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Political Pamphleteer

Defoe in the Pillory

Occasional Conformity and The Shortest Way with the Dissenters

In 1698, Defoe wrote An Inquiry into Occasional Conformity, in which he complained of Nonconformists who occasionally take communion in the Church of England so that they can still hold government office or take other employment. Within a few years, a large-scale controversy over conformity broke out, and a bill was proposed in Parliament that would make it even harder for Nonconformists to keep their jobs without paying hefty fines.

Shortest-Way Title Page
The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters: or Proposals for the Establishment of the Church. London, 1702.

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Defoe responded to the proposed legislation with a pamphlet, but rather than writing a straightforward argument against the new bill, as he had argued against the imprisonment of the Kentish petitioners, he chose to write a hoax in the guise of a High Church official, using the same vehement rhetoric often used in High Church sermons and writings. He took what was subtle and merely hinted at in these other writings and made it explicit and blatant. The “shortest-way” in the title refers to the writer’s wish to completely suppress Nonconformity by extermination. He writes, “In kindness therefore to the Public, as well as themselves, methinks this easy method [extermination] might be put in Practice for the effectual cure of Differences among us, without any hardship to the present Dissenters.” (16)

Many read the pamphlet literally, especially those whose views were in sympathy with it, and it led many moderate men to commiserate with the Dissenters. Others thought it satirical, however, and a controversy broke out over the real meaning of the work. Most said that the pamphlet had gone too far, that in its extremism it had crossed the line into Sedition. A warrant was issued for Defoe’s arrest.

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Due to his work, The Shortest Way with Dissenters, Defoe was arrested for seditious libel, tried and sentenced to three days in the pillory, among other things. He wrote this ode while in Newgate prison, and it was likely published on July 29, 1703, the first day he was made to stand in the pillory.

The poem portrays Defoe as a good and virtuous man who cannot be shamed by the pillory because he has done no wrong. He is being punished, rather, for his audacity, "because he was too bold, And told those Truths, which shou'd not ha' been told."

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