Defoe’s Critique of Monarchy: The Politics of Robinson Crusoe

The British newspaper The Guardian recently published a tendentious article. No surprise there, you may think. Except that this article by the poet and critic Charles Boyle was an attack on Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which this year celebrates the 300th anniversary of its first publication.

Boyle’s argument was not with Defoe, whom he acknowledged to be a “clever and contrary” man, and whose progressive ideas about England as a land of immigrants and whose advocacy of education for women he saluted. (He might have added on that side of the moral ledger, if we are reduced to thinking in these simplifying ways, Defoe’s hopes for a tolerating and minimally dogmatic religious culture, and his innovative ideas about trade and economics.) 

Rather, Boyle took aim at the role Defoe’s novel is alleged to have played in British imperial culture. “Simple in design with strong contrasting colours overriding any psychological shading,” Robinson Crusoe “became a flag for empire and travelled in the luggage of merchants, missionaries and generals.” Defoe, whatever the complexity of his personal commitments and attachments, had released into the world a poisonous book, one that “brought on to the page certain assumptions of its time—that slavery is OK and can be squared with Christianity; that the function of women in society is to serve men; that people whose skin colour is not white are savages—and did not challenge them.” According to Boyle Defoe had, in advance, written an apologia for and justification of “the white male entitlement that is still evident in so many daily transactions in the UK.” 

So far, so entirely predictable. But in this short post I will explore an aspect of Defoe’s seminal novel that points in a different direction, and that, if its implications are followed through, may restore to Robinson Crusoe some of the complexity and depth that Boyle denies it possesses. The critic writes off Crusoe’s politics as “a sort of divine right,” and is deaf to the ironizing tones which hang around the language of monarchy deployed by Defoe’s protagonist. The politics of Robinson Crusoe have complicated roots, and bringing them to light will lead us to question Boyle’s brisk simplicities.

Taking on High Tory Doctrines in Verse

It would, after all, be very surprising if Defoe—who apparently fought for the Duke of Monmouth at Sedgmoor against the professional army of James II—turned out to be an advocate of divine right. Furthermore, in 1706, Defoe published Jure Divino, a long work of political theory cast (perhaps ill-advisedly) in the form of verse. The occasion of the poem was what in the early years of Queen Anne looked like a new outbreak of those early- and mid-17th century political doctrines, passive obedience and non-resistance, which had inflicted such terrible damage on the English in the form of the civil wars and the military rule of the Interregnum.  

The context for Jure Divino was the revival of high Tory “divine right” doctrines in 1704 and 1705, partly in response to the unpopular “Court Whig” administration then in power. The poet mocked the divine right theory of monarchy and the patriarchalism by which it was frequently accompanied. Wrote Defoe:

If Patriarchal Power began the Line,
That Patriarchal Power was then Divine;
Sacred the High Original may be,
But how convey’d . . .
To long Posterity;
There the yet unsurmounted Scruple lies,
Choak’d with the Throng of vast Absurdities;
If to the mighty Parallel we go;
What vast discording Parts appear below;
Succeeding Monarchs Sons of Time and Fate,
Derive no Line from Patriarchal State.  (II.11-21)

It cannot, however, be said that this mockery had republican motives, for Defoe was a staunch supporter of the monarchy established in 1688. Rather, he understood that divine right theory, although it makes large claims for monarchy, in fact undermines that institution by being unbelievable, a “Throng of vast Absurdities.” 

Divine right theory jeopardizes an institution Defoe wishes to shore up. So he attempts to reposition the institution of monarchy on more durable and reasonable foundations, on what we might call a more serviceable but also more moderate set of premises:

Princes and People join in publick Peace,
Both seek and understand their Happiness:
Those softly guide, these chearful Homage pay;
Those Rule by Law, and these by Choice Obey:
Commence the Parts of Rule in just Consent,
And Jointly drive the Wain of Government:
In gentle Yoke of due Subservience draw,
People to Monarchs, Monarchs to the Law;
In spite of Blood, Possession, or of Line,
These are the Governments that are Divine.  (XI.9-18)

Moderation, modernity construed as emancipation from the errors of the past, serviceability, and practical utility: these are the key qualities in the policies and positions which Defoe recommended when acting as an adviser to politicians, and which he sought to disseminate throughout the nation in that later, secondary, phase of his career when he wrote as a novelist.

Tracing Political Authority to Its Natural Roots

But what does a poem published 13 years before Defoe’s famous novel have to do with that novel? As with Jure Divino, the language of Robinson Crusoe is at moments plainly political, and the plot of the novel is shaped by Defoe so that it engages with three political questions of perennial importance: 1) the origin and nature of sovereignty; 2) the origin (both factual and conceptual) of subjecthood, and hence 3) the nature and extent of the obligation of the subject to the sovereign. All three are addressed in Jure Divino, where Defoe shows his familiarity with the doctrines of mid-17th century republican political theorists such as James Harrington (Oceana, 1656) and Harrington’s friend and follower, Henry Neville (Plato Redivivus, 1681). He hints at the themes that he will develop 13 years later when writing his first novel.

In the poem’s first verse paragraph (“’Tis PROPERTY the Right of Power contains”), Defoe traces political authority to its natural roots in landed property. This clearly followed Harrington, whose Oceana had described a Utopian constitution for England, now that the political ground had been cleared by the abolition of monarchy. In Harrington’s ideal constitution, a strict connection between property and political authority, supplied the fundamental principle. 

In the second paragraph, about “Despotick and Elective Right,” Defoe goes on to argue that property lies at the root of both tyrannical and republican regimes. For despotic power to be justified (and it is interesting that Defoe does acknowledge that, at least at the level of theory, despotism can be justified) one person must have a good title to all the property in a state. Elective power is necessary when property rights are widely dispersed among the population, and when therefore the monarch does not possess the majority of the real property of the nation.

Let me quote more extensively from the poem’s third paragraph, where there is a tonal shift from philosophizing in verse to satire.

From such a Right, if any Kings descend
Go find him out, and make that King thy Friend;
If any Prince such Line as this presents,
Deriv’d from Property, and just Descents;
By Legal Right, that Property obtain’d,
And still the Right and Property remain’d;
And if in all his Race I cannot see,
An Intersection of Authority;
Usurpers, broken Lines, and Heirs depos’d,
No Right by growing Injury fore-clos’d
If there’s no murther’d Prince, by Arms set by,
To clear the Path to rising Tyranny;
No weaker Kings opprest, who had the Right,
And only wanted Hearts or Hands to fight;
No Villains crown’d, and lawful Heir betray’d;
No Violence, or Abdication made.

The ostensible point here is to underscore the fact that, notwithstanding their pretensions to absolute power, no modern European royal family has a title that satisfies the conditions for absolute, despotic power—because none of them any longer owns a majority of the real property of the nation they govern. Thus in modern Europe, all monarchies should be elective.

Note, too, that when a personage “call’d the Phoenix of the Crown” is mentioned, we come upon a footnote indicating the direction and target of Defoe’s satire. It reads, “And very well may be call’d so, for ’tis most certain, no such Prince can any where be found in the World, or any such Succession; and the contrary is prov’d by a Crowd of Examples in the succeeding Books of this Volume.” It’s an interesting expedient. It makes clear the conscious, politico-theoretical stance of the poem, before Defoe goes off to explore imaginatively (and surely at wildly unnecessary length) the conditions of utter subjugation which such a monarch—that is to say, one who did monopolize the land of his nation—might justly require of his subjects. “They’re his Domesticks, in his Service bred,/ His Slaves by Birth, and he by Birth’s their head.”

Defoe’s conscious and, as it were, “official” meaning—that modern monarchs cannot claim this, whatever they may tell you—is gradually overwhelmed by his growing imaginative excitement at thinking about what such total and unqualified authority might actually be like. 

Thirteen years later, describing Crusoe on his island, Defoe would return to that imagined scene and expand upon it. He would convert his poetic fantasy of the mythical origins of political authority into a novel, in the course of which he would dramatize how that political authority naturally develops away from a despotic or arbitrary form as a consequence of the division of landed property. Because of the strict connection Defoe sees between the possession of property and legitimate political power, this division of landed property into a number of parcels also leads necessarily, and over time, to the dispersal of political power throughout a society.

This is not the novel to which the critic in The Guardian took such exception. But it is the novel Defoe wrote exactly three centuries ago.