Defoe is notable for being one of the earliest practitioners of the novel and helped popularize the genre in England. He is also a pioneer of economic journalism.
He was born Daniel Foe, probably in the parish of St. Giles Cripplegate, London. Both the date and the place of his birth are uncertain. His father, James Foe, though a member of the Butchers' Company was a tallow chandler. Daniel later added the aristocratic sounding "De" to his name and on occasion claimed descent from the family of De Beau Faux. His parents were Presbyterian dissenters, and he was educated in a Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington run by Charles Morton (later vice-president of Harvard University).
After leaving school and deciding not to become a dissenting minister, Defoe entered the world of business as a general merchant, dealing at different times in hosiery, general woollen goods, and wine. Though his ambitions were great and he bought both a country estate and a ship (as well as civet cats to make perfume), he was rarely free from debt. In 1692, Defoe was arrested for payments of £700 (and his cats were seized), though his total debts may have amounted to £17,000. His laments were loud, and he always defended unfortunate debtors, but there is evidence that his financial dealings were not always honest.
Following his release, he probably travelled in Europe and Scotland, and it may have been at this time that he traded in wine to Cadiz, Porto, and Lisbon. By 1695 he was back in England, using the name "Defoe", and serving as a "commissioner of the glass duty", responsible for collecting the tax on bottles. In 1696, he was operating a tile and brick factory in Tilbury, Essex.
Defoe's pamphleteering and political activities resulted in his arrest and placement in a pillory on July 31, 1703, principally on account of a pamphlet entitled "Hymn to the Pillory, however, caused his audience at the pillory to throw flowers instead of the customary harmful and noxious objects, and to drink to his health.
After his three days in the pillory Defoe went into Newgate Prison. Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, brokered his release in exchange for Defoe's co-operation as an intelligence agent. He set up his periodical A Review of the Affairs of France in 1704, supporting the Harley ministry. The Review ran without interruption until 1713. When Harley lost power in 1708 Defoe continued writing it to support Godolphin, then again to support Harley and the Tories in the Tory ministry of 1710 to 1714. After the Tories fell from power with the death of Queen Anne, Defoe continued doing intelligence work for the Whig government.
Defoe's famous novel Robinson Crusoe (1719), tells of a man's shipwreck on a desert island and his subsequent adventures. The author may have based his narrative on the true story of the shipwreck of the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk.
Defoe's next novel was Captain Singleton (1720), amazing for its portrayal of the redemptive power of one man's love for another. Hans Turley has recently shown how Quaker William's love turns Captain Singleton away from the murderous life of a pirate, and the two make a solemn vow to live as a male couple happily ever after in London, disguised as Greeks and never speaking English in public, with Singleton married to William's sister as a ruse.
Defoe wrote an account of the Great Plague of 1665: A Journal Of the Plague Year.
He also wrote Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (1724) offer remarkable examples of the way in which Defoe seems to inhabit his fictional (yet "drawn from life") characters, not least in that they are women.
Daniel Defoe died on April 24 or 25, 1731 and was interred in Bunhill Fields, London.