Daniel Defoe lived from (probably) September 1660 to 26 April 1731. He is best known as the prolific author of between 300 and 500 literary and political works; as one of the creators of the popular English novel; and, especially, as the author of Robinson Crusoe. Less well known was the fact that he was also at different times a merchant, a manufacturer, a rebel, a marine insurer, a swindler, a convict, a spy, a journalist and a spin doctor.
Daniel Defoe was born Daniel Foe, probably in September 1660, the son of a family of Presbyterian dissenters in the parish of St Giles, London. He attended school at the Presbyterian Morton's Academy and his parents hoped he would become a Presbyterian Minister.
Instead Daniel went into business, adding the "De" to the start of his surname to make it sound more aristocratic and/or French. His activities rapidly expanded to include the breeding of civet cats for perfume manufacture; the ownership and operation of a ship for trading activities; business as a marine insurer; and the purchase of a country estate. In 1684 Defoe married the rich Mary Tuffley, possibly because her £3700 dowry went some way to clearing business debts he had already accumulated.
In 1685 Defoe joined the Monmoth Rebellion or Pitchfork Rebellion against the Catholic James VII/II. This was suppressed at the Battle of Sedgemoor on 6 July 1685, and many of the surviving rebels were later executed or transported to the colonies. Defoe was able to return unnoticed to London, and keep out of the authorities' view until James VII/II was displaced on the throne by William and Mary in 1689.
By 1692 Defoe's finances had crashed and, now with a wife and a rapidly growing family to support, he was arrested for debt. It turned out that offering marine insurance during a naval war with France was not a winning business formula. It is thought Defoe owed as much as £17,000. Within 10 years he had paid off much of it, by some accounts thanks to his very dodgy business ethics, which allegedly included swindling his mother-in-law out of four hundred pounds in a perfume venture.
Meanwhile, Defoe, as well as travelling widely, was starting to build the prodigious literary output that was to be his main legacy. In 1703 his writing landed him in jail. As a religious dissenter he had produced a pamphlet entitled "The Shortest Way with the Dissenters" in which he parodied the extreme attitudes of High Anglican Tories and pretended to propose the extermination of Dissenters. This went down seriously badly with the Government (and with dissenters): and on 31 July 1703 Defoe was convicted of "Seditious Libel", placed in a pillory for three days, then thrown in jail.
Defoe sought the help of a business contact, the Scot, William Paterson: and was subsequently offered a way out by Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, the government's chief spy-master and spin-doctor. He was given his freedom, and £1000, for agreeing to place his undoubted journalistic talents, and his popularity, at the disposal of the government. The result was his launch of a thrice-weekly newspaper, The Review. Largely written by Defoe himself, this played a large part in shaping English public opinion in favour of the Act of Union with Scotland, which duly took place in 1707.
But Harley had another role in mind for Defoe. In September 1706, in the critical run-up to the Union, Defoe was sent to Edinburgh, where, with his well known background as a dissenting English Presbyterian, he became an adviser to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and to committees of the Scottish Parliament: from where he could feed inside information to Harley. Meanwhile he wrote pamphlets selling the benefits of the Act of Union to Scots, usually anonymously or while pretending to be a Scot: and often using arguments that directly contradicted those he used to sell the Act of Union to an English audience in the pages of The Review. His spin continued into what represented itself as an objective history of the Act of Union (but in fact was anything but) published in 1709.
Defoe's life after his involvement in the Union continued to be one of dodgy and often unsuccessful business dealings, coupled with a prodigious literary production, and continuing involvement in the shadier side of politics. Possible the most significant highlight was the publication in 1719 of his classic novel, Robinson Crusoe, based on the story of real life Scottish castaway, Alexander Selkirk. And between 1724 and 1726, by now well into his 60s, Defoe published his most significant work of non-fiction, the three volume A tour thro' the whole island of Great Britain. This is a superb and detailed account of what Great Britain was like on the eve of the industrial and agricultural revolutions, written in a matter-of-fact style that comes over as surprisingly modern. It is interesting to note his frequent observations in the sections covering Scotland (full text available online here) that the 1707 Act of Union had not delivered on its promises for Scotland: without any obvious sense of responsibility that he helped promote those promises.
Daniel Defoe died on 26 April 1731, at lodgings in Ropemaker's Alley, Moorfields, London: where he was probably staying in an effort to avoid his creditors. He was buried in Bunhill Fields, London.