Daniel Defoe, by William Minto

Chapter 4.

The Review of the Affairs of France.

It was a bold undertaking for a prisoner in Newgate to engage to furnish a newspaper written wholly by himself, “purged from the errors and partiality of news-writers and petty statesmen of all sides.” It would, of course, have been an impossible undertaking if the Review had been, either in size or in contents, like a newspaper of the present time. The Review was, in its first stage, a sheet of eight small quarto pages. After the first two numbers, it was reduced in size to four pages, but a smaller type was used, so that the amount of matter remained nearly the same—about equal in bulk to two modern leading articles. At first the issue was weekly; after four numbers it became bi-weekly, and so remained for a year.

For the character of the Review it is difficult to find a parallel. There was nothing like it at the time, and nothing exactly like it has been attempted since. The nearest approach to it among its predecessors was the Observator, a small weekly journal written by the erratic John Tutchin, in which passing topics, political and social, were discussed in dialogues. Personal scandals were a prominent feature in the Observator. Defoe was not insensible to the value of this element to a popular journal. He knew, he said, that people liked to be amused; and he supplied this want in a section of his paper entitled “Mercure Scandale; or, Advice from the Scandalous Club, being a weekly history of Nonsense, Impertinence, Vice, and Debauchery.” Under this attractive heading, Defoe noticed current scandals, his club being represented as a tribunal before which offenders were brought, their cases heard, and sentence passed upon them. Slanderers of the True–Born Englishman frequently figure in its proceedings. It was in this section also that Defoe exposed the errors of contemporary news-writers, the Post-man, the Post–Boy, the London Post, the Flying Post, and the Daily Courant. He could not in his prison pretend to superior information regarding the events of the day; the errors which he exposed were chiefly blunders in geography and history. The Mercure Scandale was avowedly intended to amuse the frivolous. The lapse of time has made its artificial sprightliness dreary. It was in the serious portion of the Review, the Review proper, that Defoe showed most of his genius. The design of this was nothing less than to give a true picture, drawn with “an impartial and exact historical pen,” of the domestic and foreign affairs of all the States of Europe. It was essential, he thought, that at such a time of commotion Englishmen should be thoroughly informed of the strength and the political interests and proclivities of the various European Powers. He could not undertake to tell his readers what was passing from day to day, but he could explain to them the policy of the Continental Courts; he could show how that policy was affected by their past history and present interests; he could calculate the forces at their disposal, set forth the grounds of their alliances, and generally put people in a position to follow the great game that was being played on the European chess-board. In the Review, in fact, as he himself described his task, he was writing a history sheet by sheet, and letting the world see it as it went on.

This excellent plan of instruction was carried out with incomparable brilliancy of method, and vivacity of style. Defoe was thoroughly master of his subject; he had read every history that he could lay his hands on, and his connexion with King William had guided him to the mainsprings of political action, and fixed in his mind clear principles for England’s foreign policy. Such a mass of facts and such a maze of interests would have encumbered and perplexed a more commonplace intellect, but Defoe handled them with experienced and buoyant ease. He had many arts for exciting attention. His confinement in Newgate, from which the first number of the Review was issued on the 19th February, 1704, had in no way impaired his clear-sighted daring and self-confident skill. There was a sparkle of paradox and a significant lesson in the very title of his journal—A Review of the Affairs of France. When, by and by, he digressed to the affairs of Sweden and Poland, and filled number after number with the history of Hungary, people kept asking, “What has this to do with France?” “How little you understand my design,” was Defoe’s retort. “Patience till my work is completed, and then you will see that, however much I may seem to have been digressing, I have always kept strictly to the point. Do not judge me as you judged St. Paul’s before the roof was put on. It is not affairs in France that I have undertaken to explain, but the affairs of France; and the affairs of France are the affairs of Europe. So great is the power of the French money, the artifice of their conduct, the terror of their arms, that they can bring the greatest kings in Europe to promote their interest and grandeur at the expense of their own.”

Defoe delighted to brave common prejudice by throwing full in its face paradoxes expressed in the most unqualified language. While we were at war with France, and commonplace hunters after popularity were doing their utmost to flatter the national vanity, Defoe boldly announced his intention of setting forth the wonderful greatness of the French nation, the enormous numbers of their armies, the immense wealth of their treasury, the marvellous vigour of their administration. He ridiculed loudly those writers who pretended that we should have no difficulty in beating them, and filled their papers with dismal stories about the poverty and depopulation of the country. “Consider the armies that the French King has raised,” cried Defoe, “and the reinforcements and subsidies he has sent to the King of Spain; does that look like a depopulated, country and an impoverished exchequer?” It was perhaps a melancholy fact, but what need to apologise for telling the truth? At once, of course, a shout was raised against him for want of patriotism; he was a French pensioner, a Jacobite, a hireling of the Peace-party. This was the opportunity on which the chuckling paradox-monger had counted. He protested that he was not drawing a map of the French power to terrify the English. But, he said, “there are two cheats equally hurtful to us; the first to terrify us, the last to make us too easy and consequently too secure; ’tis equally dangerous for us to be terrified into despair and bullied into more terror of our enemies than we need, or to be so exalted in conceit of our own force as to undervalue and contemn the power which we cannot reduce.” To blame him for making clear the greatness of the French power, was to act as if the Romans had killed the geese in the Capitol for frightening them out of their sleep. “If I, like an honest Protestant goose, have gaggled too loud of the French power, and raised the country, the French indeed may have reason to cut my throat if they could; but ’tis hard my own countrymen, to whom I have shown their danger, and whom I have endeavoured to wake out of their sleep, should take offence at the timely discovery.”

If we open the first volume, or indeed any volume of the Review, at random, we are almost certain to meet with some electric shock of paradox designed to arouse the attention of the torpid. In one number we find the writer, ever daring and alert, setting out with an eulogium on “the wonderful benefit of arbitrary power” in France. He runs on in this vein for some time, accumulating examples of the wonderful benefit, till the patience of his liberty-loving readers is sufficiently exasperated, and then he turns round with a grin of mockery and explains that he means benefit to the monarch, not to the subject. “If any man ask me what are the benefits of arbitrary power to the subject, I answer these two, poverty and subjection“ But to an ambitious monarch unlimited power is a necessity; unless he can count upon instant obedience to his will, he only courts defeat if he embarks in schemes of aggression and conquest.

“When a Prince must court his subjects to give him leave to raise an army, and when that’s done, tell him when he must disband them; that if he wants money, he must assemble the States of his country, and not only give them good words to get it, and tell them what ’tis for, but give them an account how it is expended before he asks for more. The subjects in such a government are certainly happy in having their property and privileges secured, but if I were of his Privy Council, I would advise such a Prince to content himself within the compass of his own government, and never think of invading his neighbours or increasing his dominions, for subjects who stipulate with their Princes, and make conditions of government, who claim to be governed by laws and make those laws themselves, who need not pay their money but when they see cause, and may refuse to pay it when demanded without their consent; such subjects will never empty their purses upon foreign wars for enlarging the glory of their sovereign.”

This glory he describes as “the leaf-gold which the devil has laid over the backside of ambition, to make it glitter to the world.”

Defoe’s knowledge of the irritation caused among the Dissenters by his Shortest Way, did not prevent him from shocking them and annoying the high Tories by similar jeux d’esprit. He had no tenderness for the feelings of such of his brethren as had not his own robust sense of humour and boyish glee in the free handling of dangerous weapons. Thus we find him, among his eulogies of the Grand Monarque, particularly extolling him for the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. By the expulsion of the Protestants, Louis impoverished and unpeopled part of his country, but it was “the most politic action the French King ever did.” “I don’t think fit to engage here in a dispute about the honesty of it,” says Defoe; “but till he had first cleared the country of that numerous injured people, he could never have ventured to carry an offensive war into all the borders of Europe.” And Defoe was not content with shocking the feelings of his nominal coreligionists by a light treatment of matters in which he agreed with them. He upheld with all his might the opposite view from theirs on two important questions of foreign policy. While the Confederates were doing battle on all sides against France, the King of Sweden was making war on his own account against Poland for the avowed purpose of placing a Protestant prince on the throne. Extreme Protestants in England were disposed to think that Charles XII. was fighting the Lord’s battle in Poland. But Defoe was strongly of opinion that the work in which all Protestants ought at that moment to be engaged was breaking down the power of France, and as Charles refused to join the Confederacy, and the Catholic prince against whom he was fighting was a possible adherent, the ardent preacher of union among the Protestant powers insisted upon regarding him as a practical ally of France, and urged that the English fleet should be sent into the Baltic to interrupt his communications. Disunion among Protestants, argued Defoe, was the main cause of French greatness; if the Swedish King would not join the Confederacy of his own free will, he should be compelled to join it, or at least to refrain from weakening it.

Defoe treated the revolt of the Hungarians against the Emperor with the same regard to the interests of the Protestant cause. Some uneasiness was felt in England at cooperating with an ally who so cruelly oppressed his Protestant subjects, and some scruple of conscience at seeming to countenance the oppression. Defoe fully admitted the wrongs of the Hungarians, but argued that this was not the time for them to press their claims for redress. He would not allow that they were justified at such a moment in calling in the aid of the Turks against the Emperor. “It is not enough that a nation be Protestant and the people our friends; if they will join with our enemies, they are Papists, Turks, and Heathens, to us.” “If the Protestants in Hungary will make the Protestant religion in Hungary clash with the Protestant religion in all the rest of Europe, we must prefer the major interest to the minor.” Defoe treats every foreign question from the cool high-political point of view, generally taking up a position from which he can expose the unreasonableness of both sides. In the case of the Cevennois insurgents, one party had used the argument that it was unlawful to encourage rebellion even among the subjects of a prince with whom we were at war. With this Defoe dealt in one article, proving with quite a superfluity of illustration that we were justified by all the precedents of recent history in sending support to the rebellious subjects of Louis XIV. It was the general custom of Europe to “assist the malcontents of our neighbours.” Then in another article he considered whether, being lawful, it was also expedient, and he answered this in the negative, treating with scorn a passionate appeal for the Cevennois entitled “Europe enslaved if the Camisars are not relieved.” “What nonsense is this,” he cried, “about a poor despicable handful of men who have only made a little diversion in the great war!” “The haste these men are in to have that done which they cannot show us the way to do!” he cried; and proceeded to prove in a minute discussion of conceivable strategic movements that it was impossible for us in the circumstances to send the Camisards the least relief.

There is no reference in the Review to Defoe’s release from prison. Two numbers a week were issued with the same punctuality before and after, and there is no perceptible difference either in tone or in plan. Before he left prison, and before the fall of the high Tory Ministers, he had thrown in his lot boldly with the moderate men, and he did not identify himself more closely with any political section after Harley and Godolphin recognized the value of his support and gave him liberty and pecuniary help. In the first number of the Review he had declared his freedom from party ties, and his unreserved adherence to truth and the public interest, and he made frequent protestation of this independence. “I am not a party man,” he kept saying; “at least, I resolve this shall not be a party paper.” In discussing the affairs of France, he took more than one side-glance homewards, but always with the protest that he had no interest to serve but that of his country. The absolute power of Louis, for example, furnished him with an occasion for lamenting the disunited counsels of Her Majesty’s Cabinet. Without imitating the despotic form of the French Government, he said, there are ways by which we might secure under our own forms greater decision and promptitude on the part of the Executive. When Nottingham was dismissed, he rejoiced openly, not because the exSecretary had been his persecutor, but because at last there was unity of views among the Queen’s Ministers. He joined naturally in the exultation over Marlborough’s successes, but in the Review, and in his Hymn to Victory, separately published, he courteously diverted some part of the credit to the new Ministry. “Her Majesty’s measures, moved by new and polished councils, have been pointed more directly at the root of the French power than ever we have seen before. I hope no man will suppose I reflect on the memory of King William; I know ’tis impossible the Queen should more sincerely wish the reduction of France than his late Majesty; but if it is expected I should say he was not worse served, oftener betrayed, and consequently hurried into more mistakes and disasters, than Her Majesty now is, this must be by somebody who believes I know much less of the public matters of those days than I had the honour to be informed of.” But this praise, he represented, was not the praise of a partisan; it was an honest compliment wrung from a man whose only connexion with the Government was a bond for his good behaviour, an undertaking “not to write what some people might not like.”

Defoe’s hand being against every member of the writing brotherhood, it was natural that his reviews should not pass without severe criticisms. He often complained of the insults, ribaldry, Billingsgate, and Bear-garden language to which he was exposed; and some of his biographers have taken these lamentations seriously, and expressed their regret that so good a man should have been so much persecuted. But as he deliberately provoked these assaults, and never missed a chance of effective retort, it is difficult to sympathise with him on any ground but his manifest delight in the strife of tongues. Infinitely the superior of his antagonists in power, he could affect to treat them with good humour, but this good humour was not easy to reciprocate when combined with an imperturbable assumption that they were all fools or knaves. When we find him, after humbly asking pardon for all his errors of the press, errors of the pen, or errors of opinion, expressing a wish that “all gentlemen on the other side would give him equal occasion to honour them for their charity, temper, and gentlemanlike dealing, as for their learning and virtue,” and offering to “capitulate with them, and enter into a treaty or cartel for exchange of good language,” we may, if we like, admire his superior mastery of the weapons of irritation, but pity is out of place.

The number of February 17, 1705, was announced by Defoe as being “the last Review of this volume, and designed to be so of this work.” But on the following Tuesday, the regular day for the appearance of the Review, he issued another number, declaring that he could not quit the volume without some remarks on “charity and poverty.” On Saturday yet another last number appeared, dealing with some social subjects which he had been urged by correspondents to discuss. Then on Tuesday, February 27, apologising for the frequent turning of his design, he issued a Preface to a new volume of the Review, with a slight change of title. He would overtake sooner or later all the particulars of French greatness which he had promised to survey, but as the course of his narrative had brought him to England, and he might stay there for some time, it was as well that this should be indicated in the title, which was henceforth to be A Review of the Affairs of France, with Observations on Affairs at Home. He had intended, he said, to abandon the work altogether, but some gentlemen had prevailed with him to go on, and had promised that he should not be at a loss by it. It was now to be issued three times a week.

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/literature/english-men-of-letters/daniel-defoe/chapter4.html

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56