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Printing Press

Political Pamphleteer

After the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695, England experienced its first taste of freedom of the press. Suddenly, writers were free to print their propaganda on any subject they liked without having to get pre-approval, and newspapers and pamphlets flourished. Defoe was one of the many writers who took advantage of this freedom. Although his writings were no longer subject to pre-censorship, however, they were still subject to the Law of Seditious Libel, and several times Defoe was arrested for his pamphleteering when the government decided he had gone too far.

There was seemingly no political topic that Defoe was unwilling or unable to comment upon, from local battles over religious conformity to the contested succession to the Spanish throne. Many of his writings were devoted to issues arising from the Glorious Revolution, including works that justify the acceptance of William as king as well as many on the Pretender and the Jacobites. Not only could he write intelligently and persuasively on each topic but he was able to argue from many different points of view, tailoring the style to his target audience. It was certainly this flexibility that led to his being recruited by Robert Harley to write propaganda for the government—and what led many contemporaries to brand him a mercenary hack. No one could argue with his ability as a writer however, and throughout the reign of Queen Anne he was a never-ending source of controversy and propaganda.

The True-Born Englishman

The true-born Englishman Title Page
The true-born Englishman. A satyr. Printed in the Year MDCCI.

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This immensely popular satiric poem required over twenty separate editions or impressions in Defoe’s lifetime. It was written in response to John Tutchin's The Foreigners, a poem that criticized William III in particular and foreigners (especially the Dutch) in general. In The True-Born Englishman, Defoe chides the English for their hatred of foreigners, pointing out that England was created by centuries of foreign invaders. He then itemizes the faults of the English character, including stupidity, drunkenness and ingratitude with scathing wit:

“But Englishmen do all Restraint despise,
Slaves to the Liquor, Drudges to the Pots,
The Mob are Statesmen, and their Statesmen Sots.” (36)

Regulation of the Press Title Page
An Essay on the Regulation of the Press London, Printed in the Year, 1704.

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After the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695 there were numerous attempts to reinstate it. One such bill came before the Commons in January 1704, and this pamphlet is Defoe's response to it. He argues strongly against any licensing system, citing the many abuses men have suffered under past licensers. Those whose religion or party politics were not in line with that of the licenser or of the current government had their works rejected for that reason only. Or worse yet, the man whose work was rejected for its religious content might easily reverse the case with a sufficient bribe.

This pamphlet is most famous, however, for being the first to explicitly equate freedom of the press with education and learning. For, says Defoe, "as Printing has been own'd to be the most useful Invention ever found out, in order to polish the Learned World, make Men Polite, and encrease the Knowledge of Letters, and thereby all useful Arts and Sciences; so the high Perfection of Human Knowledge must be at a stand, Improvements stop, and the Knowledge of Letters decay in the Kingdom, if a general Interruption should be put to the Press" (1).

Present State of Jacobitism Title Page
A true Collection of the Writings of the Author of the True Born English-man. Corrected by Himself. London: Printed, and are to be Sold by most Booksellers in London and Westminster. MDCCIII.

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In the preface to this collection of poems and prose tracts, Defoe urges readers not to be duped by pirated versions of his works, which leave out some works and add other works that are not his, and “which in many Places invert the Sense and Design of the Author.” For, he says, it is not because of “any Opinion I have of the Value of my own Performances, nor from the Fondness of appearing in Print...that I have consented to this Publication” but rather because he thought it necessary to provide a corrective to the injustices done him.

One particular sticking point is that “this Piratical printer” reprinted The Shortest Way with the Dissenters and made a profit on it while Defoe was still sitting in prison for having written it.

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