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6.2Daniel Defoe’s The True-Born Englishman


Daniel Defoe, the son of a tallow chandler, was born in London around 1660 into a family of Presbyterian dissenters. Though initially trained for the ministry, he soon became involved in trade and politics (“Defoe”, Carrington 107). In 1683, he started a hosiery business in London (Houghton 415). He joined the insurrection of the Duke of Monmouth against James II in 1685 (Thomas 734) and then, in 1688, William III’s army. He supported the king’s party until 1704 (Houghton 415) (though it was one of the causes of his bankruptcy) and was William’s leading pamphleteer (“Defoe”). After publishing his satirical pamphlet, The Shortest-Way With The Dissenters5, in 1702, he was imprisoned (Houghton 415). After his release, he became a pamphleteer and secret agent for the Tory minister Richard Harley (Houghton 415) and founded a newspaper, The Review (1704–13), “a journal of comment and opinion on political and social affairs written almost entirely by himself” (Carrington 107). He published his largest poem, Jure Divino, a satire on the doctrine of divine right, in 1706 (Partington 567). He was arrested again in 1706 for his satire Reasons Against The Succession of the House of Hanover (1712) (Carrington 107). From 1714, when the Whigs acceded to power, he continued to work for the new government (“Defoe”) and also started writing fiction (Houghton 415).

In 1701, Defoe published the satirical poem The True-Born Englishman. It was written in reaction to the attacks on the foreign origin of William III (in particular to John Tutchin’s poem The Foreigners) and soon became very popular (Defoe referred to himself in his later works as “The Author of The True-Born Englishman”) (Novak 149; Sampson and Churchill 377).

As stated in an explanatory preface of The True-Born Englishman, Defoe addresses in this work especially those who boast of their pedigree, claiming to be the “true-born Englishmen”, the descendants of ancient families, and despise foreigners (Defoe 592). The aim of this work is to remind them of the fact that they are derived from several nations and that it has been an advantage for them because “those nations which are most mixed are the best, and have least of barbarism and brutality among them” (Defoe 592).

Defoe argues that England was originally settled by the Britons, the first invaders being the Romans with whom numerous other nations were introduced into the country (the Gauls, Greeks, Lombards and slaves of various nations). The Romans were followed by the Saxons, Danes, Scots, Picts, Irish and Normans. All these nations introduced their languages, manners and even surnames in the country and “from this Amphibious Ill-born Mob began / That vain ill-natur’d thing, an English-man” (Defoe 596). However, Defoe goes as far as to claim that not only are the English a mixture of many nations, but even “Europe’s sink, the jakes, where she / Void all her offal out-cast progeny” (596).

As for the Anglo-Saxons, they are depicted as one of the many nations that shaped the English. Defoe decribes how they created a heptarchy and maintained wars between themselves, their women mixing with conquerors. Finally, the Western Angles, “a bloody nation, barbarous and rude”, subdued the Scots, Picts, Britons, Romans, Danes and other Germanic tribes and gave their name to the whole nation (597).

Moreover, Defoe claims that Providence ensures that new and new mixing occurs every day not to allow the English to be transformed by time or climate. Since the reign of Henry V, England has served as a refuge for “the strolling bands, / Of banish’d fugitives from neighb’ring land” (596). Under the reign of Queen Elizabeth, persecuted Protestants from various nations settled in England. The first Stuart king, James I, brought with him “troops of Scots and scabs from north of Tweed” (596). The Civil Wars of the 17th century resulted in Restoration of Charles II and:

The royal refugee our breed restores,

With foreign courtiers, and with foreign whores:

And carefully re-peopled us again,

Throughout his lazy, long, lascivious reign. (596)

Defoe therefore concludes that “A true-born Englishman’s a contradiction” (597). He stresses in particular the Norman origins of English nobility, sarcastically noting: “But that the Longest Sword shou’d be so Civil / To make a Frenchman English, that’s the Devil” (596). However, as he further argues, the origin does not matter: “For fame of families is all a cheat, / It’s personal virtue only makes us great” (603).

Nevertheless, in contrast to England, Defoe asserts, other nations can boast of ancient noble families. In fact, in this poem, he clearly distinguishes between individual nations and describes their national character. According to him, every nation has its own sin: the Spanish are proud, the Italians lustful, the Germans drunkards, the French are driven by ungoverned passion etc. The English, Defoe argues, have too many vices and too few virtues. Each of the nations they are composed of contributed to their character:

Fierce as the Briton, as the Roman brave,

And less inclined to conquer than to save;

Eager to fight, and lavish of their blood,

And equally of fear and forecast void.

The Pict has made them sour, the Dane morose,

False from the Scot, and from the Norman worse.

What honesty they have, the Saxon gave them,

And that, now they grow old, begins to leave them. (598)

Moreover, while open-hearted (and therefore bad at intrigues), agreeable, fair, “modester than other nations” (599), the English are also inclined to drinking too much, are uneven in religion and inconstant in temper. However, the most important vices for Defoe’s argument are dissatisfaction and ungratefulness of the English. Because, while “they were oppress’d, / Their rights invaded, and their laws suppress’d” under the restored Stuart kings and humbly asked William to aid them protect their liberty, “They soon their new deliverer despise” (599). In the rest of the poem, Defoe defends the right of the people to revolt against their king because “kings, when they descend to tyranny, / Dissolve the bond, and leave the subject free” and praises William who, moved by pity, ventured to save the liberty of the English (600).

As we have seen, Daniel Defoe refutes theories about the pure ethnicity of Englishmen and perceives the Anglo-Saxons merely as one of the components of the English nation, as only one element in the continuity of its history. The Anglo-Saxons contributed to that history by uniting all the nations in Britain at the time and contributed their name to this new union. The English can also attribute the honesty of their national character to the Anglo-Saxons. However, Defoe argues that the English are not purely Anglo-Saxon in character. He also depicts the Anglo-Saxons rather negatively (or at least as no better than other nations that contributed to the formation of the English). He describes them as “A bloody nation, barbarous and rude.” Nevertheless, it is necessary to realize that Defoe’s work was aimed at proving that William III was a rightful English king and therefore the emphasis on Anglo-Saxon ancestry was not particularly desirable.


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