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To stay here—this is the consequence : as soon as he breaks, he is proscribed as a criminal, and has thirty to sixty days to surrender both himself and all that he has to his creditors. If he fails to do it, he has nothing before him but the gallows, without benefit of clergy ; if he surrenders he is not sure but he shall be thrown into gaol for life by the commissioners, only on pretence that they doubt his oath. What must the man do? If he carries away his effects he is a knave and cheats his creditors ; if he stays here he is starved in a gaol, and must end his days by a lingering death. It is certainly the interest of the creditor, that when a debtor has failed, he should come and throw himself into the creditors' hands, and there be safe.” In arguing the subject some years afterwards, De Foe observes with equal judgment and shrewdness, “Sometimes I was apt to suggest the following important trifles, viz. That a prison paid no debts; that the more a bankrupt spent, the less he had left; and that the less he had, the less the creditors would have at last ; that he who had nothing to pay, could pay nothing ; and that to keep a man in perpetual prison for debt, was murdering men by law."
These extracts will serve to shelter the character of De Foe from any dishonourable imputation in absconding from his creditors ; a step which he thought himself justified in taking during the negociation for an amicable settlement, in order that he might escape the horrors of a dungeon.
Although the habits of De Foe were but little suited to those of trade, it is probable that other circumstances contributed to his insolvency. He seems to have fallen into an error by no means uncommon to persons in business ; that of extending their trade beyond their capital. “I think I may safely advance, without danger of reprehension,” says he, “ there are more people ruined in England by over-trading than for want of trade ; and I would, from my own unhappy experience, advise all men in trade to set a due compass to their ambition. Credit is a gulph which is easy to fall into, hard to get out of. Caution, therefore, is the best advice that can be given to a young tradesman; and moderation is a useful virtue in trade as well as in politics.”
But if De Foe fell a victim in part to his own imprudence, it was not the sole cause of his ruin. “ If I am asked,” says he, “why honest tradesmen are ruined, and undesigning men come to destruction, the answer is short : knaves run away with their money; knaves break first, and pull honest men down with them.”+ That his misfortunes were partly owing to some such cause may be inferred from various passages in his writings. In one of his 'Reviews,' speaking of the frauds committed by bankrupts, he says, “ The evil was indeed grown up to a monstrous height in those days. Nothing was more frequent than for a man in full credit to buy all the goods he could lay his hands on, and carry them directly from the house he bought them at into the Friars, and then send for his creditors and laugh at them, insult them, showing them their own goods untouched, offer them a trifle in satisfaction, and if they refuse it, bid them defiance : I cannot refrain vouching this of my own knowledge, since I have more than many times been served so myself.”*
During the reign of Romish belief in England there were several places in and about the City of London, which were allowed as sanctuaries for criminals and debtors ; and even since the Reformation, the latter had claimed the privilege of resorting to them for protection. One of these places, called the White-Friars, was become a notorious receptacle for broken and desperate men, in the very heart of the metropolis. There they resorted in great numbers, to the dishonour of the Government, and the great prejudice of the people, defending themselves with force and violence against the law and the public authorities. This intolerable grievance the Parliament redressed by “ An Act for the more effectual Relief of Creditors in cases of Excesses, and for preventing
• Review,' iï, 117, 131, 138.
• Review,' iii, 70.
• Review,' i, 75.
Abuses in Prisons, and pretended Privileged Places ;' in which such effectual provision was made to reduce these outlaws, that immediately after the act was published, they abandoned their posts to better inhabitants. The Mint in Southwark, another of these sanctuaries, and the pest of the neighbourhood, was also suppressed by the same act of parliament, 8th and 9th of William III, c. 27.
It deserves to be recorded to the honour of De Foe, that he was the first to awaken the attention of the legislature to this subject, and that to him the nation was indebted for the abatement of the nuisance. “I had the good fortune," says he, “ to be the first that complained of this encroaching evil in former days, and think myself not too vain in saying, my humble representations, in a day when I could be heard, of the abominable insolence of bankrupts, practised in the Mint and Friars, gave the first mortal blow to the prosperity of these excesses."
Another method by which De Foe suffered in his fortunes, was the collusive dealing too frequently practised between debtor and creditor. He seems also to have been the dupe of some knavish projector. Fortunately, however, for De Foe, he never had occasion to appear before those harpies of the law, the Commissioners of Bankrupts, against whose ruinous procecdings he exclaims so bitterly in several of his · Reviews.' It was no uncommon thing, hic tells us, for these men to consume the whole of a bankrupt's estate in feastings and vexatious law suits, in the profits of which they largely participated, being generally men in the law. “ Commissions of Bankrupt, as now practised,” says he, “ are such depredations and invasions of common justice, such oppressions upon the sinking fortunes of distressed families, that I cannot think any debtor obliged to the same measures with such people, as they are with others. The law of self-defence arms the debtor against these ravenous harpies, as it arms him against the assaults of a highwayman or a cut-throat. In short, the English Rogue would be a fool to the horrid collection of villanies practised by these law-tyrants, who revel in the blood of families, and eat up the food of the starving debtors; who sell debtor and creditor for the maintenance of their lusts, and devour, not the widow's houses only, but the widows themselves. It may be suggested by the conjecturing part of mankind, that since the author has fallen into very ill hands, he therefore exclaiins so warmly against the commissioners; but this is false. Though I have had a large share of misfortunes in the world, and no man more, yet it has pleased Providence hitherto to keep me out o. such hands ; and my knowledge of the barbarous usage of the debtor, by those abstracted thieves I call commissioners, is hitherto not at my own cost, but at the cost of othors, whose families I have seen undone, and whose creditors I have seen cheated, while these people have made merry with the disaster."*
Whilst the affairs of De Foc were going backwards, he probably resorted to those shifts and expedients for the purposc of maintaining his credit, which eventually aggravated his distress. The errors le committed against his better judgment were a source of remorse upon calm reflection ; and he had the manliness to avow them in connexion with his penitence. “While I speak with more than common concern of these things," says he, “ perhaps it may lead some men of retort to say, he speaks experimentally ; to which I answer freely, 'Tis a shame to do evil, but none at all to acknowledge and reform. I freely rank myself with those that are ready to own, they have in the extremities and embarrassments of trade, done those things which their own principles condemned, which they are not ashamed to blush for, which they look back upon with regret, and strive to make reparation for with their utriost diligence."
Whatever might have been the immediate cause of De Foe's failure, le supported himself under it with exemplary fortitude ; a circumstance the more remarkable when we
• Review,' iii, 134, 5.
† • Review,' iii, 86.
consider his natural vivacity, which was not at all subdued by misfortune. To his heaviest trials he brought a strength of mind that enabled him to cope with them ; and fearless of injury, he both spoke and wrote like a man who was sustained by conscious rectitude. With honest concern for the interests of his creditors, he only desired time to satisfy their demands. “ He that cannot pay his debts,” says he, “may be an honest man; he that can and will not must be a knave. He that can pay his debts at leisure, may not be able to do it all at once, and if it were required of all men, the Lord have mercy upon half the tradesmen in England.” Of himself, therefore, he says, “ He that will not believe the public disaster has been a blow to his affairs, and disabled him from immediate compliance with just demands, must be a fool. He that will have patience will find him honest; he that will not, seems to have more cruelty than human nature can excuse, and labours as much as in him lies to prevent the trial of his integrity, and foreclose himself."*
In the midst of his misfortunes De Foe found the value of personal character ; for so high a sense of his honour was entertained by his creditors, that they agreed to take his own personal security for the amount of composition upon his debts--- a finc illustration of the effect of moral principle, and an exemplification of the advice he gave to others. “ Never think yourselves discharged in conscience,” says he, “ though you may be discharged in law. The obligation of an honest mind can never die. No title of honour, no recorded merit, no mark of distinction can exceed that lasting appellation, an “ bonest man.' He that lies buried under such an epitaph, has more said of hiin than volumes of history can contain. The payment of debts, after fair discharges, is the clearest title to such a character that I know; and how any man can begin again, and hope for a blessing from heaven, or favour from man, without such a resolution, I know not.”+
To what part of the kingdom De Foe retired when he escaped from the fangs of the law is not known ; perhaps to Bristol, where he certainly resided for a time, when he was ander apprehension from his creditors.” “ A friend of mine in that city,I" adds Mr Wilson, “ informs me of a tradition in his family, that rather countenances this supposition. He says, that one of his ancestors remembered De Foe, and sometimes saw him walking in the streets of Bristol, accoutred in the fashions of the times, with a fine flowing wig, lace ruffles, and a sword by his side. Also, that he there obtained the name of “The Sunday Gentleman,' because, through fear of the bailiffs, he did not dare to appear in public upon any other day. The fact of De Foe's residence in Bristol, either at this, or some later period of his life, is further corroborated by the following circumstance. About a century ago, as the same friend informs me, there was a tavern in Castle street, known by the sign of the Red Lion, and kept by one Mark Watkins, an intelligent man, who had been in better circumstances. His house was in considerable repute amongst the tradesmen of Bristol, who were in the habit of resorting there after dinner, for the purpose of smoking their pipes, and hearing the news of the day. De Foe, following the custom of the times, occasionally mixed with them at these seasons, and was well known to the landlord under the same name of “The Sunday Gentleman.' The house is still standing, and is now a mere pot-house. The same Mark Watkins, it is said, used to entertain his company, in after-times, with an account of a singular personage, who made his appearance in Bristol clothed in gont-skins, in which dress he was in the habit of walking the streets, and went by the name of Alexander Selkirk, or Robinson Crusoe.
CHAPTER IV. During the two years which he thus spent in retirement, our author sketched out his “Essay on Projects, which appeared in print five years afterwards. In the meantime, De Foe's knowledge of foreign trade, and more particularly of that to Spain and Portugal, procured him an opportunity, presented by some merchants with whom he had corresponded abroad, of settling as a factor at Cadiz, where, so advantageous was the offer, he might with ordinary care have realized a good fortune. But our author thought proper to reject the proposal. For “ Providence,” says he, “ which had other work for me to do, placed a secret aversion in my mind to quitting England upon any account, and made me refuse the best offers of that kind, to be concerned with some eminent persons at home, in proposing ways and means to the government for raising money to supply the occasions of the war, then newly begun.”
The war referred to was that in which England was engaged with France iu support of King William's title. Upon the subject of ways and means, De Foe proposed a general assessment of personal property, the amount to be settled by composition, under the inspection of commissioners appointed by the King. Of the efficacy of his scheme our author was so well satisfied, that he offered to farm the revenue arising from it, at a rent of three millions annually, giving good security for the payment.
If the finances of De Foe were at this time any way commensurate with the ways and means which he provided for the public, he must have been in the high road to wealth. But whatever emolument he may have otherwise derived from his speculations for the government, he now (1695) procured from its agents an appointment which yielded him a certain revenue, that of accountant to the commissioners of the glass duty, in whose service he continued to the determination of their commission, by the suppression of the tax by act of parliament, August the 1st, 1699.
It was subsequently to his misfortunes in business, and probably about this time, that De Foe became secretary to the tile-kiln and brick-kiln works at Tilbury, in Essex, in which concern he was also a large proprietor; and he is said to have filled the office several years. In allusion to this employment, his enemies said sarcastically, that “he did not, like the Egyptians, require bricks without straw ; but like the Jews, required bricks without paying his labourers.” The failure of this speculation seems to have been owing rather to the want of encouragement upon the part of the public, than to any imprudence in the projector. Pantiles had been hitherto a Dutch manufacture, and were brought in large quantities to England. To supersede the necessity of their importation, and to provide a new channel for the employment of labour, the works at Tilbury were laudably erected; and De Foe tells us, that he employed a hundred poor labourers in the undertaking. The capital embarked in the concern must also have been considerable ; for he informs us, that his own loss by its failure was no less a sum than three thousand pounds. But, besides so serious a misfortune to himself, it was no less so to the public, not only by the failure of an ingenious manufacture, but for the sake of the numerous families supported by it, who were now turned adrift in the world, or thrown upon some other branch of trade. De Foe continued the pantile works, it is believed, until the year 1703, when he was prosecuted by the government for a libel ; and being deprived of his liberty, the undertaking soon came to an end. *
• In his • Review' for March 24, 1705, De Foe alludes to these circumstances thus :“ Nor should the author of this påper boast in vain, if he tells the world, that he himself, before violence, injury, and barbarous treatment demolished him and his undertaking, employed a hur
De Foe's engagements at Tilbury requiring his residence there, he took a house near the water side, and occasionally amused himself by excursions upon the Thames. Upon one of these occasions a circumstance of unusual occurrence in this country fell under his notice, and is thus related by himself. After descanting upon the natural history of the Ant, who is furnished with wings at a certain growth, as if it were a direction to change its habitation, he says, “ Being thus equipped, they fly away in great multitudes, seeking new habitations, and not being well practised in the use of their wings, they grow weary, and pressing one another down by their own weight, when they begin to tire, they fall like a shower. I once knew a flight of these ants come over the marshes from Essex, in a most prodigious quantity, like a black cloud. They began to fall about a mile before they came to the Thames, and in flying over the river, they fell so thick that the water was covered with them. I had two servants rowing a small boat over the river just at that time, and I believe near two pecks of them fell into the boat. They fell so thick, that I believe my hatfull came down the funnel of two chimnies in my house, which stood near the river's edge ; and in proportion to this quantity, they fell for the space, as I could observe, of half a mile in breadth at least : some workmen I employed there said they spread two miles, but then they fell not so thick, and they continued falling for near three miles. Anybody will imagine the quantity thus collected together must be prodigious; but, if again they will observe the multitude of these ant-hills, and the millions of creatures to be seen in them, they will cease to wonder.” * The surprising shower of fies seen in the streets of London, in July 1707, De Foe supposes to have been no other than a fall of these ants.
The occupations of De Foe must now have afforded him a comfortable subsistence, for which he was indebted partly to his own industry, and partly to the favour of King William, and other friends, through whose kind offices his affairs seem to have continued in a prosperous condition through the remainder of this reign. As yet, he had given no offence to any political party by the keenness of his satire ; and being of companionable habits, the vivacity of his conversation, joined to a readiness of wit, threw a charm around his society which recommended him to a large circle of acquaintance. His honourable conduct in business had raised him up numerous friends during the season of distress ; and his connexions at court now procured him the notice of persons eminent for their rank, and for their wealth. In the number of his friends at this time he makes inention of Sir John Fagg, M.P. for Steyning, in Sussex, where he had a noble seat, and hospitably entertained De Foe in the summer of 1697.
The reign of King William, partly owing to the long war with France, and partly to political causes, was eminently an age of inventions ; or, as De Foe expresses it, “ The Projecting Age.” Towards the close of the war, in Jan. 1697, our author pub. lished his · Essay upon Projects,' a work full of shrewd and sagacious remarks, whose atility is as marked now as at the period when they were written. It was dedicated to Dalby Thomas, “not,” says he, “as commissioner under whom I have the honour to serve his majesty, nor as a friend, though I have great obligations of that sort also ; but as the most proper judge of the subjects treated of, and more capable than the greatest part of mankind to distinguish and understand them.” It is always curious to trace a
dred poor people in making pantiles in England, a manufacture always bought in Holland ; and thus be pursued this principle with his utmost zeal for the good of England : and those gentlemen who so eagerly persecuted him for saying what all the world since owns to be true, and which he has since a hundred times offered to prove, were particularly serviceable to the nation, in turning that hundred of poor people and their families a begging for work, and forcing them to turn other poor families out of work to make room for them, besides three thousand pounds damage to the author of this, which he has paid for this little experience.”
$ Review,' iv, 317-319.