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O, Defoe, where are you?


Alex Kingston as Moll Flanders in the Mobil Masterpiece Theatre series

Freedom of speech is under attack. Journalists, publishers and ordinary citizens are forced to defend their free speech against “human rights” commissions and the police (see posts on Lionheart and Mark Steyn below). Areas of Britain have been turned into “no-go” areas for non-Muslims, and Muslims demand that the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, resign because he has remarked that this is so. Soul-killing examples of political correctness are pervasive, and throw a pall over those who would like to speak their minds whether they are right or wrong and whether their ideas are unpopular.

Daniel Defoe was familiar with attacks against freedom of speech and freedom of religion, which forced him into jail and the feared pillory, but despite the fact that he was not personally the bravest of men, he kept on writing and publishing.

He had already experienced the sheer unpleasantness of jail as a bankrupt when his ships were lost in pirate-infested seas. When the government imprisoned him, it was 1702 and he was in his early forties with a business, a wife and at least six children to feed.

Wickedly satirical

In 1701, he had written the wickedly satirical send-up of the English called "The True-Born Englishman". To their credit, the English didn't whine about his verses. They made his poem a bestseller for the next fifty years.

But when he wrote the “Shortest Way with the Dissenters” Defoe pinched the government’s nerves. He had previously irritated the dissenters by pointing out that those who took occasional communion in the Church of England in order to qualify for employment and government office were hypocrites. Defoe was brought up by dissenters, and would have liked them to take a stand and oppose the government oppression that made it difficult for Christians to worship as they chose.

Forced into the pillory

But as the government contemplated taking even more severe steps against dissenters, Defoe leapt to their defence. He satirized the government’s plans for rooting out ‘this cursed Race from the World’, and made tyranny look absurd.

Facing the appalling logical result of their proposed methods, and stung by the "Shortest Way’s" mockery, the government tried to discover the identity of the author. Defoe went into hiding. This does not sound brave, but we sympathize. In May 1702 he was discovered, arrested for seditious libel, interrogated by the earl of Nottingham, imprisoned in Newgate, fined heavily, and sentenced to stand in the pillory unless he revealed his ‘Accomplices’. He refused to reveal them.

The pillory consisted of hinged wooden boards that formed holes through which a person’s head and arms and legs were forced. The boards were locked together to hold the captive tight. Set up in marketplaces or crossroads the victim attracted crowds throwing vegetables, dead animals and stones, and could not defend himself with his hands. Maiming or even death could result. Defoe’s punishment was to stand in the pillory for three days.

On the 29th, 30th and 31st of July 1702, he was taken there. The crowds were massive. His supporters stood in a solid ring around him for three days to defend him from missiles. It is said that the crowds began to throw flowers. He appeared, as Alexander Pope described him, ‘unabashed on high’. His ‘Hymn to the Pillory’ was sold in the streets and declared defiantly that he was ‘an Example made, to make Men of their Honesty afraid’.

Our modern observation: It seems likely that the Muslim complainants against Steyn and his publisher Macleans and the police authorities who want to interrogate the blogger Lionheart may have the same intention – to make them and others afraid to speak or write about certain subjects.

His business in ruins

Defoe survived the pillory, but his business of making bricks lay in ruins. We often speak about men and women willing to risk their lives for freedom. It is not much less of a hardship to risk your business, on which you and your large family are depending, as Defoe did.

Subsequently he was repeatedly harassed by unjust arrests, but he kept on writing, and, in an unexpected career move that we make no attempt to defend, became a secret agent for a government minister he trusted. We note that Great Britain might never have been established without his writing and intelligence network. He was instrumental in assuring that Scotland voted for the Act of Union with England.

Following his passion

During these years Defoe revolutionized journalism by founding a ground-breaking Review that provided opinions and context to the news. He eventually published more than 300 books, pamphlets, and journals on conduct, marriage, psychology, politics and crime (the last two not always separate subjects). In his attempts to create political and economic writing that would be read, he began creating dialogue, character, and story. The result of following his passion was that between the ages of fifty-five and sixty-four he entered his most creative period and established the new literary form of the English novel with the glorious Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722).

In Crusoe he created “the greatest mythic fantasy ever written of the solitary survivor who will never succumb. . .Physically, mentally, and spiritually Crusoe survives and grows stronger” (DNB). Deeply embedded in the world's cultural consciousness, Robinson Crusoe has never been out of print, and has been translated into a number of films, including Castaway with Tom Hanks. “Only the Bible has been printed in more languages” (DNB). In Moll Flanders Defoe created a resilient, optimistic heroine with multiple adventures, troubles, and escapes, and swept his readers into global possibilities while simultaneously confronting the question of evil.

A work that seems eerily modern is his secret history of the Treaty of Utrecht which confirms that the British have long been plagued by ministers and rulers who would manipulate the public and agree to a treaty that gave away all of Britain’s hard-earned success. Defoe was not a protectionist or a snob about trade. He showed an “early, acute understanding of banks, the new credit economy, and the transportation system necessary for increasing trade” (DNB). He envisioned European nations joining together to make the seas safe from pirates and open to merchants of every nation. In the event, it was the Royal Navy and US Navy that accomplished this task, and that have maintained the freedom of the seas for the last two hundred years.

"The Original Power. . .of the People of England"

One of Defoe’s least-known and most important works was published in the same year as the "Shortest Way with the Dissenters". This is "The Original Power of the Collective Body of the People of England" (1702), which is “one of the most eloquent defences of the rights of the people and most militant about their relationship to government. . .” It asserted many of Locke's arguments with great power, vindicating the “‘original right’ of ‘all men’ to live under a government dedicated to their benefit” (DNB).

Ah, Defoe! Where are you today when the British people face increasing assaults on their freedoms, their common sense, and their bank balances? Your spirit lives on in bloggers. May they find a way to reach the British people as effectively as you did. May there be British brave enough to defy jail and the pillory, and Brits brave enough to defend them.