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Defoe

cr_actor_alex_kingston.jpg

Alex Kingston as Moll Flanders in the Mobil Masterpiece Theatre series

Where are you?

Not the bravest of men

Journalists, publishers and ordinary citizens are forced to defend their free speech against "human rights" commissions and the police. Soul-killing examples of political correctness are pervasive. Government inquisitions 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, and risked jail and the pillory to speak his mind, despite not being personally the bravest of men. 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 half a dozen children to feed. In 1701 he had written and had published 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", mocking the government's heavy-handed repression of people of religious conscience, Defoe hit a nerve.

He had already irritated the religious 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 wanted dissenters to take a stand and oppose the government oppression that made it difficult for Christians to worship as they chose. But as the government contemplated taking even more severe steps against dissenters, Defoe leapt to their defence.

Into the pillory

He satirized the government's plans for rooting out "this cursed Race from the World", and made tyranny look absurd. Faced with the appalling logical result of their proposed methods, and stung by his mockery, the government moved heaven and earth to discover his identity. Defoe went into hiding.

This does not sound brave, but we sympathize. In May 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 defencelss victim attracted crowds throwing vegetables, dead animals and stones. Maiming or even death could result.

Defoe's punishment was three days in the pillory. On the 29th, 30th and 31st of July 1702, he was locked inside the wooden boards, unable even to defend himself with his hands. The mob turned out in force. So did his supporters.

They stood in a solid ring around him for three days to defend him from missiles. Onlookers began to throw flowers. He appeared, Alexander Pope later said, "unabashed on high". Declaring defiantly that he was "an Example made, to make Men of their Honesty afraid", Defoe wrote a "Hymn to the Pillory" which was sold in the streets.

Defoe survived the pillory, but his business of making bricks was ruined. 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 family are depending. In future 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.

Secret Agent

Great Britain might never have been established without Defoe's writing and intelligence network. He was instrumental in assuring that Scotland voted for the Act of Union with England.

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). Striving to create political and economic writing that would be read, he began creating dialogue, character, and story.

Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders

Between the ages of fifty-five and sixty-four he entered his most creative period. Defoe trailblazed 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" (Oxford 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.

An eerily modern work is Minutes of the Negotiations of Monsr. Mesnager, a secret history of the Treaty of Utrecht. British ministers and rulers manipulate the public and agree to a treaty unfavourable to Britain. Defoe suggests why.

Defoe 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 Collective Body of the People of England

One of Defoe's least-known and most important works is "The Original Power of the Collective Body of the People of England" (1702). This 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).

Defoe! Where are you today when the British people face increasing assaults on their freedoms, their common sense, and their bank balances? They desperately need Brits brave enough to defy jail and the pillory - and Brits brave enough to defend them.

 

 

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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass