Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 12. An Essay upon Projects

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

I. Defoe—The Newspaper and the Novel

§ 12. An Essay upon Projects

Shortly after his bankruptcy, Defoe, full of the speculative spirit of the age, was engaged in composing his Essay upon Projects, which did not appear until 1697. Of all his early productions, this is much the most interesting to the general reader, who is left wondering at the man’s versatility and modernity, particularly in matters relating to education, insurance and the treatment of seamen. At the end of 1697, he plunged, on the king’s side, into the controversy with regard to the maintenance of a standing army, and he continued to publish on the subject, though some of his tracts have escaped his biographers. In 1698, he began writing against occasional conformity in a manner which lost him much favour with his fellow dissenters, and he also made an effective contribution to the propaganda of the societies for the reformation of manners. His duties as head of a tile factory and as government accountant clearly did not occupy all his time, save for the single year 1699, to which not one work by him is plausibly assigned. It was not until the end of 1700, however, that out of the small poet and occasional pamphleteer was evolved a prolific professional writer. The occasion was the will of Charles II of Spain and the upsetting of William’s plans for the partition of the Spanish monarchy. Defoe supported his sovereign in several tracts, and he pleaded for the return of a parliament uncontrolled by moneyed interests. But it was a sprawling satire in favour of the king, not homely tracts addressed to plain freeholders, that gave the middle-aged journalist his first taste of literary popularity.

This satire was The True-Born Englishman, which appeared in January, 1701, and, both in authorised and in pirated editions, had an enormous sale. It was a reply to a poem by Tutchin, in which that journalist had voiced the popular prejudice against the foreign-born king. Defoe’s vigorous verses turned the tables on his own hybrid people, and were good journalism, whatever one may think of them as poetry. They seem to have been the occasion of his introduction to the king, an honour which, much to the disgust of less favoured editors and pamphleteers, was not left unchronicled in his writings. We know little of his relations with William; but, at the time of his arrest for The Shortest Way, it was suspected that these had been close, and he himself dropped hints which cause one to believe that occasionally he served the king as an election agent much as, later, he served Harley.