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

§ 5. The Observator

In 1679, he assailed Shaftesbury and the exclusionists in pamphlets which won him the royal regard. During the next year, he was in the thick of the controversy about the popish plot, labouring to allay the popular fury against Roman Catholics. His denunciations of Oates and other informers led to machinations against himself. He was falsely accused of endeavouring by bribery to secure the defamation of Oates, and he was charged with being a papist. He was acquitted by the council; but public opinion ran so high against him that he fled, for a short time, to Holland. To employ a phrase in the title of one of his tracts, “a whole Litter of Libellers” assailed him at this season; but “the Dog Towzer” was not to be thus daunted. He returned in February, 1681, and kept the press busy, not only with apologetic pamphlets, but with bitter assaults upon the dissenters and with one of the most important of his works, his political newspaper The Observator: In Question and Answer.

This journal, of two double-columned folio pages, began its career on 13 April, 1681, and ran to 9 March, 1686/7. After no. 5, readers could not be sure how many issues they would receive a week; but, as a rule, the tireless editor supplied them with three or four numbers devoted to abuse of dissenters, whigs, trimmers and Titus Oates. Throughout, he employed a device, which he had not originated, but which his example made popular for a generation—the trick of casting each number in the form of a dialogue. It is needless to attempt to chronicle the changes in the form of title and in the persons of his interlocutors, since, in order to avoid the mistakes already made by bibliographers, one would need to examine every page of the periodical—an appalling task. It is enough to say that L’Estrange had a large share in the final discrediting of Oates; that, until it suited the king’s purpose to issue the declaration of indulgence, clerical and royal favour crowned his ecclesiastical and political zeal; and that his many critics had abundant excuse for the diatribes they continued to issue against him. Defoe, who was probably in London during the larger part of The Observator’s life, may thus early have determined that, if ever he should edit a paper of his own, he would avoid the awkward dialogue form and an extravagance that defeated its own ends.