March 17, 2018

Daniel Defoe, Dissenters, and the Pillory

In the summer of 1703, Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders were in Daniel Defoe's distant and improbable future; he was locked up, literally, in the horrors of the present: a cell in Newgate Prison, charges of "seditious libel," and thoughts of suicide.

Defoe was a Protestant "Dissenter" or "Nonconformist," and in the chronic 17th and 18th century power-struggles between Dissenters, Church of England Anglicans and hold-over Catholics, this was a dangerous thing to be.

In 1702, when High Anglican Queen Anne succeeded Protestant King William, most Dissenters held their breath and braced for a new wave of discrimination. Defoe was not good at holding his breath. Apart from the half-dozen novels he wrote -- the first British novels ever -- he owned or wrote for a half-dozen newspapers, and authored a bizarre array of other works: poems, histories, travelogues, real and bogus memoirs, manuals on Christian living, even a sex-guide for married couples. He also wrote over 200 political pamphlets, many of them anonymously -- including, here in 1703, the one that would get him the cell in Newgate.

"The Shortest Way With Dissenters" was supposed to be funny, a satire of the over-zealous Anglican Tories now in power. They had recently passed the Occasional Conformity Bill, which required everyone in political office or on the public payroll to practice Anglican worship. In his pamphlet, Defoe -- anonymously -- suggested that enforcing the Bill would be a needless waste of time; wouldn't the shortest, quickest way be to execute all Dissenters, and be done with it?:

"Tis vain to trifle in this matter. The light, foolish handling of them by [prison], fines, etc., tis to their glory and advantage. If the gallows instead of the [prison] and the gallies instead of the fine were the reward of going to [their places of worship], there would not be so many sufferers. The spirit of martyrdom is over."

Defoe soon found out that he had broken the cardinal rule for satire: he hadn't gone far enough. Many radical Anglicans, assuming that one of them had written the pamphlet, thought it a pretty good argument, and spoke out in favour of execution. Many Dissenters already holding political office were so alarmed, and so eager to hold on to their power as well as their heads, that they readily conformed to the Bill, going very publicly to Anglican Chapel in the morning, and then very privately to Dissenter worship in the afternoon -- a practice that Defoe called "playing Bo-Peep with God Almighty."

Soon, everyone realized that they had been duped. Defoe's printer was forced to confess the author's name, an arrest warrant was issued, Defoe went into hiding, rewards were offered...and, six months later Defoe found himself in the dock at the Old Bailey, being judged by the very Lords he had humiliated, before a packed audience who had paid a shilling each to watch the fun.

There wasn't much. Defoe pleaded guilty to "seditious libel" and threw himself on the Queen's mercy. He escaped whipping, but got three days in the pillory, a hefty fine, and time in prison. Defoe was a merchant, and the time in prison could --and did -- ruin his business; the time in the pillory could prove not only shameful but, depending on the whims of the crowd, lethal.

Defoe did not get the last laugh -- years later, his political enemies would have him imprisoned again -- but he certainly got the next one. While waiting for his three days of humiliation -- July 29, 30, 31, 1703 -- he brazenly composed "Hymn To The Pillory," a vicious satire of those who had put him there. It was smuggled out of Newgate and printed in time to be hawked to the crowd during his three-day ordeal. The London mob, which had a few weeks earlier savagely stoned another pamphleteer, so enjoyed the poem, and so admired the man who had dared to cheek the high and mighty, that they drank Defoe's health, and decked his pillory with flowers.

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