Way with Dissenters; Or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church. 1702. Harvard Classics. English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay. [On-line.] Available:

. A Tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain. Edited by P. N. Furbank, W. R. Owens, and A. J. Coulson. New Haven and London, 1991.

Secondary Sources

Backscheider, Paula R. Daniel Defoe: Ambition and Innovation. Lexington, Ky., 1986.

. Daniel Defoe: His Life. Baltimore, 1989.

Novak, Maximillian E. Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions: His Life and Ideas. Oxford and New York, 2001.

. Defoe and the Nature of Man. Oxford, 1963.

Rogers, Pat, ed. Daniel Defoe: The Critical Heritage. London, 1972; repr. 1995.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. London, 1957.

Alison Stenton

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Defoe, Daniel (1660–1731)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Defoe, Daniel (1660–1731)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . (December 16, 2017).

"Defoe, Daniel (1660–1731)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from

Defoe, Daniel

Daniel Defoe

Born: 1660
London, England
Died: April 24, 1731
London, England

English writer, journalist, and poet

Daniel Defoe was the first of the great eighteenth-century English novelists. He wrote more than five hundred books, pamphlets, articles, and poems.

Education, marriage, and early career

Little is known about the birth and early childhood of Daniel Defoe, as no baptism record exists for him. It is likely that he was born in London, England, in 1660. James Foe, his father, was a butcher by trade and also a Protestant Presbyterian (considered to be a person who thought differently and did not believe in or belong to the Church of England). (Daniel Defoe added the De to his original last name Foe when he was forty.) He had a sister, Elizabeth, who was born a year earlier. When he was ten, his mother died. He had early thoughts of becoming a Presbyterian minister, and in the 1670s he attended the Reverend Charles Morton's famous academy near London.

In 1684 Defoe married Mary Tuffley, who brought him the handsome dowry of 3,700 pounds. They had seven children. Defoe participated briefly in the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, a Protestant uprising, but escaped capture and punishment. From 1685 through 1692 he engaged in trade in London as a wholesale hosiery agent, an importer of wine and tobacco, and part owner and insurer of ships.

Defoe evidently did business with King William III (16501702). He suffered losses from underwriting marine insurance for the king and was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1692. Although he settled with the people to whom he owed money in 1693, he faced the threat of bankruptcy throughout his life and faced imprisonment for debt and libel (the crime of writing or publishing untrue statements that harm other people) seven times.

Journalist and secret agent

Arrested in 1703 for having published The Shortest Way with the Dissenters in 1702, Defoe was tried and sentenced, put before public abuse, and taken to prison. Robert Walpole (16761745) released him five months later and offered him a post as a government agent. Defoe continued to serve the government as journalist, pamphleteer, and secret agent for the remainder of his life. The most long-lived of his twenty-seven periodicals, the Review (17041713), was especially influential in promoting the union between England and Scotland in 1706 and 1707 and in supporting the controversial Peace of Utrecht of 1713 (one of the greatest peace settlements in history that balanced power in Europe).

His nonfictionessays, poems

Defoe published hundreds of political and social documents between 1704 and 1719. His interests and activities reflect the major social, political, economic, and literary trends of his age. He supported the policies of William III and Mary after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and 1689, and analyzed England's growth as the major sea and mercantile (having to do with merchandise and trade) power in the Western world. He pleaded for sympathy for debtors and defended the rights of Protestant dissenters (people who opposed the beliefs of the Church of England). He used newspapers and journals to make his points.

His first major work, An Essay upon Projects (1697), proposed ways of providing better roads, insurance, and education to be supported by "a Tax upon Learning, to be paid by the Authors of Books." Many of these topics reappeared in his later works.

In 1701 Defoe published The True-Born Englishman, the most widely sold poem in English up to that time. He estimated that more than eighty thousand copies of this defense of William III against the attacks of John Tutchin were sold. Although Defoe's The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702), which ridiculed the harshness of the Church of England, led to his arrest, the popularity of his Hymn to the Pillory (1703) indicated the favor that he had found with the London public.

Robinson Crusoe

At the age of fifty-nine, after a full career as businessman, government servant, political pamphleteer, and journalist, Defoe began a career as novelist. Within six years he produced six novels, all of which gave him his greatest fame.

In 1719 Defoe published his most lasting work, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. The success of the story inspired Defoe to write The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe later in 1719 and Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprizing Adventures in 1720. That year he published another travel novel, The Life, Adventures, and Pyracies of the Famous Captain Singleton.

Other major fiction

Defoe published comparatively little in 1721, because he was hard at work on the three major books that were to appear the following year. In January 1722 he published The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, probably the most successful of his novels. A Journal of the Plague Year, issued in March 1722, presented a picture of life in London during the Great Plague of 1665; it was thought to be history rather than fiction for more than a hundred years. His third novel, The History and Remarkable Life of the Truly Honourable Col. Jacque, was published in December 1722.

In 1724 and 1725 Defoe published four successful books, each displaying his characteristically clear, strong English words. The Fortunate Mistress; or, Roxana was the first of three in 1724. The second, A Tour Thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain was one of the most thorough guidebooks of the period, and the third, The History of the Remarkable Life of John, was one of his finest criminal biographies. The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild was the fourth book, published in 1725.

Last Works and death

Although he continued to write, only a few of Defoe's later works are worthy of note: The Complete English Tradesman (1725), The Political History of the Devil (1726), A New Family Instructor (1727), and Augusta Triumphans (1728), which was Defoe's plan to make "London the most flourishing City in the Universe."

Daniel Defoe died at age seventy-one on April 24, 1731, outside of London, England.

For More Information

Hunter, J. Paul. The Reluctant Pilgrim. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1966.

Moore, John Robert. A Checklist of the Writings of Daniel Defoe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1960.

Secord, Arthur W. Studies in the Narrative Method of Defoe. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1924.

Trent, William P. Daniel Defoe, How to Know Him. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1916. Reprint, New York, Phaeton Press, 1971.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Defoe, Daniel." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Defoe, Daniel." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (December 16, 2017).

"Defoe, Daniel." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from

Defoe, Daniel

Defoe, Daniel (c.1660–1731). Prolific English writer. Educated at Charles Morton's dissenting academy, Defoe was pardoned for fighting for Monmouth, and gaoled for bankruptcy in 1692, before becoming William III's unofficial apologist in the best-selling True-Born Englishman (1701). Imprisoned and pilloried for seditious libel for his satire on high-church bigotry, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702), Defoe was recruited as a propagandist and intelligence agent by Robert Harley, writing the seminal propaganda journal the Review (1704–13), and reporting on the passage of the Act of Union (1707) through the Scottish Parliament. Re-employed by Harley in 1710, Defoe wrote government propaganda until 1714. Having finally made his peace with the Whigs, Defoe published Robinson Crusoe (1719), the first of the series of fictional autobiographies, including A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Moll Flanders (1722), and Roxana (1724), for which he has been confusingly labelled the first English novelist. Crucially significant as sources for early-18th-cent. British society, works like A Tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724–6) have been intensively quarried by historians. Still hounded by creditors, Defoe, fittingly, died near his birthplace close by the real-life Grub Street.

J. A. Downie

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Defoe, Daniel." The Oxford Companion to British History. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Defoe, Daniel." The Oxford Companion to British History. . (December 16, 2017).

"Defoe, Daniel." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from

DEFOE, Daniel

DEFOE, Daniel [1660?–1731]. Sometimes De Foe, English journalist and novelist, born in London of Flemish descent, son of a chandler, and best known for the novel Robinson Crusoe (1719). He sympathetically represented non-standard varieties of English in works like Colonel Jack (1722) and A Tour thro' Somerset (1724–7), but in An Essay upon Several Projects (1702) proposed that England emulate the Académie française with an ACADEMY appointed ‘to encourage Polite Learning, to polish and refine the English Tongue, and advance the so much neglected Faculty of Correct Language, to establish Purity and Propriety of Stile, and to purge it from all the Irregular Additions that Ignorance and Affectation have introduc'd’. Like other proposals for such an academy, Defoe's concentrated on the literary language, and like them had no practical outcome. See JOURNALISM.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"DEFOE, Daniel." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"DEFOE, Daniel." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . (December 16, 2017).

"DEFOE, Daniel." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from

Gajdusek, Daniel Carleton

Daniel Carleton Gajdusek (gīd´əshĕk´), 1923–2008, American virologist, b. Yonkers, N.Y., grad. Univ. of Rochester; M.D. Harvard, 1945. He worked in the United States, Iran, Australia, and Pacific Islands studying infectious diseases, especially prion diseases and, in particular, kuru, a brain disease caused by prions and spread among the Fore people of New Guinea by ritual cannibalism. In 1958 he joined the National Institutes of Health, where he conducted research and headed (1970–97) the brain studies laboratory of the National Institute of Neurological Disease and Stroke. In 1976 he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Baruch S. Blumberg.

See R. Klitzman, The Trembling Mountain (1998).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Gajdusek, Daniel Carleton." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Gajdusek, Daniel Carleton." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (December 16, 2017).

"Gajdusek, Daniel Carleton." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 16, 2017 from