Daniel Defoe began writing his Review (1704-1713) only three years prior to the Act of Union in 1707, which joined the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of England. The first Act of Union, passed in 1535-42, had annexed Wales to England, so by the time Defoe began writing the Review, the boundaries of British domain were in the process of further expanding. Abroad, England had established colonies in the Americas, the Caribbean, and Ireland. The creation of new British territory and the development of mercantile interests and policies that accompanied this growth provide the international topics that make up the content of the Review.
The Review also discusses domestic politics. At the birth of Defoe’s periodical, England was recovering from the last throes of a destabilized monarchy. Three civil wars shook England in the middle of the seventeenth century, between 1642-5, 1648-9, and 1649-51. During these times, Parliament (led by Oliver Cromwell) challenged the Stuart king, Charles I. Because of his advocacy of divine right, Parliament feared he was attempting to attain absolute power. In 1649, Charles was executed for high treason and a commonwealth replaced the monarchy. After time, Oliver Cromwell’s regime became a military dictatorship. After its collapse, Charles’s son Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660.
In the latter part of the seventeenth century, domestic political and social tensions intensified. From 1678-81, the Exclusion Bill unsuccessfully attempted to exclude Charles II’s brother, James (the Duke of York) from becoming king because he was Catholic. In this period, the English nation became divided into its two major political parties: the Whigs, who were against James’s succession, and the Tories, who supported the monarch. In 1688, James II was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution, and William III of Orange and James’s Protestant daughter Mary II succeeded as king and queen until the reign of Anne of beginning in 1702. In the late seventeenth century, England also experienced a plague of 1664-5 (as documented in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year ) and The Great Fire, which destroyed about 15,000 building in 1666. Thus, in the decades before the inception of the Review, England had witnessed both a destabilized government and the death and destruction of many of its people.
In the seventeenth century, questions of political legitimacy became codified in a domestic and international schism between English Catholics and Protestants. During the time of the Review, Queen Anne ruled England as the last Stuart before the House of Hanover came into power. James II, Anne’s father, had practiced toleration towards Catholics in England, chagrining Protestants wary of another Catholic monarchy. Thus, by the time George I became king after Anne’s death (and after duration of the Review), the English felt a tension that eventually produced the Jacobite risings, or the attempt to restore the Catholic Stuarts back to the throne, which took place throughout the eighteenth century. The tension between Catholics and Protestants in England set in motion by the domestic affairs in the middle to late seventeenth century served to escalate English antipathy toward the French.
Defoe’s Review, published fifteen years after the Glorious Revolution, was not the first English periodical, but it was the first to engage a particular political topic: the relationship between England and France. England’s relationship to France in this period is tenuous. The Review’s original title is A Review of the Affairs of France, for trade with France is a major factor despite the political tension. Residues from the Hundred Years War fought between 1337-1443 had changed the face of the British military. England fought France in the War of the Grand Alliance in 1688-97 and in the War of the Spanish Succession in 1701-14. The Review refers to the campaigns of the latter. Further, the French monarchy was Catholic. While absolutism declined in England, it continued growing in France. The ideological tensions in the Review stem from all of these factors.
Defoe’s periodical essays thus put forth the Protestant Whig position. Defoe, who had participated in Monmouth’s Rebellion in an attempt to overthrow James II in 1685, also wrote pamphlets attacking High Tories. The Review was a means for opining on political developments between France and England, but Defoe also reports on battles fought between the two countries. The reporting of particular empirical data surrounding the militaristic encounters with the French eventually give way to what today we would call the “column,” opinionated pieces discussing general topics rather than particular historical events.
The notion of political economy is nascent when Defoe begins writing the Review. In later editions of the Review Defoe focuses his attention on the emergent political economy. In 1706, Defoe began a series of discussions on the topic of national credit, a personification (“Lady Credit”) sustained in the years to follow. Defoe’s attempts to influence political economy attest to what Jurgen Habermas describes as the origins of the “public sphere” in the realm of political economy. Defoe writes: “Without this Thing call’d CREDIT, we could no more have carry’d on this War, than we could carry our Ships into the Field, or March our Cavalry our [sic.] the Sea” (Tues., Aug. 1 1710). Marking the transition from mercantilism to capitalism, Defoe advocates international trade as a means for procuring credit. Gold, which had been the primary marker of a nation’s wealth hitherto, was now relegated to the function of the commodity (like other manufactured goods). Thus, the late Renaissance tendency to colonize in order to pillage another country’s gold became supplanted by an emphasis on industry, trade, and the government’s role in regulating both a domestic and international economy. An inevitable product of examining international and domestic politics is writing on political economy, a topic whose origins mark the transition from mercantilism and monarchy to constitutional monarchy and capitalism.
Appleby, Joyce Oldham. Economic Thought and Ideology in Seventeenth-Century England (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1978).
Canny, Nicholas, ed. The Origins of Empire (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998).
Colley, Linda. Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1992).
Gunn, J. A. W. Politics and the Public Interest in the Seventeenth Century (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969).
Hill, Christopher. The Century of Revolution: 1603-1714 (New York, W. W. Norton, 1980).