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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

§ 15. Defoe in the pillory

In January, 1703, the tory Nottingham issued a warrant for Defoe’s arrest, but he was not apprehended until the latter part of May. Where he hid himself is uncertain; but there is evidence in his own hand that the prospect of a prison had completely unnerved him. After he was lodged in Newgate, he managed to resist all attempts to worm out of him whatever secrets of state he might possess. At his trial in July, he was misled into pleading guilty, and he received a sentence out of all proportion to his offence. The fine and the imprisonment during the queen’s pleasure were less terrible in his eyes than the three public exposures in the pillory, and he used all the means in his power, including a promise through William Penn to make important revelations, in order to escape the more degrading part of his punishment. His efforts proving of no avail, he plucked up his courage and wrote against his persecutors his spirited Hymn to the Pillory. When he was pilloried at the end of July, the temper of the fickle populace had changed, and, instead of being hooted and pelted, he was hailed as a hero. Neither he nor the mob knew that the experience marked a turning point in the career of one of the most variously, though not nobly, gifted men England has ever produced. Before his persecution, Defoe may have been somewhat shifty as a man of affairs and, perhaps, as a writer; but, on the whole, he had been courageous in facing disaster, and he had been more or less consistent and high-minded in his attitude toward public matters. After he was pilloried, the sense that he had been unjustly punished rankled in him, and he soon became dependent upon the bounty of Harley; to insure the continuance of that bounty, he sacrificed some, at least, of his convictions; in revenge, he began to betray his employer; and, in the end, he stood before the public as the most discredited and mercenary journalist of the day. Such was not the view of his early biographers, who found in him, as we have seen, only a maligned patriot and man of genius; but it seems impossible for the close student of Defoe’s political writings, despite the sympathy he must feel for a kindly, brilliant and hardly used man, not to agree, in the main, with the contemporaries who denounced him.