On this day, Daniel Defoe is put in the pillory as punishment for seditious libel, brought about by the publication of a politically satirical pamphlet. Defoe’s middle-class father had hoped Defoe would enter the ministry, but Defoe decided to become a merchant instead. After he went bankrupt in 1692, he turned to political pamphleteering to support himself.
A deft writer, Defoe’s pamphlets were highly effective in moving readers. His pamphlet The Shortest Way with Dissenters was an attack on High Churchman, satirically written as if from the High Church point of view but extending their arguments to the point of foolishness. Both sides of the dispute, Dissenters and High Church alike, took the pamphlet seriously, and both sides were outraged to learn it was a hoax.
Defoe was arrested for seditious libel in May 1703. While awaiting his punishment, he wrote the spirited “Hymn to the Pillory.” The public sympathized with Defoe and threw flowers, instead of the customary rocks, at him while he stood in the pillory. He was sent back to Newgate Prison, from which Robert Harley, the future Earl of Oxford, obtained his release. Harley hired Defoe as a political writer and spy. To this end, Defoe set up the Review, which he edited and wrote from 1704 to 1713.
It wasn’t until he was nearly 60 that he began writing fiction. In 1719, The Life and Strange Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Defoe’s fictional account of a shipwrecked sailor who spent 28 years on a desert island, was published. His other works include Moll Flanders (1722) and Roxana (1724). He died in London in 1731.