Call it the short arm of the law and the long and winding road of dissent. Daniel Defoe’s bankruptcy at the age of thirty-two was the making of him. Always a plunger, he had plunged into the wrong element. He now plunged into words. He lived for a while on odd jobs, at one time, though a Puritan of sorts, he was supervisor of the state lottery, his conscience being somewhat elastic. But he was, above all, a man with his ear to the ground. Dutch William, a stern Protestant, came over from Holland to rule England and was horrified by the barbarity of English manners and the overall backwardness of life. Defoe was one of hundreds of thousands to welcome the foreign king.
Within astonishingly little time Defoe, the son of the tallow chandler, and the bankrupt, was one of the advisors of the king, or, more accurately, one of the king’s public-relations officers and agents. What is an agent? Mysterious occupation. A man who works behind the scens, possibly a spy. And here we approach the devious side of Defoe’s character; he was a born undercover man. The English notoriously despise foreigners, and the king was despised because he was a Dutchman. Extremists worked up a campaign against him on the grounds that he was surrounded by Dutch advisers and was not a pure blooded, ”true born Englishman”. Defoe sat down and wrote his famous satiric address, published in 1701, to ”the true born Englishman,” the traditional upper-class Tory. He laughed them into good sense with his look at the mongrel English past. ”But when I see the town full of lampoons and invectives against Dutchmen, only because they are foreigners, and the king reproached and insulted by insolent pedants, and ballad-making poets, for employing foreigners, and for being a foreigner himself, I confess myself moved by it to remind our nation of their own original, thereby to let them see what a banter is put upon ourselves in it; since speaking of Englishmen ab origine, we are really all foreigners ourselves.”
”French cooks, Scotch pedlars, and Italian whores,
Were all made lords or lords’ progenitors.
Beggars and bastards by this new creation
Much multiplied the peerage of the nation;
Who will be all, ere one short age runs o’er,
As true-born lords as those we had before….
These are the heroes that despise the Dutch,
And rail at new-come foreigners so much;
Forgetting that themselves are all derived
From the most scoundrel race that ever lived;
A horrid crowd of rambling thieves and drones
Who ransack’d kingdoms, and dispeopled towns;…
And lest, by length of time, it be pretended,
The climate may this modern breed have mended;
Wise Providence, to keep us where we are,
Mixes us daily with exceeding care;
We have been Europe’s sink, the jakes, where she
Voids all her offal out-cast progeny;”
This Shavian attack was not entirely destructive, for in the latter part of the poem Defoe shrewdly sets out the virtues and vices of his countrymen as well as it has ever been done. He makes it very clear for example , that the strong, silent Englishman is a myth; he is a man who cannot keep his mouth shut, grumbles at work, can teach any magistrate the law. Gentle in command, never obedient, affronting to their kings, the English go their own way:
”Restraint from ill is freedom to the wise!
But Englishmen do all restraint despise.
Slaves to th
The mob are statesmen, and their statesmen sots.”
Defoe’s poem restored good sense, for the Tories were out of power. But William died and the Tories had marked him and, indded, all the stubborn Dissenters like him.With the death of William and with churchgoing Anne on the throne, the extreme Tories, the ”highflyers” as they were called, turned upon the Dissenters. Their schools were to be closed and the old tolerance was to be abolished. Defoe was not a very honest man; he was not, as Bunyan was, a true Puritan. But Defoe was a passionate Dissenter.And now his inborn recklessness and disingenuousness betrayed him.
In 1702, he wrote a pamphlet entitled ”The Shortest Way With the Dissenters” It was brilliant, which was the problem. Too brilliant for the mass of readers. It was done in the manner of Swift’s ”Modest Proposal” that the Irish should eat their children. Defoe was less savage; he pretended to be a highflying Tory and made the Tories ridiculous by pretending to side with them, carrying their extremism to an absurd conclusion. He was, in fact, parodying the sermons of a violent divine. The viperous brood, the heretical weed, of Dissent must be destroyed.
”I answer, It is cruelty to kill a snake or a toad in cold blood, but the poison of their nature makes it a charity to our neighbours, to destroy those creatures! not for any personal injury received, but for prevention; not for the evil they have done, but the evil they may do! Serpents, toads, vipers, &c., are noxious to the body, and poison the sensitive life: these poison the soul! corrupt our posterity! ensnare our children! destroy the vitals of our happiness, our future felicity! and contaminate the whole mass!
Shall any Law be given to such wild creatures! Some beasts are for sport, and the huntsmen give them the advantages of ground: but some are knocked on the head, by all possible ways of violence and surprise!
I do not prescribe Fire and Faggot! but as SCIPIO said of Carthage, Delenda est Carthago! They are to be rooted out of this nation, if ever we will live in peace! serve GOD! or enjoy our own! As for the manner, I leave it to those hands, who have a Right to execute GOD’S Justice on the Nation’s and the Church’s enemies.” ( The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters; Or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church. Daniel Defoe )
Scholars have almost always treated Defoe’s The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters with condescension or contempt. It has been seen as a satire that failed (and landed the author in the pillory) because Defoe did not manage to signal his irony. The Shortest-Way is commonly but misleadingly compared to Swift’s A Modest Proposal, where irony is made absolutely explicit. I argue that Defoe was not being ‘ironic’, that he never expected his readers to distinguish between author and persona, and that a close reading of The Shortest-Way carried out without the presumption of ironic intent does not turn up plausible ‘signals’ of irony. The Shortest-Way needs to be understood in the context of satire in the opening years of the eighteenth century—and as a monitory satire, written not to humiliate or abuse targets but to warn like-minded readers. In fact, if we ask what signalling irony would have accomplished, then the long-standing ‘failed hoax’ reading seems worse than implausible. The piece was a counterfeit intended to be believed, and Defoe later expresses pride in having it taken for the real thing. The catastrophic results were precipitated not by Defoe’s failure to signal irony, but by the outing of the author—a disclosure Defoe neither intended nor foresaw.( Ashley Marshall )
Defoe was extremely reckless in his mimicry. The ridicule was interpreted as an attack on the Queen, who, though scarcely religious, was ardent for Church business. Defoe was arrested; the middle sized journalist with the hooked nose and the large mole near the side of his mouth was in prison and then in pillory.