From the Introduction:
The theme of The True -Born Englishman is simple but profound […] What possible right has a race composed of all the offscourings of Europe, Romans, Gauls, Saxons, Danes and Normans—as well as needy Scots—to despise foreigners? (xii)
I would be but half in earnest if I said that I read this so that you don’t have to (OK: three-quarters, maybe seven-eighths), but it would be a shame, in a way, if you didn’t (it is currently out of print, but 2-Dolla-Dan copies abound on the used-book interwebs). Cos in this book (containing 13 of Defoe’s reputed 545 extant works, these all composed some two decades before his novels, between 1698 and 1704) you get a better picture of what Mr. Defoe was really like than in his novels, I’d argue—where he so excels at impersonating his highly specified narrators that in each novel, you’d swear that our Daniel was a penny-ante colonizer, a pirate with a heart of gold (or a prostitute with etc.), or a scheming, social-ladder-climbing courtesan who may or may not have lost her mind.
What was he really like, then?
Well, though a hard-line Dissenter and staunch ally of William of Orange, his long poem “The True-Born Englishman” (which defends that Dutch-born king against xenophobic and/or Jacobite critics) shows Defoe to be no parochial nationalist but someone who truly values cosmopolitanism, and who wishes that there were more, not less immigration than there was currently: foreigners bring England many needed skills, more people means more trade (always a good thing, by his accounting), and anyhow, England is the most mongrel a nation that ever there was, being comprised of Romans, Gauls, Saxons, Danes, Normans and Scots and the Welsh. So what’s a Dutch king on top of all that, except a cherry for the seven-scoop sundae?
As for kings, though he had agitated from an extreme Whig point of view, against the Tudor-inspired Divine Right of Kings, he also argued in favour of keeping a decent-sized (read: controllable) standing army in a country that only a generation before had good reason to be suspicious of Men With Guns. In practice, then, Defoe was more of a pragmatist (more on that later) than some of his pamphletting suggested.
And what pamphlets! The most (in)famous of these, “The Shortest Way With The Dissenters” managed to get both Whigs and Tories, CofE bishops and dissenting presbyters calling for his neck—a neck which was then duly placed in the pillory for three days, while the mob he often despised tossed not rocks but flowers at him, their hero. Soon afterwards, he is rescued from jail not by his allies but by his enemy: The Tory leader Sir Robert Harley, with an eye out for a smart whip who despises joiners and hypocrites, for an idealist, curmudgeon and contrarian who’s not for turning, turns him, springs him from gaol, and Defoe faithfully serves as spy, agitator and advisor for the next 15 years. The essay that closes this volume, “A Memorandum To Robert Harley” reads like Defoe is whispering into Harley’s ear like a machiavel from in a Calvinist Game of Thrones or something—if we deceive the people slightly, it shall be for the public good, he coos.
What else? Well, there’s a tract against part-time Puritans who sell their souls for political office; an “explanation” of his pamphlets that wonders why everyone insists on reading his “Isn’t-It-Ironic” pamphlets straight-up, sans irony; a “Dialogue between a Dissenter and [a newspaper]” which only manages to further enrage all sides; and a caustic “Hymn to the Pillory”,in which Defoe tears the whole corrupt country a new one in twelve pages of coruscating heroic couplets.
There’s also a couple of pieces on the capitalist Defoe (of course). The first, An Essay on Projects, is delightfully can-do blue skies proto-American. The second, the baldly bad-ass, libertarian, voluntarist, Manichean, victim-blaming piece of shit called “Alms No Charity” urges (in the most faux-civilised tones imaginable—well, Jonathan Swift imagined it into being, but with actual irony, in “A Modest Proposal”) to cut the idle poor loose and let the market imperatives (read: possible starvation) discipline them out of willful sloth into productive, redemptive labour.
Oh well. Two more in-print Defoes* ta go!
*beasts from the OxPen Ranch only, pardners: no way I’se the b’ye readin’ all 545 of those eminent, publick domain, Protestant Ethic “Works”!