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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

§ 19. The Secret History of the White Staff and An Appeal to Honour and Justice

Meanwhile, apparently with Oxford’s connivance, he published the first of the three parts of his notorious apology for the administration of that statesman, The Secret History of the White Staff. This was the signal for a swarm of acrimonious whig tracts, which made much capital out of Defoe’s careless admissions with regard to his patron’s intrigues with the Scottish Jacobites. A second part, in which Bolingbroke was treated more leniently, speedily followed, and then, at the end of the year 1714, Defoe’s health broke down—or else he deemed it expedient to pose as an apoplectic who had not long to live.

A full discussion of this tangled matter would be tedious. Lee, who did not know the date of publication of Defoe’s Appeal to Honour and Justice, tho’ it be of his worst enemies, the masterly account of the journalist’s career which closed with a pathetic note to the effect that he had been ill for six weeks and was still in grave peril, seems, by assigning the tract to January, 1715, to have fixed the date of his hero’s illness in November and December, 1714, thus managing to make the bibliography of Defoe square not only with these dates but with high conceptions of his probity. Unfortunately, it has been discovered that the Appeal was published on 24 February, 1715. This brings the period of the illness into the early weeks of 1715, that is, into a time when, according to Lee, Crossley and a contemporary of Defoe, the pamphleteer William Pittis, our journalist was actively plying his trade. It does not follow that Defoe may not have been out of health about this time—his situation, with an expensive family, no fixed source of income, a worse than doubtful reputation and an indictment for libel hanging over him, might well have undermined an even stronger constitution than his; but it does seem to be clear that, on Oxford’s repudiating the White Staff tracts, Defoe published several others designed to throw dust round the whole controversy and to minimise his own part in it, and that, these attempts failing, he wrote his Appeal, upon which he expended all the resources of his genius for casuistry, without succeeding in changing the opinions of his contemporaries one iota. It is a proof of his literary skill, however, that this adroit and moving pamphlet has misled many a confiding biographer and uninformed modern reader.